Young people at a work meeting

Canadian Youth See a Different Future for Climate Policy

By Emily Kroft on March 21, 2022

Youth are crucial advocates for climate action, but decisions being made on the future of climate policy can end up taking a different direction from the issues that matter most to younger generations. To better understand what issues are important for young climate activists in Canada, IISD teamed up with Youth Climate Lab’s Research, Activate, Deepen (RAD) cohort earlier this year to bring together 30 keen youth with science and policy experts for a “Policy Jam” to map out ideas for the future. 

Our 30 participants split into two groups: the first group looked at the nexus between climate change and health policy, while the second group focused on aspects of climate policy that intersect with economic well-being for Canadians. Both groups came up with valuable insights to share, with feedback that reinforced why including youth in policy-making processes is vital for tackling sustainability challenges effectively.

Climate and health

The top issue identified by our health-related focus group is a lack of understanding by decision-makers of how climate policy and health policy are so deeply intertwined that one cannot be addressed without addressing the other. This challenge exists not only in Canada: at the international level, IISD and the University of Edinburgh’s Global Health Academy have found that health experts need to be brought into environmental decision making to produce more robust outcomes.

Air pollution is one such example. Most of our Policy Jam participants live in cities where heavy traffic means higher emissions and air pollution. This urban air pollution raises the risk of serious adverse health outcomes, even following short-term exposure. 

Recent natural disasters in British Columbia have meant that some of our participants have experienced reduced access to food and other essential resources. These experiences have driven home how climate-induced natural disasters will mean greater food insecurity and vulnerability for many, particularly populations that are already underserved. For example, many Indigenous communities still lack basic access to resources like healthy food and clean water, which leads to a higher risk of serious health complications. Looking to the future, Indigenous communities need to be an integral partner in decision making for issues regarding the environment and health.

Looking to the future, Indigenous communities need to be an integral partner in decision making for issues regarding the environment and health.

Canada’s ageing population is another concern, our focus group found. Older adults are more vulnerable to many potential health problems, as exemplified by COVID-19. Scientists expect viruses to become a more frequent problem as our climate crisis becomes more severe, compounded by other climate-related challenges such as extreme heat, which killed hundreds of Canadians this past summer alone. Our focus group participants worried about what this situation meant for the health of their parents and grandparents, especially as COVID-19 already showed some of the vulnerabilities of our health systems when faced with compounding emergencies.

Our focus group recommended that governments tackle the issues that our health systems face through an environmental lens that is inclusive of Indigenous and minority voices. This includes better preventive measures, namely by acting now to prevent our climate crisis from worsening and therefore leading to these health problems. Climate change mitigation measures can help avert future pandemics, prevent deaths from extreme heat, and help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease for many, in turn relieving pressures from the health system.

Climate and economy

Today’s job market also lacks the type of employment that young people seek, our economic-focused group found. The generation coming into the workforce is not concerned only about their livelihoods—they want their work to help make the world a better, kinder, and more sustainable place. 

For example, while some participants hope to work in the energy sector, they have seen limited job options in solar, wind, and other types of renewable energy, and they are reticent to apply for energy jobs at companies that prioritize fossil fuels. They argued that governments should shift investments away from fossil fuels and toward renewables while also prioritizing less carbon-intensive production, which will have climate benefits while creating the types of renewable energy jobs that the upcoming generation are seeking. This is a particularly valuable insight given the ongoing labour shortages in many parts of the country.

The group also raised concerns over why the polluter-pays principle is absent from many parts of the supply chain. While the implementation of the federal carbon tax in most places was a positive first step, they identified many production scenarios in which society ends up paying for the environmental damage that manufacturers can cause, with the worst impacts often affecting the most vulnerable members of society. 

Plastic packaging typifies this problem: they noted that when consumers buy groceries, their intention is to buy food, not packaging. However, currently, products packaged in plastic tend to be cheaper than products packaged in glass or compostable materials. Consumers face an unfair financial burden to pay a premium for a sustainably packaged product. Our focus group argued that if producers were forced to pay for the damage caused by plastic packaging, this would shift the cost of sustainable packaging away from consumers and enable them to make sustainable shopping choices.

Inclusion, social justice, and food systems

Over the course of the workshop, our participants noted that some issues are cross-cutting in nature, particularly the lack of inclusion of Indigenous voices in all aspects of planning and governance. The result has meant that Indigenous communities are at a disadvantage to other Canadians in all aspects of economics, health, and sustainability. Righting the injustices faced by Indigenous communities is intrinsically connected to tackling issues in sustainability. 

Inclusive decision making means making sure marginalized groups are heard and that community members are brought into the process, rather than limiting the debate solely to policy experts. As young people, our workshop participants are frequently excluded from political spaces due to the perception that they lack the experience or knowledge of older adults. Canada has many groups of people who are also frequently excluded from decision-making spaces, including BIPOC and other marginalized communities, whose voices would add invaluable insights to high-level conversations about climate and sustainability.

Inclusive decision making means making sure marginalized groups are heard and that community members are brought into the process, rather than limiting the debate solely to policy experts.

The problems inherent in the current Canadian food system were another major concern for participants. According to the Government of Canada, about half of the country’s food is wasted, leading to large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. However, at the same time, many Canadians remain food insecure. These are just a few of the many sustainability challenges facing Canadian food systems, which have also faced the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policy-makers and producers alike need to do more to incorporate equity and justice considerations.

Our Policy Jam participants suggested that distributing the Canadian food supply in a more efficient way throughout the various points in the supply chain before food reaches grocery store shelves could have positive impacts for climate mitigation, along with helping Canadians become more healthy and financially secure. Making the food system more efficient was an issue flagged for further research and discussion.

Our participants’ recommendations offer insights into how Canadian youth envision a sustainable future; but to make this future a reality, today’s decision-makers will need to be involved. The concerns raised by our focus group participants can serve as a jumping-off point for decision-makers to start thinking about how to put these concepts into action. Including young and marginalized voices in decision-making processes should always be a priority, given that they will live with the policies enacted today and will be those crafting policy solutions tomorrow.