Politicians grilled by high school students on sustainable development
Finnish youngsters had a chance to meet three ministers in person this week, and ask them about issues related to well-being and sustainable development.
Today’s high school pupils have not had much chance to affect international policies on sustainable development, since they were not even born when these policies were first shaped at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992.
On 7 of May young people from Etelä-Tapiola Upper Secondary School in Espoo, just west of capital Helsinki, were able to direct questions about sustainable development to three prominent Finnish politicians: minister for foreign affairs Erkki Tuomioja, minister for international development Heidi Hautala and environment minister Ville Niinistö. These issues are particularly timely this month, with the United Nations’ Rio+20 Summit coming up in June.
The students’ questions concerned issues including overconsumption and how we should define well-being and a sufficient standard of living. “Well-being does not mean that on top of meeting our basic needs we need more and more goods whose production uses up natural resources,” answered Erkki Tuomioja.
The youngsters reported that they often think about their own lifestyles and consumer behaviour. According to Kaisa Matikainen, some young people today don’t think about the future of the planet at all, but many more are increasingly concerned about sustainable development and the consequences of conspicuous consumption. “Perhaps we worry about these issues even more than some adults,” she said.
Although individual consumers’ choices can make a difference, the ministers emphasised that politicians must shape legislation that enables and encourages favourable choices. Some of these policies can be very simple. “Some East African countries are currently discussing a possible tax on plastic bags,” said Heidi Hautala. ”This is an unbelievable example of an area where Africa is making progress in shaping a green economy, but we aren’t.”
Ministers in two minds on palm oil
The ministers were also asked their opinions on the use of palm oil in biofuels. This was one of the few issues on which they disagreed: Niinistö was against its use, pointing out that the destruction of rainforests in Indonesia is partly due to palm oil production; but Tuomioja was more favourable, explaining that it is possible to produce biofuels in ecologically sustainable ways, though this is not always the case today.
Hautala described the problem as complex – with one factor being that rich countries like the EU member states and the US are constantly trying to increase the use of biofuels, which can lead to increases in the unsustainable production of biofuels. “The EU’s targets must be revised, in order to take all of the life cycle impacts of biofuels into consideration,” she said.
More concise and more concrete answers, please
The Rio+20 Summit aims to promote sustainable development more concretely, and to assess how the world has made progress since the first such summit was held in Brazil back in 1992. There have been fears that the summit might be a flop, but Ville Niinistö believes it could represent a genuine opportunity to start the process of setting global targets on issues such as the sustainable use of natural resources. “That doesn’t mean to say that this will be enough,” he said. “I really wonder whether the young people here today will in 50 years time have a high standard of living that is sustainable environmentally…”
Niinistö also expressed concern that it can be hard for young people to get their voices heard, even though they will have to live for decades with the consequences of decisions made today. Some of the students present clearly felt that they had little political influence. “No effective model to enable young people to participate has yet been devised, though many of us would have opinions to share,” said Eemil Nuuttila. “New ways must be found to listen to the opinions of young people.”
The high school students were mainly satisfied with the ministers’ answers, though Vilma Saarinen and Annie Talvasto felt their responses should have been more concise and more concrete. “There should be more action on top of words,” said Saarinen. “It’s always the case with politicians that they talk vaguely – but there were some good answers, too.”
Saarinen hoped that the ministers would remember the concerns expressed by the young people during their school visit, at least sub-consciously.
By Teija Laakso / maailma.net
Photos: Eero Kuosmanen