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Youth and Just Transition – between disengagement and active participation

24 April 2024

On March 15th, the BOLSTER (Bridging Organizations and marginalised communities for Local Sustainability Transitions in Europe) project hosted another successful regional policy dialogue, part of a series of 10 organised by ECAS within the project framework.

The event brought together 58 participants and enhanced awareness of the challenges and existing best practices for inclusive youth engagement in the green transition in Halle (Saxony-Anhalt, Germany), Ukrainian coal regions, and the EU level.

During the dialogue, speakers delved into the perceptions and roles of young people in the green transition, with a spotlight on the Halle region. The discussions focused on the challenges and best practices for fostering inclusive youth engagement in the just transition process. Additionally, the discussions explored the effectiveness of participatory methods in involving marginalised youth in decision-making related to environmental issues.

The event started with an introduction from Dr. Michiel Stapper (Tilburg University, The Netherlands), who provided an overview of the European Green Deal principles and the Just Transition Mechanism, as well as the general objectives and case studies of the BOLSTER project. 

Afterwards, Dr. Ammalia Podlaszewska, Chairwoman at Culture Goes Europe Erfurt e.V. (Germany), delved into the pivotal role of youth in Halle’s regional just transition. Dr. Podlaszewska began by presenting BOLSTER’s research endeavours within the region, comprising comprehensive stakeholder and marginalised community mappings coupled with interviews and participatory methodologies. These efforts aimed to understand the perceptions of these communities regarding the transition, as well as factors of engagement and disengagement. She then spotlighted participatory initiatives in the region, including: working groups informing the implementation of the Structural Development Programme, a “social participation” consortium of civil society organisations convened by the regional government to discuss citizen participation in the just transition; a “Planathon” gathering ideas of young people for managing the transition; the “Revierpionier” competition from the State of Saxony-Anhalt, offering prizes for initiatives actively shaping economic, ecological and socially sustainable structural change. Lastly, Dr. Podlaszewska shared the findings of interviews and workshops with local youth. She highlighted a strong polarisation in perception and engagement with climate issues between marginalised young people and “privileged” youth: the former often fail to recognise the relevance of the climate issues, while the latter is often highly engaged, regarding social justice as a condition for a just transformation.

The dialogue then continued with a panel discussion. The initial Tour de table with the panellists started with Alina Beigang, Scientific Associate at the Independent Institute for Environmental Issues (UfU) and Project Coordinator of RevierUpgrade.We.Now.Sustainable. (Germany), a project implemented in consortium with the youth section of Friends of Earth Germany. Her project activities seek to engage with young people between 16 and 27 years who are not aware of how to transform their ideas into practical change. Funded by the German Ministry of Environment, the project offers workshops, coaching sessions and a festival for enhancing and developing skills and tools for socio-ecological transformation. On one hand, the project reaches out to disengaged young people to help them connect their everyday struggles to broader societal topics; on the other hand, it supports already engaged young people in honing their communication and advocacy skills.

Professor Jonathan Everts, from the University of Halle-Wittenberg, presented key projects he is involved in concerning youth and marginalised communities. Those include a project in collaboration with cultural institutions hosting events and conducting research in peripherical areas, equipping school students with tools for transformative change (e.g., the creation of a radio station, podcasts to talk about their daily life). Another project, funded by the Just Transition Fund, involves developing an educational and research campus in southern Halle, providing incubators for start-ups, and developing partnerships with nearby towns. In another part of the Saxony-Anhalt region, students from an art school participated in a spring school project. Their task involved interviewing young people from peripheral areas about their perceptions and visions of life in the region. The outcomes were documented through photographs and presented in a publication. In his intervention, Prof. Everts stressed the importance of informing young people about the multiple career options available in the region, particularly considering the dismantling of traditional industries.

Katharina Krause, Scientific Project Assistant at the Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development (Germany), introduced her work on the three former coal mining regions in Germany. The Institute’s activities include dialogues with students on the concept of structural change (German expression to mention the Just Transition) and the challenges and opportunities it brings. Additionally, the Institute organises ideas’ competitions within coal mining regions and collaborates on a project with school children, tasking them with envisioning tourist attractions and highlighting interesting aspects of their region.

Daniele Taurino, Board Member of the European Youth Forum (YFJ), working on a portfolio on sustainability, ecological crisis, and systemic change, underscored the significance of guaranteeing a minimum standard level of youth participation in EU decision-making, both regarding priorities and budget allocation.

Anna Bohushenko (Ukraine), International Researcher at Ecologic Institute (Berlin, Germany) and Climate Connaction fellow, discussed the transitioning coal regions in Ukraine, where the role of young people as activists and solution-makers in the green transition process has only recently gained recognition. Until recently, young people were primarily viewed as a vulnerable population, seen as victims of the crisis and needing protection. However, the landscape has evolved, with the majority of participants in institutions and grassroots movements in Ukraine’s climate and energy transition being under 35. Thanks to the initiatives of civil society organisations, a project aimed at supporting communities in transitioning mining regions was launched in 2020 in cooperation with German partners. The project is called New Energy-New Opportunities for Sustainable Development in Donbas and provides bottom-up advice for governments, capacity building for local authorities, and research on perceptions of communities in coal mining areas, the role of women, and the labour market. Ms. Bohushenko explained that even before Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, cities in these areas suffered from high levels of displacement, further exacerbated by the war. Thus, implementing a fair green transition is crucial for building better communities and encouraging return and reconstruction in these regions.

The speakers then discussed the factors contributing to marginalisation within the context of the green transition.

It was highlighted that Halle is characterised by segregated districts predominantly inhabited by marginalised and vulnerable people, including youth, who are frequently impacted by energy poverty. Additionally, poverty and language barriers disproportionately affect migrant communities, contributing to their marginalisation. The Roma community faces significant isolation, with Roma youth experiencing high rates of early school dropout. Furthermore, there is a trend of young people, particularly young women, often leaving the region, leading to demographic challenges and a reduction of services dedicated to the younger population.

Additionally, youth, in general, tends to be excluded from participation in decision-making processes.

The speakers highlighted the need for creating jobs in the regions and raising awareness about those opportunities. As the economic disadvantage is often an obstacle to career access and engagement in decision-making processes, the speakers stressed the need for sustainable and accessible funding for engagement on the ground, allowing long-term change (not only short-term projects).

Regarding recommendations for local policymaking, speakers emphasised the significance of co-creating and implementing green transition policies and initiatives that empower young people. They also stressed the importance of adapting the communication of institutional actors to make it more youth-friendly. Furthermore, it was noted that older people often have a higher carbon footprint than young people, highlighting the need for educating the older generation to contribute to the green transition and reduce their environmental impact, rather than solely delegating this responsibility to young people.

In terms of best practices, Ms. Bohushenko highlighted a platform introduced in cooperation with civil society in Ukrainian transitioning coal regions. This platform connects cities and towns, offering educational and advocacy messages, facilitating communication among local authorities, advertising funding and financial support opportunities for developing ideas and business, and showcasing successful initiatives. This is an example of a tool that can empower citizens and youth to shape a vision of a different future.

Mr. Taurino stressed the importance of collecting data regarding youth participation and highlighted the Youth Progress Index developed by YFJ in collaboration with local committees and focus groups. Additionally, he underscored the establishment of the Italian Alliance for Sustainable Development, which aims to raise awareness about the UN Global Agenda for Sustainable Development and its associated goals.

Regarding potential EU support for youth engagement, the speakers stressed the importance of involving young people in all stages of policymaking, from design to implementation and monitoring. Additionally, the speakers also emphasised the importance of providing financial support to initiatives that help young people gain a European perspective, as this is crucial for promoting a fair green transition.

Attendees were invited to contribute to the discussion by answering an interactive Slido questionnaire. Their main recommendations included:

  • Enabling young people to actively participate in policy design, implementation, and monitoring both at local and EU levels
  • Implementing measures to prevent displacement from transitioning regions and raising awareness of new professional opportunities available in those regions
  • Providing long-term funding to support youth engagement, awareness-raising, and capacity-building initiatives on the ground (notably for grassroots organisations)

The recording of the dialogue is available here and presentations can be downloaded here.