Youth as a nature-based climate solution

December 10, 2021

Nature-based solutions have emerged at COP26 as one of the top hot remedies to cool our fevered planet, reflected in multiple announcements of investing in blue carbon and afforestation projects. These projects all require a commitment of permanence of the carbon sequestered (or conserved), with a horizon of 100 years, so that the carbon is safe from being released back to the atmosphere over climatically relevant time scales.

This is an interesting proposition as it binds three human generations around nature based climate solution projects. Climate change presents a disruption of the intergenerational contract through which parents work to deliver a better world to their children, as it is them, the zeta and alpha generations, not me, a baby boomer, who will live through and suffer the consequences of a +2 degrees Celsius or worst a +3 degrees Celsius warmer world.

We humans, are one more species, that is causing the problem, but it is our responsibility to deliver the solution and rebuild a healthy planet. We need to find the nature-based solution within us.

The zeta and alpha generations had their moment in COP25 in 2109 in Madrid, when their Friday demonstration was broadcasted around the world, and their demand that there be serious action mobilized many across the globe. But we should not confine our youth to shout on the streets to be heard. We need to empower them to design the future they want.

I was impressed with Nora AlSudairy, whom I met at the COP26 Saudi Pavilion while visiting there to greet friends and colleagues. Nora is a Saudi in her mid-twenties, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science from AlFaisal Univeristy earlier this year and took an internship in my lab at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), where she authored two papers on ocean based climate solutions.

Her competency, maturity and intelligence are very impressive and I personally wished if she would have considered a future in academia. However, Nora knew very well what she wanted. Inspired by the bold Saudi Green Initiative, Nora wanted to serve her nation in its path to contribute to solving the climate crisis.

Nora was part of the Saudi negotiation team, along with other bright, young Saudis women. At COP26, She negotiated on some of the toughest hurdles in COP26 specifically “transparency and adaption”. When I looked around the room where these critical negotiations were taking place, I saw very few delegations with young negotiators. In fact, I only saw negotiators in the same age group among the delegations of United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Mexico, Madagascar, Samoa and Switzerland. When looking at the delegations of western nations, I could only see those in my generation, mostly men, leading the negotiations.

I reflected that these baby boomer negotiators and I belong to the generation that has created much of the problem, as half of cumulative greenhouse emissions have been released since my birth in Lisbon in 1960, and we were largely unable to tackle the problem since the UNFCC was established nearly 30 years ago.

They have been sitting at the negotiation table for decades, playing a chess game where they take the tower in one COP, and lose a in the next year’s conference, and then they take the queen, twisting words without tangible progress in emission reduction or acting on their responsibility toward developing nations. They (and I) are the generation of the “bla bla” - Same clowns, different circus.

Effective climate negotiations should involve addressing the world in which our next generations will live. Hence, I hold that it is immoral for people my age, for which 2050 is beyond our life expectancy, to set the world in which Nora and her generation will live and raise a family.

At COP26 I also joined a workshop entitled “Youth Dialogue Workshop: from MENA to The World” organized in the Saudi Pavilion by AEON Collective, where young participants, all in Nora’s age class, demanded to take an active role, as they were prepared and motivated to do so. I was surprised by the presence of one western young participant, among many MENA participants, Extreme E’s stellar driver Catie Munnings, who expressed similar views and also wanted her voice to be heard.

It is time to get our youth out of the streets, empower and support them to seek the future they want. I am certain that nations across the world are gifted with young individuals as bright as Nora. We should give them a leading role in the negotiations, as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does. My “bla-bla-bla generation”, should step aside and support preparing them, advising them and alerting them at the possible risks and opportunities.

We should help them understand and navigate the complexities, as the one key incentive they have is to secure a positive outcome that we loafed years to achieve. They and their families, not me or my generation, will be the main beneficiaries of a world where climate is stabilized within safe margins. This huge reward will give them the empathy to get the job done.

COP27 is set to take place in Egypt, one of the world’s countries known for its young population. Let us relay to them climate negotiations, and support them to succeed.


Distinguished Professor, Marine Science

Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology

Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division

Center membership : Red Sea Research Center, Computational Bioscience


December 10, 2021
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