Sustainable Development

The European Youth Forum has a long-standing history of working on the topic of sustainable development and has been promoting youth participation in sustainable development processes for many years, including in the run up to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development in 2015. A comprehensive position on the topic was first outlined in the 2006 Policy Paper on Sustainable Development, and sustainable development has since developed into one of the core principles upon which all Youth Forum policies are built. 

Sustainable development concerns everyone, but the success or failure in achieving it has an even greater impact for young people, as it is them who will, in the future, have to deal with the mistakes made today, with the effects of environmental crises and accelerating climate change. Youth organisations are central actors in promoting sustainable development, in all its aspects, from social, economic, environmental and cultural, as well as promoting more sustainable models and systems at all levels, from the global to national and local level.

In recent years, the focus on sustainable development has shifted to include systems thinking and narrative campaigning into its advocacy on the topic. The reasoning behind this is that profound changes to our lives and our political and economic systems are necessary to deal with the unfolding climate and inequality crises. Alternatives to our economic models, measures of progress, systems for wealth distribution, models for production and consumption and structures for democratic participation of young people are some of the areas in which the European Youth Forum has been active since 2018.

  • 2030 Agenda
  • Alternative measures of progress
  • Beyond GDP
  • Biodiversity
  • Climate crisis
  • Economy
  • Ecosystems
  • Education for sustainable development
  • Environment
  • Financing
  • Future generations
  • Health
  • Narratives
  • Natural resources
  • Planet
  • Poverty
  • Social justice and equality
  • Social progress
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Systems thinking
  • Wellbeing
  • Youth data

Sustainable development is as an organising principle for the interrelated domains of society, economy and environment, supporting a vision for society in which the needs and rights of all, including future generations, are met within the means of the planet. In other words, sustainable development means that everyone, including future generations, is able to fulfil their needs and realise their rights, while ensuring that this does not overshoot Earth’s natural resources and fundamental life-supporting systems such as a stable climate and fertile soils.

Sustainable development concerns everyone, but young people and youth organisations play several unique and important roles in the move towards a more sustainable future, both as agents for change and as rights-holders in the change process. Young people have the right to participate in the decisions shaping their own future. They have the right to information and participation in all dimensions of the development process. The right to participate is anchored in the 2030 Agenda, which acknowledges youth as “critical agents of change”. Young people also possess the energy, creativity and motivation to challenge current unsustainable models. Social change led by young people extends beyond generational, cultural and geographical boundaries. 

Less bound by ideological and institutional structures, young people have demonstrated the ability to think outside the box and develop innovative solutions for society as a whole. Youth organisations are central actors in the work for sustainable development, channelling young people’s efforts to make a substantial contribution to a more sustainable future.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum believes the principle of sustainable development should be mainstreamed across all policy making and at all levels. This means that all future policies should fit the criteria of contributing to a more equal society, in which the needs and rights of all, including future generations, are met within the means of the planet.
  • The European Youth Forum promotes young people’s right to participate in the decisions that shape their future, and youth organisations should be supported and empowered to represent young people’s voices as critical agents of change.

Youth organisations can play a strong role in the achievement of the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through, inter alia, raising awareness on the issues the Agenda seeks to tackle, advocating for the achievement of the Agenda and implementing parts of the Agenda through projects in areas such as providing development education, breaking down barriers between young people, engaging in dialogue at all levels and changing consumption patterns in younger generations. Youth organisations can also serve as role models in the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by sharing best practices, cooperating with other civil society stakeholders and contributing to the action of public authorities.

In turn, the 2030 Agenda recognises young people as “critical agents for change” and youth rights and needs are embedded to a greater or lesser extent throughout the SDGs. In this context, young people’s empowerment and participation should be understood as both a means and an end if sustainable development is to be achieved. Yet, many young people still experience limited civic and political inclusion in the policy processes that seek to implement the 2030 Agenda and face barriers in accessing their rights. Youth organisations often face legal and financial barriers to become more relevant and better equipped to sustain their role as the main vehicle for youth participation in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. Further, youth is often subject to much higher rates of unemployment and poverty as well as lacking access to basic services such as health and education.

Key Policy Messages

  • In order to meet the SDGs, governments at all levels must unlock young people’s potential as agents for change by systematically investing in meaningful youth participation, including through support to youth organisations.

Despite climate change being an emergency that requires immediate and decisive action to be undertaken by all states, the European Union and the international community and all sectors of the society, including especially the global economy, the efforts to combat climate change are so far significantly insufficient and far too slow. Alarmingly, most countries have not even met the goals they agreed upon in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Young people are at the forefront of global social movements on the streets demanding climate action. The young people protesting on the streets represent the opinion of young people in general. The fight against climate change is perceived to be a top priority by young people in Europe. This perception is supported by strong scientific evidence. There is scientific consensus that decisive and immediate action is necessary in order to contain the disastrous consequences of climate change and to avoid at least its most harmful and catastrophic implications. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasises that therefore, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are required and that “the next few years are probably the most important in our history”. According to estimations, without immediate and sufficient action the critical threshold of an increase of the global temperature of 1.5C° might be already reached. 

Individual citizens’ responsibility and direct action must be encouraged and supported. However, the responsibility for combating climate change should be on governments and big business in order to make meaningful change. Systemic change is required to counteract climate change.

Key Policy Messages

  • The European Youth Forum calls upon governments across the world, in particular the European Union and European states, to implement concrete, binding and immediate plans not only to fulfil their obligations in line with the Paris Agreement, but to set more ambitious targets.
  • Governments and institutions across the world should implement structural changes that make climate-friendly solutions more affordable for individuals, with special emphasis on youth.

Social and economic inequalities have risen to historic levels in recent times, and there is no sign that extreme inequality is abating. Different groups such as youth and women are affected disproportionately by inequality. In 2014, young people became the group at greatest risk of poverty in the OECD, with a stunning 43% of the global youth labour force either unemployed or working but living in poverty.

Inequality has many causes or drivers. Social exclusion based on age, gender, ethnicity, class, caste, disability and other categories is one of them. Other factors such as globalisation, public policy and technology can also act as drivers of inequality if they are harnessed incorrectly. They can however also have the potential to exert massive positive influence combating unsustainable practices and poverty, if they are handled correctly.

However, there is evidence that inequality is built into our economic system and preserved over generations due to the inheritance of wealth. As wealth is an important source of power and the other way around, economic inequality is both a cause and consequence of political inequality. Political capture of the decision-making process can lead to a perpetuation of economic inequality. Privileged groups use their access to decision-makers to reinforce their own advantage, through sweetheart taxes or privatisation deals, for example.

Key Policy Messages

  • Governments and international institutions need to recognise that the current economic system and policies are not working for the majority of the world’s population. The Youth Forum calls for policies and measures aimed at reducing inequality in all its forms.
  • Youth organisations are key actors in empowering young people facing inequality to be actors of change in their own communities and advocate for a more equal society.

Systems thinking is a perspective that comprises a common language and a set of tools that emphasise inter-connections and context in order to counter short-sighted decision-making. Identifying positive and negative feedback loops between different parts of the system can inform policy choices and help avoid unintended negative impacts elsewhere in the system. Systems thinking can also support policy makers and stakeholders in analysing and understanding root causes of sustainability problems in order to focus on leverage points for intervention, where small changes can produce big changes in the system as a whole.

Today’s crises are increasingly systemic and intertwined. Issues such as economic development, inequality, chronic poverty, populism, climate, security, finance and migration have become highly interdependent and mutually reinforcing and cannot be adequately addressed with a focus on single issue solutions. It will not be sufficient to focus on technical solutions or additional financing. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development acknowledges that “bold and transformative steps […] are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path”. Sustainable development is a political agenda with the redistribution of power and resources at its heart that requires breaking policy silos and finding and nurturing new models that are coherent with the overarching goal of sustainable development.

To successfully deal with today’s systemic crises, we need to put this into practice. The areas outlined below are promising leverage points for introducing alternatives to our economic, political and social systems. Alternatives to our economic models, measures of progress, systems for wealth distribution, models for production and consumption and structures for democratic participation of young people all have the potential to result in a considerable shift towards sustainable development, provided that governments set the right policy conditions and support youth organisations and other stakeholders in nurturing alternative models.

Key Policy Messages

  • Governments across the world at all levels should put in practice alternatives to the current unsustainable paradigm. They should develop new tools and build the capacity of policy makers to experiment with and combine a variety of ideas, approaches and policies in this regard.
  • Youth organisations and other stakeholders should be supported, and their capacity built, to be able to nurture and implement alternative economic and social models.

Our social and economic systems are built on the assumption that an increase in economic growth, measured through Gross Domestic Product (GDP), produces benefits for all and improvements in quality of life. High growth rates have come to be seen as a mark of success in their own right, rather than as a means to an end.  Governments all over the world have been willing to sacrifice everything from public service to equality of opportunity to clean air for a few percentage points in GDP growth. 

The real problem with GDP as a metric, however, is its effect on policy making. What gets measured gets managed. In search for economic growth, governments have adopted a set of resource-intensive measures greatly contributing to climate change. The elusive quest for GDP-driven growth has fostered a consumerist culture across the world for those who can afford to participate in it, whereby people are reduced to ‘consumers’, and societies to ‘markets’. Socially, it has led to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals. The current fixation on GDP as national and societal success indicator is a social construction that can be changed. Governments should take into consideration additional tools to measure progress in their government plans and budgets. Wellbeing, social and environmental indicators should be the focus and provide a framework for policy and investment decisions. 

The European Youth Forum’s main contribution to this debate has been through the creation of the Youth Progress Index, which is based on the methodology of the Social Progress Index. The Youth Progress Index has demonstrated that economic indicators alone are not sufficient to provide a complete picture of young people’s lives, as they do not provide a thorough understanding of the extent to which their basic needs are met, their wellbeing is safeguarded, and opportunities are provided. The Youth Progress Index has also shown that there is a lack of availability of data related to young people’s wellbeing, as well as a serious lack of disaggregated data overall. For example, the Youth Progress Index does not incorporate underlying inequalities within societies, or differences between groups of young people in terms of additional barriers faced (e.g. non-citizens, migrants, young people with disabilities or young LGBTQI).

Key Policy Messages

  • Governments at all levels should have a broader vision on what constitutes progress, including for youth, beyond GDP and economic indicators only. They should take into consideration additional tools to measure progress in the planning and implementation of key policies, for example ensuring a greater focus on social and environmental indicators when assessing impact of policies.
  • Governmental and other data collection bodies should work closely with civil society organisations for the collection of more relevant, disaggregated and inclusive data, especially on youth.

Key Documents and Resources