Student Energy Summit amplifies youth voices alongside COP28

Beniamin Strzelecki is a youth advisor on climate change to the United Nations secretary general and co-chair of the global Student Energy Summit that precedes COP28. Major issues for young people, he says, are around climate mitigation, damage reversal and the nuanced question of the rights of future generations.

While climate litigation is helping to rein in fossil fuel interests, current legal frameworks are insufficient, he tells University World News: “How we can better respect the rights of future generations is a philosophical question, but it’s also deeply actionable. We are actively thinking how this can be better reflected in international law, but also in national legal contexts.”

These and other questions will be debated by 650 young people from more than 100 countries at the Student Energy Summit, the world’s largest youth energy event, which takes place in a different university around the world every two years.

This year the summit is being held in the United Arab Emirates from 28 November to 1 December, hosted by New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi, on the margins of COP28 and under the theme “Reimagining the future”.

The summit goes beyond debate, to provide a global platform that helps to prepare young people for careers in the energy transition, interact with each other and public and private sector leaders, and showcase young voices that are under-represented in the energy space.

Some background

Beniamin Strzelecki, aka Benji, is from Poland and graduated as a civil engineer from NYU Abu Dhabi in May 2023. His co-chair is Mira Aljallaf, a mechanical engineering student from NYU Abu Dhabi, who is an Emirati. They have been working on the summit since spring last year.

During four years at the university – which is known to be a pioneer of sustainability in higher education in the UAE – Strzelecki was involved in multiple capacities in student and university sustainability initiatives.

For instance, he actively supported the recently launched NYU Abu Dhabi Climate Action Plan, was on the student sustainability committee, and was a student assistant in the Office of Sustainability and Stewardship for more than a year. He also co-led student groups, including Green House at NYU Abu Dhabi, a student interest group highly active around sustainability. Last year, Strzelecki was part of the UAE delegation to COP27.

Since graduating, he has been a policy officer at the Global Renewables Alliance, a renewable and energy sector industry association, and going forward he is looking at postgraduate study in the area of energy and sustainability.

Strzelecki was selected to be a youth advisor on climate change to UN Secretary General António Guterres through a comprehensive selection system. In this role he serves on the Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, which was first convened in 2021 by Guterres as a platform for young people at the highest level of decision-making in the UN system and intergovernmental sector at large.

The group also works to sensitise the UN “to the priorities that young people are seeing in the areas of climate action and energy transition”. The Youth Advisory Group meets the secretary general four times a year, as well as other members of the UN leadership.

Each cohort has a two-year term, and comprises seven young people, five representing each of the five UN regions, one representing small island states, and one representing the host country of the UN. Strzelecki represents Eastern Europe. The youth advisors are of different ages and areas of interest: Strzelecki’s area of special interest is energy transition.

“We are helping them to keep the pulse on what is happening in the youth climate movement, and to work together on advancing the secretary general’s acceleration agenda.” If implemented, he said, it would put the world on track to meeting the goal of net zero globally by 2050.

The Student Energy Summit

The Student Energy Summit has taken place every two years since 2009. It is held under the umbrella of Student Energy, an international youth-led NGO based in Canada. Every two years, a student group is chosen to host the summit. In early 2022, NYU Abu Dhabi bid successfully to host the 2023 summit.

“Considering that COP is happening this year in the UAE, we decided to put the summit back-to-back with COP,” says Strzelecki.

The Student Energy Summit is important for young people. “We have many fantastic young professionals, students, entrepreneurs, researchers, innovators who are putting a lot of effort into working on startups and organisations and youth networks to advance energy transition.

“Most of the time, they don’t receive appropriate recognition or support, or have opportunities to engage with energy sector leaders and decision-makers. Our event is a platform that, first of all, recognises and celebrates those young people and gives them an opportunity to showcase their work and, second, connects them with decision-makers.

“It puts them in one room with ministers, with CEOs, with mayors, with leaders of the philanthropy sector, to pitch their ideas, develop their networks and go back to their countries and leverage those new resources to further scale up their impact,” Strzelecki says.

He added: “That’s something we have seen repetitively over the previous iterations of the summit, where young people came energised and left inspired, and went on to launch new ventures in partnership with people that they met at the summit. They went away inspired to take on new roles as policy-makers, government officials and others. This is why the summit is important.

“It’s not just those three days. It’s about bringing people from around the world and changing their lives. Of course, this year is unique because we are hosting the summit on the margins of COP28. And we want to give those young people an even bigger platform.

“We’ll have more decision-makers than ever at this year’s summit. And we’ll also bring our delegates to the COP28 venue in Dubai to give them exposure to this world’s most important climate conference.”

The big problems

What are the critical climate change problems that young people identify and have been advocating across a range of platforms, including at the United Nations?

Naturally, Strzelecki says, some of the key areas that young people care most about are those that touch younger generations more than current generations: “This is most of what we deal with when it comes to climate change,” he tells University World News.

He highlights the three areas of climate mitigation, countering climate-provoked loss and damage, and the rights of future generations.

First, young people are demanding more ambitious action on mitigation. “We are unfortunately seeing both countries and private sector companies backtracking on their climate commitments.

“We need to see a faster phase out of fossil fuels and fossil fuel subsidies to achieve clean power systems by 2040 across the world, in both developed and developing countries, and also faster decarbonisation of heavy emitting sectors, including steel, cement, concrete, aviation, shipping.

“Unfortunately, the current design-line of the energy system and the lack of definite action, in particular on fossil fuel subsidies, is a profound barrier to a faster shift away from polluting sources of energy,” he said.

The second student focus is on ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change, which Strzelecki says was an important topic at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt. Earlier this month a COP meeting in Abu Dhabi agreed a draft framework for a new UN fund to help countries recover from climate loss and damage, which will initially be housed in the World Bank.

“Yet a lot of decisions are still to be finalised,” he explains, “and sufficient funding is needed to really offset the damages of climate change. And we need to make sure that those that have contributed the most to the climate crisis are paying their fair share to support those who are most vulnerable and least responsible for the catastrophic impact of the climate crisis.”

Strzelecki continues: “The third pillar is more nuanced. It is on the question of the rights of the future generations. Climate litigation has proliferated across different jurisdictions as a powerful tool in keeping fossil fuel interests and decision-makers in check, stopping some of the more outrageous fossil fuel expansion projects, and forcing governments to accelerate their climate action and scale down their support for the fossil fuel industry.

“Having said that, the current legal frameworks are not fit for purpose.” The people who will be most impacted by the climate crisis, children and youth, have very little representation in current legal systems because of the few resources they have, and unborn people have no legal status.

“They cannot sue current polluters. By the time they are born and are old enough to sue, the people who have been most responsible will be gone and the climate crisis will be so advanced that it would be very difficult to bring this planetary system back to where it was 150 years ago.”

It is imperative to find a way to better respect the rights of future generations, he argues.

Criticism of COP28 being held in the Gulf

There has been criticism of locating COP28 in the Gulf, a major fossil fuel producing area, and about the appointment of Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber – CEO of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and a seasoned climate diplomat – as the president-designate of the 2023 summit.

Strzelecki does not agree.

“We have seen many countries in the region spearhead the development of various technologies and approaches to climate action and energy transition,” he says. The UAE’s Masdar, for instance, is one of the largest renewable energy developers in the world.

“We have commitment from the UAE to plant 100 million mangroves in order to strengthen this critical ecosystem here. There is definitely a track record of countries in the region, including the UAE, working on scaling up renewables.

“Having a COP here opens valuable conversations in this region that, as we know, has one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions – but is very intentional about acting upon them and charting paths to achieving the goal of net zero by 2050,” Strzelecki concludes.

“It is easy to have conversations in countries that have been well resourced for decades to reduce their emissions. And it’s valuable to bring this conversation to where this is not easy – as long as we see real commitments from the host and other partner countries.”

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