Group of people with front row sitting back row standing, with some waving at camera
Dear World Leaders: A Message from Youth event at the U.S. Center at the 28th COP to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. | Photo Credit: USAID

Sharing Lessons from COP28: Youth Leadership is Essential to Climate Action

By Bama Athreya

This past December, I had the opportunity to represent USAID as part of 2023’s U.S. delegation to the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP28. My biggest takeaway: this generation of young people has the ideas and solutions we need to address every aspect of global climate change. We all need to prioritize their leadership.


Women standing at podium
Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID, Bama Athreya Speaks at the COP28 Women Climate Entrepreneurs Pitch event.

I joined colleagues across the U.S. government to attend the Dear World Leaders event with youth leaders from across from the U.S. and also had a subsequent session with youth leaders from the Middle East. From both sessions, it’s clear that young people have a large stake in climate action and a key role to play in protecting the planet. They have a sophisticated grasp on the key negotiating challenges, and views on what outcomes would lead to optimal scenarios over the coming decades. However, young people are still not adequately included in climate-related decision-making.

I also heard how young leaders are pioneering local approaches to critical aspects of climate mitigation in their communities, but they face large and sometimes insurmountable barriers in accessing the necessary financing to expand these innovations.  And they stressed the importance of learning green skills that anticipate our global need for a just transition to a sustainable economy.


Group of people posing for camera
Women Climate Entrepreneurs Pitch Event: Financing Scalable Solutions event at the U.S. Center at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 8, 2023.

As government leaders, we are well-positioned to take up these suggestions. For example: we can encourage country negotiating delegations to include at least one youth representative; increase our own engagement with youth representatives in the leadup to negotiations; and ensure climate financing incorporates a higher risk tolerance for loans to young entrepreneurs.

I saw some of these solutions first-hand during the women climate entrepreneurs pitch competition hosted by the U.S. State Department, where four brilliant young women presented game-changing innovations. Sabrine Chennaoui of Tunisia is recycling waste cooking oil into natural cleaning products. Devleena Bhattacharjee from India is scaling seaweed production, which mitigates ocean acidification and sequesters carbon. Dubai-based Rana Hajirasouli is advancing circular economy solutions with a platform to connect small businesses with surplus products with consumers. And this year’s competition winner, Dana Shukirbayeva of Kazakhstan, has harnessed predictive data analytics to help make reforestation efforts more successful.


Group of women standing posing for camera
COP28 Women Climate Entrepreneurs Event.

While only a few were showcased, we know there are millions more innovative ideas out there.

At USAID, we’ve also recognized that they may face barriers to obtaining the financing needed to advance these solutions simply because they are young women. To address barriers that young entrepreneurs–especially those of marginalized identities–may face, we’re taking action. Our Climate Gender Equity Fund, launched in partnership with Amazon corporation, announced its first round of investments and some important new partnerships.  Our Youth Well-Being Prize Competition, launched last year, is encouraging young changemakers to develop innovative solutions for climate action.

There are three things that we in the U.S. government can do over the coming year to honor everything we heard:

  1. Ensure a seat at the table in policy-making. We must take a whole-of-government approach and commit to meaningful consultation with youth representatives. Together we can ensure negotiations better represent youth climate priorities.
  2. Move more climate financing for youth-led organizations. Increasing access to traditional finance for youth-led organizations will enable more and better solutions that benefit all of us.
  3. Invest more in relevant education, capacity building, and skills. We need the future generation to have the skills and capacity to be productive in the future green economy labor markets. More investment in ensuring our educational systems integrate climate-related education, strengthen green skills in workforce development programs, and invest in capacity strengthening of climate professionals, is vital to a just transition.


Panel of five women sitting, with four looking at one on the end with a microphone
Young women leaders speak at the COP28 Dear World Leaders Event.

President Biden issued a statement at the end of COP28:

“In every corner of the world, young people are making their voices heard, demanding action from those in power. They remind us that a better, more equitable world is within our grasp. We will not let them down.”

USAID is ready. Our Youth in Development Policy gives us the framework to support young people to have a better, stronger, collective voice in local and national systems via more effective services, practices, and policies. Next year, I hope all the young people I met will see the evidence that we heard their message.

This blog was originally published by USAID on LinkedIn

Strategic Objective
Adaptation, Integration, Mitigation
Circular Economy, Climate Finance, Education, Gender and Social Inclusion, Locally-Led Development, Mitigation, Training, Youth

Bama Athreya

Bama Athreya is USAID's Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Inclusive Growth, Partnerships, and Innovation overseeing the Bureau’s Inclusive Development and Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Hubs.

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