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Democracy in Action

In our articles series leading up to Stockholm+50, we cover youth activists with clear demands on world leaders to solve the ecological crisis. Last out is Björn Fondén from Sweden, who found his way from an environmental society at school to the UN system. Today, he is one of the leading youth voices in the run up to Stockholm+50, with a clear message to both youth and senior change makers.

Was the target going to be 2.0 or 1.5 degrees Celsius? That was long the open question at the UN Climate Conference COP21 in Paris back in 2015.

At that time the 18 year old Swede Björn Fondén was there in Paris at that historic moment of humankind. He travelled there with a Swedish youth organisation and took to the streets, outside the venue, in the Red Line Demonstration amongst people from all around the world. The Red Line symbolised the critical 1.5 degree Celsius border of temperature increase relative to pre-industrial levels, which humankind must not cross in order to have a “safe, just, and livable planet”.

The Paris Accord ended with a disappointment to the demonstrators as the wording “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” was and is far too weak.

Today, Björn Fondén looks back at the experience as a life-changing moment.

"I understood that I did not only want to stand outside these rooms but also be inside where the decisions are taken regarding our future."
Youth activists across the world raised their voices for stronger decisions to protect their future at COP21 in Paris. Björn stands in the centre of the picture to the left.

Björn’s environmental engagement had already started in upper secondary school in his hometown Lidköping. Together with some friends, he started a small society which worked with reducing the school’s ecological footprint. His interest then got him to study environmental sciences and involve himself in the civil society, which paved the way for the COP21 in Paris.

After the disappointment of the Paris negotiations, Björn decided to roll up his sleeves for real. It became absolutely clear to him that he would have to play a large role himself to set things right again, since world leaders had failed to take science seriously.

"I understood that we can and must decide for ourselves what future we want to shape."

Thanks to his vitalised ambitions, the National Council of Swedish Youth Organisations LSU selected him as the Swedishyouth delegate to the United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) in 2017, responsible for the review of the 2030 Agenda, including the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This further increased his drive to make a difference as much as his understanding of the crucial role the private sector must play in shaping a sustainable transition. Following his graduation, he therefore decided to take on a new role as a sustainability advisor at the Swedish branch of the international consulting firm Grant Thornton. After a few years working on sustainability in the private sector, he returned to the UN system, more specifically, within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) stationed in Bangkok, Thailand. Since last year, he is studying a master's in Global Economic Governance and Public Affairs organised by the Italian LUISS School of Government & CIFE, in order to acquire more tools to effectively push the society into a more sustainable direction.

In 2017, Björn acted as the Swedish Youth Delegate to the UN HLPF.

When the possibility of getting involved in the Youth Task Force leading up to Stockholm+50 opened, he was of course one to embark. Composed of about 50 young people around the globe and set up by the United Nations Environment Programme Major Group for Children and Youth (UNEP MGCY), LSU and the Swedish Government, the Youth Task Force has conducted multiple consultations and dialogues in order to gather demands from youth globally to the meeting. They have also prepared a Youth Handbook aimed at local, regional and national groups to conduct consultations in their own communities. According to Björn, this kind of involvement is in many ways democracy in action.

"If young people do not get involved today, then who will do it in the future? We will be the ones sitting where the politicians are today, so it is important that young people are learning and understanding how to influence things in the right direction already today."

Young people comprise over 40% of the global population. Despite this, it is not a matter of course to involve youth in decision making.

"We have a right to be represented in the rooms where decisions are made. How can you say that you are for democracy if you leave out a large part of the world's population?"

Even when youth take part, it can be hard for youth, indigenous people and other marginalised groups to influence decision-making in the global meeting tables. Therefore, a deep inclusion is of large importance to Björn.

"The knowledge and commitment we bring is important. We are the most connected generation ever, we have new ideas and come up with new creative solutions. We are not fully shaped by the society that has taken us to where we are today. Thus, we have the opportunity to come up with transformative solutions that do not necessarily stick to today's non-functioning system."

So, if democratic countries are better in including young people and if young people bring progressive, fresh ideas to decision-makers, why are for instance the Nordic countries far from successful in realising global sustainability goals?

"We are very good at patting ourselves on the back and saying how good we are and that we have reduced emissions, but it is done from an extremely high base level. For example, we still have a remarkably high carbon footprint per person - 2 to 3 times more than what is sustainable."
"In a Western context, we have historically stood for, and even now stands for, a large share of emissions and a big ecological footprint. It is definitely a question for us as citizens to educate ourselves and put pressure on our politicians to make the necessary decisions. As citizens of a democratic state, we can not blame anyone but ourselves for not taking responsibility."

Having worked for the UNFCCC in Bangkok, Björn is aware of the challenges that the Global South faces in the transition to a sustainable society.

Soon, the Youth Task Force will release their final Position Paper to Stockholm+50. Reading the last draft to the Position paper, it is obvious that it sets large expectations on the meeting participants. For instance it demands the international community to set up a Fossil Fuel Non Proliferation Treaty and recognice ecocide as an international crime.

"Some world leaders want to come to Stockholm+50, including the chairing Swedish and Kenyan governments, to celebrate 50 years of environmental cooperation. It is clear that some progress has been made but overall, we have gone in a completely wrong direction. We are halfway to 2030 and we are not even close to reaching our goals. World leaders now must take responsibility for our future and make brave decisions."
"Governments have not delivered on their promises since 1972 and they will not do so on the promises they have made so far, unless we citizens and young people hold them accountable."

Björn’s panacea cannot be more clear than this: Stronger democracies will be the only solution to solving the crises, and youth involvement is key in implementing democracy. Björn has himself become one brilliant example of democracy in action. Since he was able to change his post-Paris desperation into power of action, he has indeed demonstrated that a passion to contribute to the solutions is such a strong driving force that it can take one anywhere.

"Getting involved in the local environmental society at school was the best thing I have done, and this work will for sure shape my entire life. The fight to shape a better, more sustainable world will always remain, and we need everyone to get on board!"

It was here, in his hometown Lidköping, Björn started his long engagement in global sustainability issues.

Perhaps it also strikes you now, having read the articles on Jonas Kittelsen and Maija Kuivalainen as well, that they all seem to harbour a unique mindset which offers meaning in their pursuit of something higher than themselves. They all understand that the entry point for a system change is a coordinated bottom-up mass movement of young people with a clear vision. This movement would be the only chance to change the balance of power and, hence, the course of history. Jonas, Maija and Björn implore us not to wait for the leaders to come forth, but that we should become them ourselves.

With more youth joining this movement, I am sure this time the people will have the last word during the 50 years to come.

Article and interview were written by:

Simon Holmström

Nordic Council Delegate to Stockholm+50

Connect with Björn on:

Read the previous article on Jonas Kittelsen here.

Read the previous article on Maija Kuivalainen here.

The call for participants to the ReGeneration Week 2022 has opened! Register today to secure your place and connect with current and future change-makers in the Nordic and Baltic Sea Region.


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