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Our sustainability movement goes global

Friday 09-10-2015 - 09:00

Today I'm celebrating the launch of Students Organising for Sustainability - helping students across the world to take action on a global scale.

It’s been a transformative decade for students and sustainability. Ten years ago, we were fixing leaky urinals to save water in our students’ unions. Five years ago, our green work was producing amazing volunteering opportunities. Today, sustainability is at the core of student politics, recognised as one of our most pressing social justice issues.

Our student movement has always fought for progressive causes, and sustainability is the latest in our proud history. We create social norms of pro-environmental behaviours across campuses and communities, and work with institutions to make sure that all students leave their time in education with the skills and experiences they need for the work of the decades ahead.

It’s now at the heart of our political life too. Just look at divestment. Thousands of students are demanding that their institutions pull their money out of the destructive fossil fuel industry, because they know it’s the right and responsible thing to do.

The effects of a world committed to 4 degrees warming would disproportionately affect the world’s poorest – the people who have contributed the least to the problem. It would also disproportionately affect black people and women. Billions could be displaced, starved and killed by the civilisation-threatening humanitarian disaster that our inaction will cause. And that’s why we’re taking action.

But we’re only 600 students’ unions. We only have 140 higher education institutions. We only represent 2.3 million out of the 130 million students in higher education across the entire world. Even if we perfected sustainable development, it’s not much use if we only manage it in the UK. We need to tackle this globally.

This is why sustainability is different to any other social justice campaign. Of course, issues like gender equality, racial oppression and economic injustice are global struggles. But national victories can make real differences to people’s lives. Just ask anyone who’s had a same sex marriage in the last year or so. These legislative wins make a real and meaningful difference.

This is less true with sustainability. Of course, national action is crucial, and local benefits can be felt. It’s great to get more green spaces into our communities and take action on biodiversity, for instance. But no campaign is going to keep the UK’s climate hospitable without global collaboration. All the money in the world won’t buy us a country free from the effects of 4 degrees warming.

We can’t simply tackle this within our own borders. Students from across the world need to unite to drive the solutions to our social, economic and environmental problems. And that’s what SOS is all about.

At the Eden Project today, I’m incredibly proud to celebrate the launch of Students Organising For Sustainability – an international alliance of student and youth groups taking action on sustainability. We can collaborate. We can share good practice. We can campaign and we can win. When our governments fail on their commitments, we can turn the attention of the world’s young people onto them, and pressure them into thinking about long-term politics, rather than short-term profits.

Because this isn’t an issue which just needs unprecedented global collaboration. Our responses also have to forge new alliances between the young and the old, and make sure that today’s youth and future generations aren’t put at risk by today’s decisions.  Only last week, the governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney admitted these are problems which “this generation has little incentive to fix”. But SOS will be able to provide the incentive. We’ll be too powerful to ignore.

The UN climate talks in Paris this year are a perfect example of the sort of thing which could do with the influence of a strong, unified voice of students globally. We’ve seen that initial pledges from nations are unlikely to make much of a dent in the sharp reductions in carbon we badly need to see. But the solutions are so clear. We need to leave 80 per cent of fossil fuels in the ground, and transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050.

This is our only chance of staying below that critical 2 degree threshold, and that’s what students around the world are calling for. But the rich still continue to exploit the voiceless poor. The old still compromise the futures of the young. The actions of our leaders don’t address the scale of the problem. And that’s why it’s up to us as a student movement – a global student movement – to lead instead. 

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