With the need to tackle climate change set to continue for the foreseeable future, raising young people’s awareness of the issue is more important than ever. Carsten Herbes, a European Climate Pact Ambassador and professor from Germany, is encouraging young people to jump in at the deep end of international climate negotiations.
My world: applying business sense to renewable energy
For Carsten, now director of the Institute for International Research on Sustainable Management and Renewable Energy at Nürtingen-Geislingen University in Germany, putting young people at the heart of the decision-making process is vital preparation for future action takers and policymakers who will be grappling with complex climate issues.
Key to that is helping them to understand the role of the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (COP) – the main international forum for reaching agreements on global climate issues. It meets every year to monitor climate action progress and negotiate further reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The EU is a central player in these negotiations, representing nearly 450 million citizens. Carsten believes it is crucial for the next generation of global citizens to become familiar with how these negotiations work. With that in mind, he runs simulated international climate negotiations to give students a taste of the process, and to underline the link between international cooperation and individual action.
But Carsten’s focus has not always been on climate. “I used to work as a management consultant, taking planes every week to visit clients,” he says. “I’d fly in on Monday, and out on Friday. It was crazy.” When he left consulting to work for a company producing bioenergy– renewable energy derived from biomass (organic material that comes from plants and animals) – he developed a deeper understanding of the connections between renewable energy and tackling climate change.
My action: helping young people step into other people’s shoes
After moving into teaching at a university, Carsten was keen to combine his vocation as an educator with his new understanding of climate change and show young people what is really at stake when negotiating solutions to the climate crisis. He began organising simulations which put around 50 ‘delegates’, made up of final-year high school pupils or first-year university students, in the shoes of climate negotiators, so that they can better understand their needs and perspectives.
Divided into groups and assigned a region or country – such as the EU, United States, India or Sub-Saharan Africa – the ‘delegates’ are given background information on the climate situation in their particular region. The disparity in the budgets and resources between the countries is conveyed to students in a very simple way: those role-playing as richer countries might find themselves seated and given snacks throughout the session, while those representing the less affluent regions might be sitting on the floor. While this naturally does not happen in real-life negotiations, it makes students realise that some regions of the world start from a significant disadvantage.
The simulation is designed to encourage students to think politically and strategically, and try to find consensus. For example, major greenhouse gas-emitting countries often have a completely different set of priorities to low-lying island countries, such as the Maldives, which are threatened by rising water levels. Carsten believes that equipping the next generation with an appreciation of other points of view will help in future discussions.
“The commitments negotiated are then fed into a software programme, which calculates how much they will influence the fight against climate change,” explains Carsten. “Students can see the impact of these decisions. For example, the effects of sea-level rises on cities such as London and New York are shown visually, bringing home the catastrophic impact that climate change will have, as well as the need for action and empathy.”
In a similar vein, Carsten is now organising a Sustainable Energy Futures summer school – a two-week programme that brings Japanese students over to join German students in Nürtingen. Working in multicultural groups, they analyse the marketing strategies of companies that sell renewable energy to consumers, to explore what motivates people to switch to a green energy supplier – a practical step people can take to live a more sustainable lifestyle . They also explore the different approaches taken by Japanese and German energy companies that position themselves as ‘green.’
A key aim for his summer school is to inspire climate action both in Europe and beyond, and to generate international dialogue on climate change. This, again, touches on the importance of empathy and understanding, which will be critical to a successful COP27 meeting in Cairo, Egypt, in November 2022.
Our planet: education as the key to tackling climate challenges
Hundreds of students have been involved in Carsten’s climate negotiation simulations over the years, and his 2022 summer school was heavily oversubscribed. He sees the European Climate Pact as a great opportunity to share his climate negotiation techniques with other educators. That includes sharing the free climate-negotiation role-play software he uses (C-ROADS), which was developed by the NGO Climate Interactive.
After each session, Carsten also encourages the students to think about what they can do to make a difference as individuals, such as flying less, switching to renewable energy or reducing their meat consumption. This is to emphasise that, when it comes to climate change, all of us – from international policymakers to individual citizens – have a responsibility to act, and there is a link between high-level decision-making and effective action that can be taken on the ground. “One aim is for my students to connect what they have just done with their everyday life,” explains Carsten.
It is precisely this individual action that the European Climate Pact promotes. Carsten also sees the Pact as the ideal platform to help bridge political and cultural differences by bringing together activists, scientists and citizens from different countries.
“I would love to run simulations with businesses and other organisations too,” says Carsten. “This is something that the Climate Pact could really help with – finding and connecting with groups of people who are interested.”
Education can play a critical role in addressing the issue of climate change, equipping people with the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes to tackle it, and empowering them to make informed decisions. In line with this, the European Council recommendation from June 2022 provides EU countries with ideas for developing learning and teaching that supports the transition to a green economy and sustainable development – in all phases of education and training. By championing simulated global climate talks, Carsten is contributing to this objective. “I want my students to see business opportunities and realise that tackling climate change is not just an unwelcome obligation, but something that – with the right skills – they could do as a career. That would really be great,” says Carsten.