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UNESCO embraces the momentum of global youth action on climate change

13 - Climate Action

Photo: A large group of youth, including young members of the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere programme (MAB Youth) programme, came together at the COP25 in Madrid in 2019 to attend the launch of the Youth UNESCO Climate Action Network (YoU-CAN).

Results of UNESCO’s World in 2030 Survey show that climate change is the most important topic the world needs to address in the coming decade. For UNESCO, this means doubling down on its climate action and transforming its operations to find new and innovative ways of addressing the issue. The Youth UNESCO Climate Action Network (YoU-CAN) can help UNESCO in this effort, as a hub of knowledge, a pool of potential partners, a source of innovative projects, and a resource for transdisciplinary climate solutions.

Strengthening strategic partnerships and meaningfully engaging with youth are complementary pursuits – mutually compatible ways of making UNESCO more dynamic, agile and engaged. Born of the Strategic Transformation’s working group on partnerships and officially launched last December at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) in Madrid, YoU-CAN is an excellent example of how innovative thinking can help put this into practice. Peter Dogsé, Co-Chair of the UNESCO Task Team on Climate Change, explains:

“The ambition behind YoU-CAN is to promote and support youth climate action networks around the world. Young people are increasingly driving the change needed and YoU-CAN will recognize and support their mobilization and advocacy efforts to address the climate crisis”.

Youth ownership driven by a group of diverse young people

Successful youth engagement calls for meaningful collaboration and partnership. In line with UNESCO’s Operational Strategy on Youth (2014-2021), YoU-CAN aims to improve youth ownership in UNESCO’s activities.  

“Youth ownership is very important, especially for addressing climate change. No other organization in the UN system offers young people so many pathways for engagement. UNESCO can build on their knowledge and innovative ideas in all its fields of competence and can count on their incredible energy as advocates,” says Alexander Schischlik, Chief of the Youth and Sport Section, Social and Human Sciences Sector.

To this end, an Ad-Hoc Steering Group of youth network representatives was established in July 2020, following consultations with UNESCO Sectors and Field Offices and a thorough selection process conducted by YoU-CAN’s project team. This Steering Group is composed of three representatives per region, keeping in mind UNESCO's global priorities Gender Equality and Africa, and Small Island Developing States among its priority targets. Accompanied by the UNESCO Secretariat, its role is to advance the operationalization of YoU-CAN until it is formally replaced by a youth-elected body to run the Network.

“The Climate emergency is everyone’s urgency. We have just one planet; one home where we can live. It’s time that we turn words into action. The knowledge, expertise and drive of youth are some of our greatest assets, and definitely put us in a better position for building a climate-resilient future. That future begins with us today. As a young, multidisciplinary team, our Steering Group has an opportunity to make YoU-CAN an innovative and comprehensive tool to both strengthen the voices of young people and tackle climate challenges.” – Statement from the YoU-CAN Ad-Hoc Steering Group  

The youth-led Steering Group started its work in August 2020 and will be establishing a strategic direction, a governance structure, and an outline of operations for YoU-CAN. The diverse profiles of these fifteen young professionals, scientists, activists, students and volunteers contribute valuable and complementary expertise, in order to develop the network in accordance with needs on the ground.

Photo: YoU-CAN Ad-Hoc Steering Group (left-right): Neeshad Shafi, Curmira Gulston, Daniel Mahadzir, Ana Karen Proa, Irène Colonna d’Istria, Chamsia Ibrahim, Ismail Farjia, Robert Sakic Trogrlic, Joy Chiadika, Aeljandro Quecedo del Val, Meng Wang, Gabriela Martínez Mendieta, Malek Abidi, Toru Tanigaki, Michèle Okala Abega.

Finding solutions together with youth

“YoU-CAN is pivotal. Young people form the backbone of UNESCO, and they will be its future. It is strategically important that UNESCO embrace the passion and motivation of the world’s youth, to help the Organization think outside the box and find new solutions to the world’s very complex challenges,” says Nicole Webley, Youth Focal Point for the Natural Sciences Sector.

While supporting the Strategic Transformation’s pursuit of a strengthened partnership culture, YoU-CAN will also help advance UNESCO’s Strategy for Action on Climate Change (2018-2021). It will facilitate, amongst many other things, sharing and upscaling of ideas, collaboration between networks and organizations, and wider implementation of successful grassroots projects. Crucially, it will provide youth with a safe space to communicate and generate solutions to a global issue that can be, in some cases, politically fraught. Not only this, networking can be a practical way for young people to participate in this important work in a way that circumvents many of the challenges and inequalities they are faced with.

The power of youth networks to help create the “Next Normal”

“Recognizing that the youth of today are some of the strongest voices for social change and particularly for climate action means that connecting and supporting these voices is vital. Establishing such a large network will help the global youth movement to maintain its momentum for advocacy and activism, as well as for seeking and implementing practical solutions to climate change,” says Kristina Balalovska of the Youth Team, Youth and Sport Section, Social and Human Sciences Sector.

Numerous such challenges have revealed themselves acutely during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the project team, two key attendant issues that must be considered by YoU-CAN relate to, firstly, how the pandemic has influenced climate debate and action, and secondly, how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted young people.

Climate change has continued unabated despite COVID-19 lockdowns, and the fight against it has been hampered by impacts of the pandemic. There has similarly been deterioration in environmental protection around the world, not to mention issues like increased waste associated with single-use products. Despite this, there have also been global calls to use the crisis recovery as an opportunity to “build back better”, like  UNESCO's Next Normal campaign. This momentum, which follows in the wake of a global youth uprising on climate issues, cannot be wasted, and YoU-CAN can be an incredibly pertinent and powerful tool to this end.  

COVID-19 has also brought to bear many of the challenges faced by youth around the world, including precarious access to education, employment, and social safety nets. Global lockdowns have increased precarity in youth employment which, hand-in-hand with associated vulnerability in housing, food security and so on, present a barrier to effective youth engagement in climate action. At the same time, young people have also spearheaded exemplary actions to fight the pandemic and its consequences. YoU-CAN represents a highly relevant way of handling such challenges, by strengthening supportive networks that link young people from all walks of life and valorizing their work.

“Youth engagement in climate action is more prevalent – and vital – now than it has ever been. Around the world, young people have been actively contributing to recovery measures and calling for change from governments, the private sector, and the international community. They are the drivers of a sustainable future, and their ability to access capacity building, networking and collaboration opportunities is critical. YoU-CAN can help to create such synergies and enable their voices to be heard,” says Manon Frezouls, YoU-CAN coordinator.


For queries regarding the YoU-CAN initiative, or if you wish to be involved in or support YoU-CAN, you can contact the project team at you-can@unesco.org

YoU-CAN’s project team is a cross-sectoral team made up of members from the Social and Human Sciences (SHS) and Natural Sciences (SC) Sectors. The Project Team includes Manon Frezouls, Kristina Balalovska, Nicole Webley, Peter Dogsé, Alexander Schischlik, and Claudia Maresia. UNESCO’s Field Offices also played an integral role in the creation of YoU-CAN and will continue to do so during its operationalization.


Useful resources

Youth UNESCO Climate Action Network YoU-CAN

UNESCO Declaration of Ethical Principles in relation to Climate Change.

UNESCO Strategy for Action on Climate Change (2018-2021)

UNESCO Operational Strategy on Youth (2014-2021)

Changing minds, not the climate: UNESCO mobilizes to address the climate crisis