Here’s what environmental justice looks like when youth are leading the way

“This is not simply a box checking exercise — it is value-added.”

Why It Matters

Scientists tell us that humans have caused irreversible changes to the planet — but action can still be taken to reduce some of the worst effects of climate change. Knowing the very real impact of climate change on their future, youth entrepreneurs are creating innovative solutions to the climate crisis — which is why it’s vital that policy-makers empower youth to lead the way.

This story is in partnership with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

Back when he was a boarding school student, now-25-year old Gabriel Saunders kick-started his first business selling mini-fridges. He would buy the mini-fridges for $15 from graduating students, and then resell them to new students — after hiking the price up to $40. 

At university, Saunders learned about social entrepreneurship, and how you can “make money while improving the world, and the communities around you,” as he explained during the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC)’s fifth annual Youth Innovation Challenge presentation in September 2021. 

Studies show that climate change and protecting the environment are important issues for Gen Z and Millennials — and with scientists saying that we could cross the global warming threshold by 2027, youth entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to create the kind innovative solutions we need to fight climate change. 

With a theme of ‘Climate Change and Environmental Justice Innovations for Resilient Communities’, CEC hosted their annual 5th Youth Innovation Challenge. Leaders aged 18 to 30 from across Canada, Mexico and the U.S. were invited to submit innovative entrepreneurial solutions to environmental issues through an online platform. From Canada and the Turks and Caicos Islands, Saunders was one of four winners that CEC selected to win up to $15,000 in seed funding.

When speaking to Future of Good, Bhan Gatkuoth, CEC’s coordinator for diverse and inclusive outreach and engagement, explains that empowering youth to lead environmental justice efforts is “not just beneficial, but essential”. She shares two reasons for this: firstly, because young people have been leading successful social justice movements throughout history. Secondly, because of the demographic’s growing diversity (for example, in 2020, data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggested that ‘nearly four of 10 Americans identify with a race or ethnic group other than white’).

“Their perspectives and experiences, as young people who are interacting with and inheriting current social and environmental issues, offers us an opportunity to consider how we can be more inclusive as we work toward shared environmental problems,” Gatkuoth says – something that is of utmost importance when working with diverse communities across the world

Below are the four winners of CEC’s Youth Innovation Challenge.

 

Decomp

Since the early 1950s, humans have created 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic — 6.3 billion metrics tons of which have become plastic waste. During his presentation, Saunders shared that LDPE — a plastic used in things like plastic wrap and squeezable bottles — is the second-most commonly produced plastic. In 2019, the US produced 3.46 million metric tons of LDPE — and according to Saunders, processing it takes $96 USD per metric ton. 

Saunders explained that recycling facilities (Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs) collect plastic for processing — but, he said, the current options for processing are currently flawed. There’s only a limited number of plastic types that can be fully recycled— and even they need to be minimally contaminated by things like food. While incinerators can fully dispose of plastic waste, they have negative health effects on communities living near them, meaning municipalities restrict their expansion. “We’re in a plastic pandemic,” he said, referring to the sheer volume of plastic being created, and how challenging it is to then dispose of it safely and sustainably. 

Using genetically-engineered microbes, Decomp sustainably disposes of plastic waste in a matter of weeks — something that, if left to nature, takes hundreds of years. Decomp does this using bioreactor technology (a piece of equipment that grows organisms like bacteria) to create and maintain the best environment for the plastic-degrading microbes. Seven MRFs are already interested in Decomp’s pilot. 

Saunders added that his team’s strength is in its diversity, because they’re “led by five members with five completely different backgrounds,” from microbiology to chemical engineering. “We are confident that we can turn Decomp into a successful social enterprise that is able to solve plastic waste pollution.” 

 

Guardians of the Calakmul Bees

Based in the Mexican town of Puebla de Morelia, a group of young innovators who call themselves the ‘Guardians of the Calakmul Bees’, aim to create more sustainable habitats for honey-producing bees through climate and pest-controlled bee huts, supporting marginalized communities in the area. 

For 10 years, Claudia del Carmen Cornelio Caraveo — a representative of the team — has worked in beekeeping, continuing her family history of agriculture. In Puebla de Morelia, Caraveo and other community members noticed honey-producing bees leaving the region due to issues like ant infestations, drought, heavy rain and landslides — all markers of climate change. 

Even for the bees that were left, beekeepers couldn’t always access apiaries (huts where beehives are kept) when there had been too much rain, “and in drought, the production goes down because we don’t have enough flowers,” Caraveo said during her presentation. 

To solve this issue, the Guardians of the Calakmul Bees have engineered and created a structure that stops ants from getting into the apiaries using a base of reinforced steel and brick. As well as creating a corridor of flowers for the bees to get to the apiaries, the new structure includes a water catchment mesh to ensure the bees will have access to water during dry seasons.

“This will help not just the bees, but also the other pollinators,” Caraveo said. “As bee guardians, let’s take care of the bees for a better tomorrow.”

 

Mobile School for Community Foresters

Community transformation happens when community leaders are empowered — and that’s why the Mobile School for Community Foresters is working with local leaders to manage forests more sustainably. 

Co-founded by Gener Jesús Méndez Gutiérrez, the pilot training program is based in Mexico’s Tabasco Rivers and Chiapas tropical forest region. In his presentation, Gutiérrez explained that, according to Global Forest Watch Data, the two regions have lost 51,000 hectares of forest cover. “These two communities are facing challenges like getting used to bad practices [in logging and forestry], low participation of women in decision-making [about how to manage forests], and a lack of participation of youth in the community,” Gutiérrez said.

He added: “people only think about selling raw material and logging — all the pastures are almost desert-like.”

To help make a difference, Gutiérrez and his team will work with marginalized communities, sharing the tools and local knowledge needed for forestry and conservation. “We can encourage communities to become more resilient, and for them to use local knowledge for sustainable management of their forests,” Gutiérrez said, explaining that the school is an “integrator of environmental and traditional knowledge.” 

As the school grows, Gutiérrez said he expects to see “a network of community foresters, and a transformation of practices aimed at community resiliency” — leading towards more sustainable production practices, and a healthier, greener environment. 

 

Carbon 2x

Co-founded by Xiangkun Elvis Cao, Carbon 2x is a U.S.-based non-profit that transforms carbon dioxide emissions into sustainable ‘solar commodities’ — including products like hand sanitizer. It aims to create a circular carbon economy, re-using emissions from places like power plants, cars and ocean waters.

In his presentation, Cao shared that, every year, 51 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere — and our aim is to get to zero within 30 years. “That’s a huge task,” Cao said. That’s why Carbon 2x aims to see carbon dioxide as a commodity “that we can distribute around the world” through a proprietary process that captures, converts, utilizes and stores the gas in a scalable approach. 

Cao grew up in a small village in China, where he personally witnessed the impact of pollution. Through Carbon 2x, he aims to support marginalized communities living near coal-fired plants. “The work can not only help my community in China, but the whole of humankind, because we have a common mission: the fight against global climate change,” Cao said. 

 Speaking to Future of Good, Georgina O’Farrill, CEC’s outreach and partnerships officer, explains that the organization is committed to including young people and marginalized communities in finding climate solutions. “When we approach environmental resilience with inclusivity and empathy, we are able to address shared challenges more effectively,” she says. “We are only made better and stronger when we work together and in collaboration with one another.”

As part of his summary remarks of the Youth roundtable “The Role of Youth in Ensuring Environmental Justice through Responses to Climate Change”, where he represented the U.S. =Justin Onwenu, member of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and Black Leadership, said that far too many discussions around climate change focus on what people can do individually, as opposed to what can be done together: “I think young people are rejecting that approach by working together to push for systemic change.” 

He added that this generation has been “raised and shaped by crisis”: 9/11, the 2008 recession, COVID-19 and more. “Young people need to be in the room, helping to make decisions about what the future looks like,” he said. “This is not simply a box checking exercise — it is value-added.”