Intergenerational solidarity: What it is and why it matters for Europe's recovery

This excerpt comes from the report Green Deal for all: How to achieve sustainability and equity between the people, regions, countries and generations of Europe in a post-COVID-19 era. Photo © Jörg Farys / Fridays for Future

According to the legal scholar Edith Brown Weiss1, every generation needs to pass on the Earth and its natural resources in no worse conditions than it was received, by preserving the diversity of natural resources, maintaining the quality of the environment, and ensuring non-discriminatory access among generations to the Earth and its resources2.

Decisions made now – in the Green Deal and within recovery and reconstruction plans – will have long-lasting implications for future generations and must reflect the interests and views of younger citizens.

The current generation is running an ecological debt that future ones will have to pay back – with interest

Before the current crisis, with the rise in youth activism around climate change, the issues of intergenerational justice and solidarity rose to the top of the political agenda, both in the EU and at the UN. As the European Commission highlighted in its recent reflection Towards a sustainable Europe by 20303, the current generation is running an ecological debt that future ones will have to pay back – with interest.

The generations in power since the 1980s can plausibly be held responsible for the present situation of climate emergency, having failed to act effectively against the problem when it became clearly understood; more than half of all historical emissions have been emitted after 1990 as demonstrated by the chart below. A key question to address is how an effective response to the climate emergency and the other challenges can successfully and immediately consider generational justice issues.

More than half of all CO2 emissions since 1751 have been emitted since 1990

Despite the increased consensus around the need to address intergenerational equity, policy responses have so far been inadequate. Diverse participatory democracy approaches have been used to ensure that wide stakeholder groups are informed and consulted. However, these have proven limited with respect to the interest of future generations.

Many young people have the impression that they are not really ‘spoken with’ but rather ‘spoken to’. They feel their participation serves the purpose of ‘youth washing’ of certain policies or decisions, rather than being a genuine exercise in consultation and inclusion. Successful engagement and appropriate inclusion require a level of trust and open communication. Young people should be considered and involved as equal partners in a continuous dialogue (as opposed to one-off meetings) on policy development and processes, to which they can provide valuable contributions.

Beyond the issue of the unequal representation of interest in decision-making and democratic processes, intergenerational equity requires the following issues to be addressed:

  • Assessment of the cost of delayed or insufficient action to younger and future generations;
  • Principles for the equitable sharing of the remaining carbon budget;
  • Application of the precautionary principle in terms of the effects of long-term pollutants on future generations and the environment;
  • Carbon lock-in effects, lack of adaption and resilience of infrastructure and investments.

The economic recession is likely to affect youth disproportionately

That being said, the current crisis risks overshadowing these concerns and tilting decision-making even more either towards the very short-term or towards the interest of only some age groups.

The economic recession is also likely to affect youth disproportionately, as has been the case in previous crises through a rise in youth unemployment, impoverishment or inability to afford tertiary education due to loss of income of parents.4

Even before the crisis, young people faced an accumulation of problems which are not limited to only climate or environment. Although the situation has improved in recent years, youth unemployment, especially in southern Europe, remains significantly above national averages. Although it has decreased – from 24% in 2013 to less than 15% in 2019 – the EU’s youth unemployment rate remains very high. The average rate is more than double the overall unemployment rate (less than 7%) and masks big differences between countries.5

Proposals

Participation, inclusion in decision-making and consensus building

Building on the case of youth councils and citizen’s assemblies (see case study below) to propose new participation of youth in European decision-making processes.

  • Promoting the role of young parliamentarians in the European Parliament as well as European programmes to support greater youth involvement in voting and existing democratic processes, starting from the local level. 
  • Lowering the voting age to 16, which would go in the direction of giving more voice and power to the young generation in the current democratic setting with no new institutions.

Case study: Youth assembly Ireland

Ireland is a good example of positive youth involvement in politics. More than 150 young people from all 26 counties gathered for the event in the Dáil. Once the debate concluded, they announced their 10 recommendations on climate change.
Ireland has developed consultative mechanism of citizen assembly. The Citizens' Assembly was an exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society. With the benefit of expert, impartial and factual advice the 100 citizen Members considered among other issues, climate change. Their conclusions formed the basis of a number of reports and recommendations that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives.

The institutionalisation of duties/accountability to future generations

Building on several institutional precedents6, clear mechanisms to ensure accountability need to be put in place, to ensure equitable representation in decision-making and to rebuild the trust of the youth in democracy and the European project.

  • Full recognition at both EU and MS level of the rights of future generations (including to healthy environment, resources, nature, clean air and water) and mechanisms to ensure the observance of the rights of future generations. A concrete avenue for such recognition would be the integration of intergenerational justice in the framework of the new Climate Law, for instance, and the recognition of the importance of irreplaceable biodiversity to future generations.
  • Future Generation’s Ombudsman: The creation of an EU–level advisory role on the interests of future generations (as well as similar roles at the national level).7 The Fridays for Future movement and other recent manifestations of awareness of the problem have made the need for rapid progress in implementing solutions increasingly clear.
  • Include a “future generations” focus in the new climate science advisory body, proposed by the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.8 Establishing such a body would be an important step to addressing one of the calls of Fridays for Future leaders that politicians should “listen to the scientists”.This body should operate based on the identification of a list of areas where intergenerational justice issues need to be addressed. Options could include requiring the body’s progress reports to explicitly identify issues where policy choices risk loading costs onto future generations.

Case study: Ombudsman for Future Generations Hungary

Article P of Hungary’s Constitution provides that “[n]atural resources, in particular arable land, forests and the reserves of water, biodiversity, in particular native plant and animal species, as well as cultural assets shall form the common heritage of the nation; it shall be the obligation of the State and everyone to protect and maintain them, and to preserve them for future generations”. In 2007, the Hungarian Parliament created a special Ombudsman for Future Generations, which was grouped with other Ombudsmen in 2012 under the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. The Ombudsman for Future Generations holds the status of a Deputy Commissioner and reports annually to the Parliament. The Parliament elects the Ombudsman who has an overarching mandate to protect and monitor the interests of future generations.

Source: Environmental Rights Database. “Hungary’s Ombudsman for Future Generations”.

Mainstreaming and coherence with other policies

As part of the “green oath”, the Green Deal framework should ensure a genuine integration of intergenerational considerations in the policy cycle. Concrete avenues to do this include:

  • “Future-proofing” infrastructure plans within economic recovery plans by integrating discount rates that reflect long-term and future generations interest within decision-making.
  • As part of the reform of the semester, the Annual Sustainable Growth Strategy process should be complemented by a 2050 Strategy for Sustainable Prosperity, with long-term economic indicators (such as Gross Formation of Fixed capital), but also relevant indicators on well-being, sustainability and intergenerational equity, upon which progress from Member States would be assessed.
  • Integration into the Better Regulation Guidelines, which are also currently being reviewed to integrate SDGs:10 To live up to a green oath to ‘do no harm’, the explanatory memorandum accompanying all legislative proposals and delegated acts should include a specific section which explains the potential implications for future generations. Sound methodologies would need to be proposed to assess such impact.
  • Mainstreaming into sectoral policies that are currently under discussion: For instance, the Farm to Fork strategy and the CAP reform should have an explicit objective to protect the right of future generations to have access to healthy ecosystems and sustainable food systems, which will be capable of sustaining their nutrition needs. The annual Semester process, which is currently under review, should be complemented by a 2050 strategy for sustainable prosperity and growth, with relevant indicators on intergenerational equity, upon which progress from Member States would be assessed.

Synergies with education, youth unemployment and livelihood policies

  • Green jobs training should be integrated into adult learning programmes as part of a just transition and in vocational training for the youth. Up to 60 million new jobs in the green economy could potentially be created by 2030 – if properly managed, green growth can provide an opportunity to address the youth employment challenge while simultaneously preserving the environment and increasing climate resilience.11
  • Mainstreaming of sustainability issues within the EU Youth Strategy 2019-2027. The strategy notes that youth cooperation shall make the most of youth policy's potential. In the coming years, the strategy strives, among other things, to improve policy decisions with regard to their impact on young people across all sectors, notably employment, education, health and social inclusion. However, climate, environment and sustainability are not among the policy areas explicitly mentioned. This should be further addressed and prioritised.

Intergenerational solidarity

The COVID-19 pandemic will also disproportionately affect the elderly – for more than just health reasons

The COVID-19 pandemic will also disproportionately affect the elderly. In terms of casualties, numbers are likely to be higher amongst the elderly due to their vulnerability to respiratory diseases but also their living conditions.

This age group is also highly vulnerable to some of the impacts of climate change. Casualties linked to the extreme heat events are rising in Europe.12 Many elderly in Europe also live close to the poverty threshold: one in seven EU pensioners is at risk of poverty.13

These older citizens have very low fixed incomes and/or depend on their children’ incomes for subsistence. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to shocks, whether those are covariant (economic crises, natural disasters), idiosyncratic (disease, loss of household member) and to changes in the pricing of essential goods and services (cost of heating). Strengthening the resilience of the elderly should be at the heart of the reconstruction phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

At the same time, the elderly are an essential agent of change for the Green Deal and the recovery to the crisis, with many grandparents actively participating or promoting climate activism by their children and grandchildren. According to national reports on volunteering, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Romania, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden saw an increase in the number of volunteers amongst the elderly.14

There are multiple ways in which the older population can actively contribute to the implementation of the Green Deal, including through community work, voluntarism, behavioural changes like decreasing the carbon footprint and serving as a role model, and investments in green pension funds.

  • Taking into consideration the specific vulnerabilities of the elderly in Europe’s climate adaptation strategy but also in sectoral policies which might affect the prices of essential goods and services.
  • Promoting intergenerational dialogues as part of the processes around the Future of Europe conference and the climate pact: The societal recognition of the diversified understanding, needs and responsibilities of the various age groups (factoring in the rights of the future generations) can be reinforced through events that could bring together representatives of different age groups, to allow older generations the opportunity to interact and exchange views with young participants on specific topics.
  • Exploring European green volunteerism programme for pensioners. With the ageing of Europe’s population, pensioners could take a proactive role in the Green Deal and in managing nature and communal spaces. Links with the Erasmus + programmes should also be explored.
  • Greening pension fund decisions15: With over €4 trillion in assets, European pension funds should be a key avenue for the implementation of the Sustainable Finance action plan. This would highlight the profitability and viability of green financial products. Moreover, it would protect pension funds from investing in stranded assets and alleviate the regulators’ fear to take appropriate measures in the light of the environmental crisis. This would help to end the short-term mentality of the financial sector which, in turn, could regain the confidence of the younger segments of society.

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Sources

  1. Weiss, E. B. (2008) “Climate Change, Intergenerational Equity, and International Law” 9 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 615-627 https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1625 http://ssrn.com/abstract=2734420
  2. Charveriat, C., Monteville, M., Nesbit, M., Stainforth, T., Billingham, C. (2019) UNited for Climate Justice - Background paper, FEPS, https://www.feps-europe.eu/resources/publications/691-com_publications.publications.html
  3. European Commission. A Sustainable Europe by 2030. (2019) https://ec.europa.eu/commission/publications/reflection-paper-towards-sustainable-europe-2030_en
  4. Goldin, N. (13 March 2020) “If history repeats: Coronavirus’ economic danger to youth” Atlantic Council. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/if-history-repeats-coronavirus-economic-danger-to-youth/
  5. Youth employment, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1036
  6. Giuseppe Pellegrini-Masini, Fausto Corvino and Alberto Pirni, (2019) “Climate justice in practice: adapting democratic institutions for environmental citizenship” in A Research Agenda for Climate Justice, Harris, P. Ed. Edward Elgar Publishing. & Iñigo González-Ricoy and Axel Gosseries. (2016) Institutions For Future Generations. Oxford University Publishing.
  7. Nesbit, M. and Illés, A. (2015) Establishing an EU ‘Guardian for Future Generations’. Report and recommendations for the World Future Council, Institute for European Environmental Policy, London. https://ieep.eu/publications/establishing-an-eu-guardian-for-future-generations
  8. See for example the report at https://www.politico.eu/article/von-der-leyen-uses-climate-in-a-bid-to-get-commission-top-job/ which records that she “told the Renew Europe group that she wanted to set up a scientific council to measure climate progress”.
  9. Fridays for Future. “Greta’s Speeches”. Greta Thunberg Full Speech 2019-02-21 in Brussels: "We want politicians to listen to the scientists". https://www.fridaysforfuture.org/greta-speeches
  10. European Green Deal: p19.
  11. “Decent Jobs for Youth”, https://www.decentjobsforyouth.org/theme/green-jobs-for-youth. Accessed 10 April 2020.
  12. Climate Change Post. (26 August 2019) “Damage and fatalities extreme weather events in Europe on the rise”, https://www.climatechangepost.com/news/2019/8/26/damage-and-fatalities-extreme-weather-events-europ/;
    Irfan, U. (28 June 2019) “113 degrees in France: why Europe is so vulnerable to extreme heat”, Vox.
    https://www.vox.com/world/2019/6/26/18744518/heat-wave-2019-europe-france-germany-spain
  13. (15 January 2019) “1 in 7 pensioners at risk of poverty in the EU” https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/DDN-20190115-1
  14. (2010) Study on Volunteering in the European Union. Final Report. https://ec.europa.eu/citizenship/pdf/doc1018_en.pdf
  15. Rust, S. (9 March 2018) “EC sustainable finance action plan 'is important' for pension funds,” IPE News. https://www.ipe.com/ec-sustainable-finance-action-plan-is-important-for-pension-funds/10023582.article Della Croce, Raffaele & Kaminker, Christopher & Stewart, Fiona. (2011). “The Role of Pension Funds in Financing Green Growth Initiatives.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254439243_The_Role_of_Pension_Funds_in_Financing_Green_Growth_Initiatives; Pensions Europe. (2019) “Pension Funds Statistics and Trends 2018” https://www.pensionseurope.eu/system/files/PensionsEurope%20Pension%20Funds%20Statistics%20and%20Trends%202018.pdf