The importance of listening to the young voices of the future on climate change.

30 Oct 2023
Cheney outside Parkside Communiy College

Amongst the most passionate voices on climate change are the voices of our young people.

Earlier this month I was invited to speak at Parkside Social Action Group’s first Cambridge Green Schools Project.  This event brought together students from Cambridge schools with politicians and local and national activist groups such as Solar for Schools, Plastic Clever Schools and the Wildlife Trust to discuss the environmental challenges we face, and what we can do as individuals and collectively to tackle this.

It was inspiring to hear the passion and knowledge from the 100 11-18 year olds in the room.  

I was invited to lead a session about the Liberal Democrat vision for the environment.  As our manifesto for the next General Election is still being prepared, I shared some of the headline policies from our 2019 manifesto, and invited their feedback. Here’s a summary of the Lib Dem environmental policies, and what young people think of it!

  • We have a strong record on the environment.  We ran the Department of Energy and Climate Change during the coalition, and created the world’s first green investment bank.  This created the funding for projects such as the Sheringham Wind Farm, and is for me an example of the Lib Dems investing in the technology we need for the future.  A few of the adults accompanying the students pointed out that in 2010-2015, climate change was a concern, but it was being discussed as a concern for decades into the future, so this kind of investment at the time was revolutionary. There was surprise that the Conservatives scrapped this since they took power.  The students highlighted solar panels as infrastructure which urgently needs future investment, for both homes and businesses.
  • As Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, tripled the use of renewables in the UK and negotiated EU-wide carbon reduction and renewable targets with other European governments.  It was clear from the discussion here that 7 years post-referendum, our young people recognise the bitter loss it is to them and their future that we are no longer part of the EU.  
  • In the 2019 manifesto, the Lib Dems set headline environmental targets: 80% of energy to be generated by renewables by 2030; for all low income homes to be insulated by 2025 and for the Net Zero target to be brought forward to 2045.  The key point picked out by the students here was the importance of setting evidence based targets which a government must be up-front about and held accountable too.  Frighteningly, it is clear now that many of these targets will not be reached, and that 2045 may not be soon enough to reach Net Zero.  
  • In 2019, we also called for a ban on fracking, a moratorium on airport expansion and the use of citizen assemblies to develop environmental policies.  Most interesting here was the feedback from the students about citizen assemblies.  I asked the students to raise their hands to show if they would be old enough to vote in January 2025, the latest possible date for a General Election, and none of them would be.  The irony was palpable: 100 young people who are willing to give up their Sunday to learn about climate change will have no voice in deciding on who represents them on this issue at the next General Election.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were very positive about the idea of a citizen assembly as a way to allow a representative discussion.
  • Most recently, the Lib Dems have focussed on clean water,  and we have called for water companies to be sanctioned and taxed for dumping sewage into our rivers. We have also campaigned for a stronger regulator to ensure that water companies have a duty to protect our environment and for more investment in water infrastructure.  In Cambridge, this is particularly important.  The East of England is the driest region in the UK, and there are real concerns that as temperatures rise, Cambridge will run out of water.  Water infrastructure is critical here, and the Local Plan has for the first time identified the need for proper infrastructure, including a pipeline from the new Lincolnshire reservoir, to ensure we can sustain the number of homes we need for our region to flourish.  
  • Locally, we the Lib Dems in Cambridge have secured trial bans of pesticide use on public land, supported no-Mow May and also made all city council events plastic-free.  Following a talk earlier in the day from Kids Against Plastic, there was lots of interest in how we can take this even further and encourage more people to avoid single use plastic in their day to day lives.  

Following this, I asked the young people what they would hope to see politicians talking about in their promises for the next General Election.  They said they wanted to see pledges to:

  • Maintain and expand 20mph speed limits to more areas, especially in the city centre.  This was just a couple of days after Rishi Sunak announced his plans to block councils from imposing new 20mph zones.  They highlighted the research around how 20mph limits reduce speeds even if people do not stick to 20mph, and the increased chance that someone will survive if they are hit at 20 compared to 30mph.  It seems the Conservatives’ plans would not find many votes if these young people were able to vote.
  • Limiting traffic and reducing engine idling around schools to ensure safety and cleaner air.  For a cohort of students attending schools in the city centre, it was interesting to see the impact this clearly has on the young people’s feelings of safety and their concerns about their health.    The Lib Dems in Cambridge have long campaigned for tougher enforcement of engine idling in the city centre and around schools so this was positive feedback to continue with our efforts. 

Overall, it was a fantastic event and it was inspiring to see so many young people giving up their Sunday to talk about climate change and what we should all be doing about it.  There is clearly a responsibility on all politicians to make sure that we listen to the voices of the young people whose futures will be directly affected by our decisions now, even though they will not have the opportunity to have  say on who those people should be.