How Young People Around Europe Are Stepping Up For The Planet

19 mins read

They’re calling it The Greta Generation. Young people are becoming leaders in the transition towards a climate conscious world. A few examples of actions being taken for our Earth, from eight European countries.

Sweden: The beginning

Thunberg started school strikes in 2018. Photo credit: Michael Campanella – The Guardian

We begin, of course, with Sweden. Greta Thunberg started striking for climate just over a year ago, on the 20th of August 2018. Although she is a pioneer, she was not speaking in a vacuum.

Louise, a student from Sweden who agreed to share her impressions, notes that the country had already “met the EU 2020 climate target by 2012”. It is no surprise that the School Strikes for Climate would be started in Sweden, where half of the national energy supply is already sourced from renewables.

Louise adds that in the past couple of years “meat consumption has been falling by over two kilos per person per year, as a result of climate activism.” She notices that “the rise of plant based meat replacement is everywhere, and everyone is on board. The climate strikes are every Friday and are super populated, everyone who can find the time is here.”

She also feels that a certain amount of social pressure is put on climate action and following the sustainable lifestyle, such as recycling.

A perfect illustration of what she describes can be found in a recent addition to the Swedish language itself, the word flygskam, which describes the feeling of shame one feels when travelling by airplane, as they think of the environmental impact this has.

The introduction of the climate crisis into the Swedish language speaks volumes for the importance it has into people’s everyday lives.

Spain: Stopping the desert

Deforestation became necessary to people for firewood and agricultural land at the end of the Spanish Civil War. Photo credit: Fátima González-Torres – Ecosia

Climate change is observable all around us, but Andalusia, in the south of Spain, has landscapes that are very evidently linked to the issue, both as a cause and a consequence.

The deserted mountains contribute to a double threat. Dry fields in a country that grows 12% of Europe’s fruits and vegetables. Floods in populated areas.

Fátima González-Torres, who works at the social enterprise Ecosia, writes in their blog; “Without trees on our mountains, there are no roots to absorb the excess water when it rains. The earth quickly becomes muddy and washes off. It does so at high speed, dragging fertile soil with it along the way and often flooding entire towns.”

Seeing their immediate environment degrade has motivated Andaluisians of all ages to replenish the soil by means of sustainable agriculture and reforestation.

If I lived in a place with constant and very obvious visual reminders of climate change, I wonder how this would affect my thoughts about it. Would I be more careful in my everyday life? Maybe I’d be so worried I’d be tempted to avoid thinking about it…

Regardless, I hope I would document these visual signs and share them, like many young people in this region have.

Lucía, a student from Spain, notes that she has recently seen an increase in school strikes, as well as changes in lifestyle such as veganism and buying ecological products. She also notes that many young people use social media for eco-activism.

Online eco-activism can have positive consequences, as it can help eco-conscious people stay informed about the evolution of policies relating to the environment, and making helpful lifestyle changes.

Its limitations are the same as any other online movement. It will have difficulty reaching older generations, who should be included in the climate crisis conversation, and might be prone to fake news more easily due to the fast spread of information and the lack of fact-checking.

Indeed, misinformation can spread anywhere, even amongst people with the best of intentions.

Ukraine: Eco-education

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann – Pixabay

If we are never educated about climate change, we can never do anything about it. I thought about how many times I had been bombarded with distressing facts about climate change as a child, in the form of posters in my school and appeals to save water in about every publication aimed at children.

But when it came to the curriculum, there was not much taught in terms of what we could do that would have the biggest impact. I feel the result of this is a generation of young people suffering from eco-anxiety, but do not know how to address the underlying issue of climate change.

We are finding a path with political activity now, but what if we were taught the solution, not just the problem, from the beginning? This is what the school-striking students of Kiev are demanding.

From this worry I previously mentioned, came the idea of eco-education. Lesya Khomyak, one of the organisers of a March 2019 Kiev school strike, had very specific demands.

She expressed her desire for the Ukrainian Ministry of Education to make eco-education a priority. She wants it to be included into the curriculum, and for students in Grades 1 through 12 to learn about environmental issues, as well as how to solve them.

For their demands, Kievite school strikers would certainly find strong evidence and support. UNESCO actually has a Climate Change Education for Sustainable Development programme which should promote “climate literacy” amongst students worldwide.

This climate literacy could be incredibly valuable, as it would mean making it easier to identify climate-related fake news, empty promises or greenwashing attempts.

Germany: In the printed press

Neubauer debating Germany’s Economics Minister. Photo credit: Gene Glover – Der Spiegel

Young climate activists all over the world are relaying Thunberg’s message. She and dozens of others wrote an open letter, which appeals to older generations. It stresses that everyone must take action on the climate crisis and it is not just for the young.

One of the names signed on the bottom of the letter is Luisa Neubauer’s. The 23-year-old German woman has been a very successful representative for the movement within her country.

Even if she excels at social media, with her 110 000 followers on Instagram, she is taking the cause beyond. The message is expanding, from the usual practice for the School Strike movement of social media, to the printed press.

Neubauer has achieved inter-generational recognition for climate action by making sure people listen. She is represented by, and given a chance to express her views in, traditional German media.

This shows that the activism goes beyond very famous individuals like Thunberg, and that there is extensive coverage of at least some climate activists’ views and ideas.

The open letter was published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and in March of this year, Neubauer’s debate with Economics Minister Peter Altmaier was published in Der Spiegel, both newspapers with large readerships.

Italy: Strategies in Sicily

Photo credit: Piergiorgio Immesi – Filo diretto Monreale

If Sweden has seen the birth of the School Strike for Climate movement and has a very low rate of CO2 emissions per capita compared to other European countries, Italy has actually seen one of the highest numbers of events addressing the climate crisis.

Impressively considering the non-negligible differences in population size, it surpasses France and even Germany, a close second.

An example I want to highlight is of a March 2019 school strike in the Sicilian city of Palermo. It involved a few hundred young people, mostly secondary students, and even some teachers.

The event was very peaceful and included students reading their reflections whilst standing together in a circle, and asking people on the street if they knew about climate change, and what they thought about it.

There also seemed to be thorough strategising at play. The ultimate objective was to demand change to comply with the Paris Agreements. But they did not focus on national government during that demonstration, opting with pressure on their regional government first. These actions were repeated across Sicily.

Whether this is an effective strategy only time will tell, but this shows that a good understanding of how the government of one’s country is organised will be necessary for climate activism.

France: Ecological rights

Photo credit: Arek Socha – Pixabay

Along with Germany, Brazil, Argentina and Turkey, France is being sued by Thunberg and other young activists over their lack of action concerning the climate crisis. This was done through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as climate change will indeed pose a threat to children’s health and wellbeing.

These countries can be sued because they have signed the Lima (Peru) COP20 2014 United Nations Climate Change Conference agreement. But this is not the only trial facing the French government.

Young people in France have been participating in many school strikes, but also have another project. It is called Affaire du Siècle or The Case of the Century. It is organised by four non-profit organisations, of which the French divisions of Oxfam and Greenpeace, as well as the Nicolas Hulot Foundation for Man and Nature.

Hulot is the former Ecology Minister, who left Emmanuel Macron’s government in 2018 because he felt that ecology was not being made a priority.

Currently on-going, The Case of the Century is the idea of suing the French government for its lack of action about the climate crisis, the main objective being to effectively force it into acting faster to meet the COP21 Paris Agreements.

Another objective is to establish a legal precedent for ecological cases into the judicial record, which would make any future cases of this type easier to establish.

Whilst this is done by organisations, people were encouraged to participate by signing their name. This was promoted mostly by YouTube creators but also by famous actors, including Marion Cotillard.

From the United Kingdom to Luxembourg: Rise of the vegans

A challenge: cross the Channel and try to not eat meat. In a lot of European countries, this will prove very complicated.

The UK is far from having the biggest share of vegetarians in its’ population, at only 7% when Switzerland, has the biggest share in Europe with 14%. However, what we do have is a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan companies that make life as an eco-conscious eater easier, and probably the highest concentration of these companies in Europe.

Economics are not to be neglected in the conversation around the climate crisis. I think the most important idea is customers starting to consider ethics as a criterion in their consumption habits. And companies are realising that. It reminds us not to forget about our economic power and ability to demand higher transparency from brands.

This is also apparent in the existence of the UK’s Vegetarian Society and Vegan Society, helping consumers make choices with labels, and holding companies up to a high standard in order to meet the trust of potential consumers.

If the UK is situated on the easier end of the spectrum in terms of access to vegetarian/vegan products, and countries like Portugal (1% vegetarian) are on the other, then Luxembourg is in the middle. It is a country that is currently making the transition to more widespread veganism/vegetarianism.

New brands and restaurants can give the movement validity as a real, viable diet, which breaks the stereotype of the lettuce-eating vegan.

To illustrate this, Roshni, a student from Luxembourg who studies in the UK, agreed to share her experiences. She writes that “Luxembourg has completely changed over the past few years in terms of how accessible a vegan diet is for people, even the last year so many new vegan spots or vegan options have popped up in non-vegan restaurants.”

Adding, “There are definitely alternatives that are as nutritious as Quorn [British meat alternative sold in some European countries], but there are fewer options and they’re usually more expensive as well. They’re also harder to find but you just need to research a little bit, and last year one of the biggest supermarkets introduced a fully vegan section!”

You’ve got to have demand for alternatives to arrive. If you live in a very “meat-loving” place, you have to show your interest for alternatives by working a little harder than you should have to, to find vegetarian/vegan options. This might mean starting out with flexitarianism and/or learning to cook to make sure you keep healthy.

Conclusions

Photo credit: Wolfgang Rattay – Reuters

The world is becoming increasingly conscious of the climate emergency. Young people are unique for two reasons.

The first is that they are the first to becoming increasingly, and significantly, conscious of the gravity and emergency of the situation.

The second, and perhaps most important, is that they have been inspired. Thunberg has been proving that everyone can have an impact. I’ve even spoken with a ten-year-old who admires her and wants to follow in her footsteps.

But more than that, the movement itself is incredibly motivating and switches the focus of the conversation on the climate crisis from guilt and despair to action.

We are starting to feel empowered and realising the vast array of ways we can make a difference. Not everyone can, or has to be, an activist or take part in school strikes, but everyone can and has to act.

Changing our consumer habits is a great way to start a virtuous cycle, as it will force more companies to take the climate crisis into account, leading to green habits, products and packaging becoming more widespread.

However, political action remains the most effective way, which makes all the more important to exercise one’s voting rights. It is great to see a generation of teens already active before they’ve even reached voting age.

Europe has seen school strikes throughout the entire continent. There is also Extinction Rebellion, which acts in the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Czechia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Spain.

Every country and region differs in their initial approach to it, but as stepping up for the planet is truly, and rightly, an international phenomenon, they start to inspire each other.

Thank you to Louise, Roshni and Lucía for sharing your impressions with me and helping with the completion of this article.

Featured Image Credit: Wolfgang Rattay – Reuters

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