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Our Insights 6 Dec 2011

Oh to be YOUNGO

By Geoff Lye

This is third in a series of posts about and from COP 17. Others in the series can be found here: one, two, four, five, six, and seven.

Given SustainAbility’s growing interest in bringing voices of the future into the board room and in mobilising Gen Y as a source of inspiration and innovation to corporate sustainability thinking, I’ve been looking out for how visible and vocal youth organisations have been here in Durban.

The various non-governmental observer groups here are given a weird range of acronyms from BINGOs (business) to TUNGOs (trades unions) and RINGOs (religious). YOUNGOs (Youth Non-governmental Organizations) represent around 50 youth organizations from different countries. Interestingly, this year YOUNGO was awarded full constituency status, allowing its delegates to speak, or ‘intervene,’ in COP meetings. And last week, Thursday was nominated ‘Young and Future Generations’ Day’. So there are some encouraging signs of intergenerational inclusion. Furthermore, the energy and optimism they are showing here does not have the jaded resignation of those of us who started attending UN climate conferences before many of these Gen Yers were born!

One of the most stalwart of long term COP attendees is Bill Kyte who commissioned SustainAbility to undertake a strategic sustainability review when he was running that part of PowerGen’s operations (now EON) many years ago. I spotted him at breakfast and asked for his one liner of how the first week had gone. ‘Watching paint drying’ was his instant response. I’ve been to a number of events and briefings today and I see what he means. There is no real sense of urgency (or even of despair among the observer groups) but rather a resigned acceptance that basic disagreements will prevent any serious progress being made here – and even some of the progress made in Cancun potentially being rolled back.

I attended an IEA event this afternoon which summarised their latest World Energy Outlook. Its key findings were covered in the media recently but they were, I suspect, lost in the noise of economic crisis. Their conclusions are profoundly and depressingly simple: we are on a continuing upward track of GHG emissions (2010 the highest ever level of energy-related emissions); the window of opportunity to start reversing that trend is closing fast (by 2017, current plans for power stations etc will lock us into future emissions which will make holding below 2 degrees impossible); and a combination of energy efficiency and renewables development offer ready and realistic solutions, but there is no political will to drive the necessary shifts. It feels analogous to our governments piloting a plane with every warning instrument telling them they are going to crash, with ever louder direction from Air Traffic Control to change course; and even with passengers calling for avoiding action – but the pilots decide to debate whose job it is to take that action and to argue about who caused the plane to be on course to crash in the first place. Laughable were it not so serious.

On to an evening launch event for the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership’s 2˚C Challenge Communiqué. Polly Courtice offered a powerful argument for how business has moved in recent years from the call for a top-down multilateral UN agreement to a call for unilateral and bilateral national agreements which would complement unilateral action by business. Maybe I should re-write part of yesterday’s blog? Nedbank’s CEO, Mike Brown, offered his perspective on the sustainability and climate challenges, including references to the range of awards and recognitions his bank had achieved but in the spirit of how a sound bank of the future would need to embrace the basics of sustainability. His comments echoed a real sense of confidence and optimism for South Africa’s future which I’ve been hearing from taxi drivers to local business leaders. Especially the younger generations.

There is definitely a generational dimension to all of this. Maybe the time has come for us Boomers (and Busters) to move out of the way and hand over to Gen Y and the YOUNGOs?

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