Youth taking the lead: Reflections from the 2023 Asia Pacific Youth Environment Forum 

As next week marks the start of the sixth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) on 26 February, Rubina Adhikari from ICCCAD shares her reflections from last year’s youth forum.

Written by: Rubina Adhikari
GRP Areas of work: Policy

A noticeable departure from the norm marked the Fifth Ministerial Forum of Environmental Authorities of the Asia Pacific region. Two days before the commencement of the Ministerial Forum, the United Nations Compound in Sri Lanka reverberated with the voices of the youth. It became a momentous occasion, as Sri Lanka graciously hosted the Asia Pacific Youth Environment Forum (APYEF), with invaluable support from the UN Environment Programme Regional Office for the Asia and the Pacific and the Ministry of Sri Lanka. The event was organized by a regional steering committee member of the Children and Youth Major Group to UNEP. 

In a world where the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution loom large, the Asia Pacific Youth Environment Forum serves as an inspiring symbol of optimism and resilience. It reminds us that the energy, passion, and determination of the youth are forces to be reckoned with. The young generation is ready to tackle these global challenges head-on, transcending borders and building a more sustainable, inclusive, and equitable future for us all. The future is bright, and it’s being shaped by the leaders of today, the youth who refuse to accept the status quo and who are forging a path towards a better tomorrow. 

Back In February 2021, the Global Youth Environment Assembly laid the foundation when it provided a space for self-organization, training, and capacity building for the youth who would participate in UNEA 5.1. Young voices from over 170 countries came together in critical conversations, engaging in dialogues that spanned various themes and regional contexts. It was a resounding success, and it set the stage for what was to come. In 2021, the inaugural Asia Pacific Regional Youth Environment Forum (AP-RYEF) came alive. It amplified the voices of youth from the Asia Pacific region, equipping them for UNEA-5.2 and other high-level events. Fast forward to 2023, and the forum was a force to be reckoned with. Over 100 youths representing 13 different countries gathered in person, while countless more joined online. Going beyond boarders these young leaders united to host a series of dynamic sessions. 

Aligned with the focus of UNEA-6 on “Effective, inclusive, and sustainable multilateral actions to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution,” the Asia-Pacific Youth Environment Forum had a mission to promote collective, impactful, and sustainable measures on a global scale. The forum championed the idea of involving a diverse array of stakeholders, ensuring a wide range of perspectives were considered, and equitable outcomes were sought after. These young environmentalists prioritized sustainable solutions that balanced environmental, social, and economic considerations in the long run. They advocated for collaborative efforts among nations to address global challenges that knew no borders. 

The APYEF had the distinguished honor of being officially inaugurated by the presence of Naseer Ahmed, Minister of Environment, the UN Resident Coordinator of Sri Lanka, and the UNEP ROAP Deputy Regional Director added gravitas to the occasion. Their presence signalled unwavering support for the youth and their inspiring work.  

Remarks from Hon. Naseer Ahmed, Minister of Environment, Sri Lanka

Over the course of two days, these young change-makers organized a total of 12 sessions, each focusing on different aspects of UNEA 6. They provided platforms for fellow young people to co-organize these sessions, ensuring that the power of youth was at the forefront. The event underscored the pivotal importance of General Comment No. 26 (GC26) in 2023, concerning children’s rights and the environment. It highlighted the pressing necessity to tackle the detrimental consequences of environmental degradation on the rights of children. Furthermore, discussions delved into critical global initiatives such as the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, nature-based solutions, clean air initiatives, environmental human rights, and the forthcoming plastic treaty. An essential focus of the event was to empower participants with insights into the resolutions of UNEA 5 and provide comprehensive briefings on other ongoing regional intergovernmental processes. 

A meaningful youth space in Asia Pacific Ministerial Forum 

Rubina Adhikari, giving closing Remarks in Science Policy Business Forum

The significant achievement and primary objective of the forum culminated in the creation of a Youth Manifesto after two days of intensive discussions and continuous engagement with the young participants. The document comprises 15 pivotal points. It commences by recalling regional environmental commitments, recognizing the dual role of youth, and shedding light on region-specific challenges. It urges action on climate resilience, plastic pollution, and inclusivity while emphasizing intergenerational equity and recognizing UNEP’s role. The manifesto outlines action items, including adopting a Pact for the Future, achieving environmental goals, and bridging digital divides. It advocates for the rights of environmental defenders and calls for youth involvement in decision-making and equitable funding mechanisms. In conclusion, it commits youth to be agents of change, urging stakeholders to listen to their voices for a sustainable future. 

The presence and influence of children and youth extended beyond the Youth Forum and into the Ministerial Forum.  They actively participated in various sessions, including the Science Policy Business Forum and Major Groups of Stakeholders. Their valuable contributions and interventions spanned across different agenda items, making their presence felt and their voices heard on a broader scale.  

The Manifesto received extensive recognition and was a part of conversation during both key and side events of the forum and now it is set to be integrated into the message representing the Asia Pacific region at the upcoming sixth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-6), scheduled for February 26 to March 1, 2024. 

Youth Participants in the ministerial forum