COP26 Reaching across the generations

Maxine Frerk returns from the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow and shares her reflections on the inter-generational challenge presented by climate change and on the importance of Sustainability First’s work in this space. 

It was clear from the time I have just spent on the fringes of COP26 how far climate change and how we tackle it is an inter-generational issue. 

The median age of people on the planet is around 40. In Africa it is 20. At COP the average age of the leaders who joined Boris Johnson at the opening ceremony was over 60 while many of the protestors and civil society voices on the fringes of COP were still in their teens. For young people the future of the planet is their future. Studies suggest that over half of young people across the world are suffering from eco-anxiety, particularly in countries where climate impacts are already obvious. They are calling for radical change and less “blah, blah, blah”.

The imperative to preserve the planet for future generations was voiced forcibly by a number of the COP lead negotiators. In the closing stages the EU negotiator Frans Timmermans shared a photo of his one year old grandson and said: “If we fail [he] will fight with other human beings for water and food. That’s the stark reality we face. So 1.5C is about avoiding a future for our children and grandchildren that is unliveable.”The leader from Tuvalu (a Pacific island state at severe threat from rising sea levels) also talked about what he would say to his grandchildren when he returned home.

One of the themes of our major Sustainability Principles work is inter-generational equity. This will build on previous work including the paper we produced and the roundtable we held on this topic, which highlighted the value in framing questions of inter-generational equity around what sort of world people want for their grandchildren to help them in thinking as citizens rather than consumers. Some of the more powerful speeches at COP illustrated that point well.

On a related theme one of the noteworthy sessions that I attended was on inter-generational dialogue. Mary Robinson – now 77, chair of the Elders group and a fierce advocate for climate justice – was on a panel with 3 young people who were already shaping the debates in their respective countries. Mary Robinson summed up the discussion in the words of Kolfi Annan saying “you are never too young to lead and you are never too old to learn”.

Across the course of the COP I was blown away by the various young leaders I heard speak. Of course everyone has heard of Greta Thunberg but it was inspiring to hear over the course of COP from so many other young leaders including:
Vanessa Nakate – a 24 year old from Uganda who spoke at the mass rallies and inside the COP calling on leaders to “prove us wrong” and deliver on their promises.
Vinisha Umashankar – the 14 year old winner of the Earthshot prize for her solar ironing cart who had a message for us all when she said “I am not a girl from India, I am a girl from earth. Jerome Foster – a 19 year old who helped mobilise young people to vote in the US elections through a focus on climate and who is now an adviser to Biden’s administration.
Elizabeth Wathuti – a 26 year old from Kenya who reminded us that by 2025 half of the world will be facing water scarcity.
Bruno Rodriguez – a 21 year old from Argentina who started the school strikes there which led to Argentina becoming the first country in South America to introduce climate legislation.

The importance of listening to young people is one reason why I am really pleased that Ofgem and Sustainability First were able to announce at COP the creation of a new Sustainable Futures Energy Forum. This will bring younger people, those not currently represented in energy decision making and people already experiencing climate impacts into the energy debate to help Ofgem as it looks to tackle some of the more difficult decisions it faces. While Ofgem is quite a young organisation there are diverse voices that don’t routinely feed into regulatory debates. This will help address that balance.

For me those diverse voices at COP were a crucial reminder of the bigger picture around climate justice on a global scale. Sustainability First’s work is primarily focussed on GB utilities. But COP provides the wider context that we must not forget when we think about detailed regulatory issues. And I’m not too old to learn.

I heard about the African girls who are now missing school because they have to walk further to collect water every day as a result of climate change, about successive failed harvests, about how a 2 degree temperature rise would leave large parts of Africa facing temperatures that the human body cannot cope with. I heard about the heartache of a young girl who had been working to protect the trees in her neighbourhood then seeing them cut down.

David Attenborough in opening the conference reminded us that “The countries suffering most from climate change aren’t the ones causing it.” The same applies across the generations. Listening to these voices helped remind me what we are ultimately fighting for at Sustainability First.

To read more of my reflections on COP and what it means for the GB Energy sector see my Postcard from COP26 on Linkedin