Climate Change - Its Unspoken Impact on Sri Lankan Youth and Their Role in Mitigation
19 Sep 2015 by Thilina Kalhara Panduwawala
Few of Sri Lanka's policies on development and youth ever speak about the impact of climate change on Sri Lanka and its population. Yes, there are certain concerns raised, especially with regard to increasing natural disasters and damage on agricultural production. However, the current National Youth Policy, MDG report, Colombo Declaration on Youth do not show any significant emphasis on climate change. This is sad, since this is spreading a cloud of ignorance on an issue that will affect Sri Lanka significantly in the decades to come.
We are an island nation and recent reports of accelerated sea level rising, should be ringing alarm bells throughout all decision making bodies in Sri Lanka.[i] Even more so among the youth, since the real impact will be felt when we are finally in the decision making shoes. Education, economic development, sexual harassment and corruption are widely spoken about with concern to youth. According to the National Human Development Report 2014; Youth and Development: Towards a More Inclusive Future (NHDR), 88 percent of fellow young people affirm interest in what’s happening around us in the civic and political spheres. But I look around and no one ever seems concerned when climate change is brought up. Bring up an existential threat, and… nothing. I feel like we are taking our continued existence for granted. The truth is, when the current generation in power is no more, after all their bickering over domestic politics, it is us youth who will be inundated with issues of plummeting food production, loss of coastal land, destruction of infrastructure and the existence of large numbers of IDPs and refugees.
It is useless blaming existing policies for their ongoing ignorance on climate change. Even the MDGs made no mention of the matter and it is only via the SDGs that climate change and sustainable development is being mainstreamed in the global developmental agenda. The SDGs have 3 goals that directly or indirectly affect this area. Even the first goal on eradicating extreme poverty speaks of reducing the vulnerability of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. So the spark of change will be globally approved between September 25 and 27th at the UNHQ.[ii]
The issue with climate change mitigation methodology so far is that it threatens to change the lifestyles that we have become addicted to within our capitalistic market-driven economy. True, our conspicuous consumption patterns are the main reason for the accelerated climate change via greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Sri Lanka has very significantly entered this consumerism over the last decade. We, too, are now very much used to the luxuries that it bestows upon us. Bring about a policy that threatens to take away those luxuries and we are bound to oppose it, despite the justification of an existential threat. The answer doesn't lie in forcing youth to reduce indulging in comfy air conditioned temperatures, cut down on internet usage since it is the sector with the highest emissions growth or stop dreaming about a gas guzzling SUV.
The answer lies in utilising that very consumerism and the market forces that drive these indulgences to mitigate climate change. Government policy needs to incentivize internet infrastructure institutions to use renewable energy sources and taxes need to be reduced for hybrid and electric cars. Private institutions could use the incentives to improve their branding as a "green company" and young car buyers would endorse the tax cuts. Hybrids and electric cars have created a spontaneous market space in Sri Lanka, not because we have a very environmentally concerned population, but because we have a monetarily concerned one. The moment policies are put in place to make climate friendly technologies relatively cheaper than the rest, people are going to consume them. This is very much true of youth who are just gaining a foothold in employment and look to purchase items necessary for social status. Buying a new laptop? Why not buy a Dell laptop[iii] that comes with a carbon negative laptop cover with a lovely design that you can brag about as being eco-friendly? And for those who want to tick buying a sports car off their bucket list, what about the Sri Lankan-made Vega electric vehicle?
There is a growing niche for carbon negative consumerism. Instead of simply going for carbon neutral, the idea is to literally buy carbon off the atmosphere and thus, reduce the impact of the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere isn't going to disappear and the current CO2 will simply continue to cause climate change, even if we have zero emissions from this moment onwards. So the best approach is the remove that CO2 entirely. The emerging concept of AirCarbon[iv] aims to do this by using CO2 in the atmosphere to produce plastics.
Carbon negative consumerism[v] will definitely be aided by the ongoing push for Consuming with Care. But government policies need to simultaneously ensure that people have a monetary incentive to consume with care. Otherwise it will be a flop like the Kyoto Protocol. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the organization leading the charge on climate change, now operates in a much more realistic manner under the leadership of Christiana Figueres. The role of youth is very much recognised by the UNFCCC and when notified about SLMUN 2015's simulation of a UNFCCC committee to discuss Climate Friendly Consumerism, Ms Figueres herself sent an email endorsing the initiative.
Sri Lanka has a distinctive advantage in becoming the world's first carbon negative economy. Our major exports of rubber and coconut related products are all carbon negative since the trees absorb atmospheric carbon to produce the natural products. Further developing our innovators into entrepreneurs can help us leapfrog the economy from its relative primitive status to an advanced nature of our own making. It is foolish to think we need to take the same route of destructive industrialisation that the rest of the developed world took. But it all lies on us as youth. We need to become informed consumers and informed voters. Let’s incentivize companies to go climate friendly and let’s force our politicians to push though those aforementioned policies. Our existence lies in our youthful hands.
*Credit goes to Mr. Chaminda Serasinghe of Shigadry with Earth for enlightening me on Carbon Negative Consumerism and for the email from UNFCCC endorsing SLMUN's initiative.