Opinion – Youth as sustainable development drivers in North America

The original Spanish language version of this op-ed article was published by El Universal on 12 September 2016

The administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto has a solid and firm commitment to youth. The key asset to drive Mexico’s prosperity is Mexicans themselves, and we are a young country of young people. The Mexican government has strengthened the potential of young Mexicans to contribute to national development through policies focusing on education, health, social security, housing, innovation and business development.

Today, a quarter of the world’s population, or around 1.8 billion people, consists of young people between 15 and 30 years of age. In North America, nearly 20% of the population consists of youth of different ages. This is the best educated generation the world has ever seen, as incomes and opportunities for education have increased significantly.

This is also the most connected generation, making young people more productive, both in academics and at the workplace. Youth today use information and communication systems—internet, intelligent platforms and social networks—as their basic tools for work, learning, meeting, belonging and having fun. Due to this connectivity, a young person in Merida can find out, in real time over social networks and other communication media, what another youth is experiencing in a remote region of Asia, Africa or anywhere in the world.

These young people can even interact and share points of view on any topic in real time, even sharing photos, videos and other electronic files. For the first time in history, connectivity has given youth a common culture, enabling them to share common concerns and interests. One of these interests is, without a doubt, their concern for the environment.

Today’s youth are interested in the environment because they see environmental issues as a risk to their well-being and survival. They have access to all kinds of information, reading articles and news and seeing pictures and videos through their browsers. If they want, they can also georeference environmental issues in their own country, region or community. They visit blogs and Facebook pages and reply to tweets regarding environmental issues.

People younger than 30 today will dominate the workforce in the coming decades. In many cases, and as we have already seen, young people are the job creators, drivers of productivity and innovation, or even “disruptors” as we call paradigm-shifting ideas today.

That’s why, this year, Mexico proposed to institutionalize young people’s work at the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) of North America. The CEC was established in 1994, in the framework of the parallel agreement under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and over the years has become the principal mechanism for environmental cooperation in the region. Its purpose is to foster environmental protection through cooperation and citizen engagement, in the context of growing economic, trade and social linkages among Canada, the United States and Mexico.

The CEC has also been an example of transparency and a pioneering forum—the only one of its kind—in terms of public participation and ongoing dialogue with citizens. Since its creation, every year the CEC Council has held sessions in the presence of the North American public. Its Joint Public Advisory Committee (JPAC) is made up of 15 representatives from the business and academic sectors, nongovernmental organizations and citizens. Last year, it created a trinational group of experts on traditional ecological knowledge to enrich our analyses, decisions and projects on environmental cooperation.

This year, in the context of the 23rd Session of the CEC Council in Merida, Yucatan, we continue to strengthen society’s involvement in decision-making, by including young people in our work. We see youth as a great ally to help us innovate, create awareness and participate in environmental actions y and challenges in North America. North America’s youth will help us to ensure that the initiatives that we take, as environmental policy leaders, are more effective and have a greater impact.

We also see young people’s great potential as they join the workplace. If youth today have a basic knowledge and awareness of the importance of preserving the environment, regardless of the sector or profession of their choosing, they can generate added value in this sense—innovating, fostering corporate responsibility, improving governments’ sectoral policies, and above all bringing their more environmentally responsible individual practices.

To start the process of institutionalizing youth engagement, this year Mexico proposed to add a young person to the CEC advisory committee, as it is very important to enrich the JPAC’s comments and opinions with fresh, innovative ideas. We want the youth to challenge us and help us overcome paradigms. Governments have the obligation to encourage our population, especially children and youth, adopt a culture of respect for the environment, as a basic principle of living in society. We are also certain that his insights and proposals will strengthen our decisions.

At the 23rd Session of the CEC Council, North America’s environmental policy leaders have also endorsed our commitment to wide-reaching international agreements, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the North America Leaders’ Summit (NALS). At the NALS, President Peña Nieto and his U.S. and Canadian counterparts reaffirmed North America’s leadership in the face of environmental challenges, by establishing unprecedented goals, such as the commitment to ensure 50% clean energy and a 40% reduction in methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 2025, as well as ensuring healthy populations and the migratory phenomena of monarch butterflies, birds and other species we share in the region.

Given the challenges and commitments assumed in global and regional forums, now more than ever we see the huge potential for young people to strengthen our environmental cooperation in North America. Their direct involvement in projects, their advice and guidance, their skill in communicating and creating awareness of issues, best practices and solutions, and their leadership in academia and the workplace will be key factors of our governments’ work.

We see North America’s youth as the main driver of sustainable development. We need “disruptors” of environmental technology, practices and policies.