By now, it’s well-known that young people are at the forefront of the global protest movement demanding climate action — marching in the streets, staging sit-ins, and rallying the public. For every televised speech by Greta Thunberg, thousands of other youth leaders are organizing in their own communities and activating new sources of power.

But what are they doing to stop the causes of climate change and transform living conditions worldwide? The answer, it turns out, is a lot.

Young people are both the galvanizing force within the movement for systemic change and often the ones building the transition to a new status quo. In particular, young people are creating energy alternatives that phase out fossil fuels and build community resilience.

The big-picture energy solutions of tomorrow revolve around offshore windmills, more efficient solar panels, and nuclear fusion facilities — projects that require extraordinary funding and expertise. But there are still 760 million people around the world without reliable access to energy. Getting ahead of the energy crisis of tomorrow also means addressing the energy deficits of today. That means bringing affordable, efficient, and clean energy solutions to communities worldwide. 

The organization Student Energy provides a networking platform for young people working in this field and has attracted more than 50,000 students in 120 countries who are working on a range of mainstream and cutting-edge energy solutions. In light of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change’s reports that the world needs to halve global emissions by 2030, the more people working on energy solutions, the better. And the enthusiasm and inventive thinking that characterizes today’s youth is perhaps best suited to this generation-defining task.

Student Energy is aiming to raise $150 million by 2030 to support energy projects by young people around the world. More broadly, the group helps young people with skills development, financing opportunities, and networking

Students affiliated with Student Energy are working on projects that affect all aspects of life. After all, overcoming the climate crisis will involve a fundamental restructuring of daily life, especially for people in high-income countries.

Jordyn Burnouf, a member of the Black Lake First Nation, is working to bring clean energy solutions and Indigenous land-care techniques to communities across Canada. Currently, the country has one of the highest per-capita emissions rates in the world due to its heavy reliance on fossil fuels and lavish consumption patterns. With insights from Indigenous cultures who have long existed in harmony with nature, Canada can begin to bring its exorbitant emissions rates down. 

The entrepreneur Kakembo Galabuzi Brian, CEO of WEYE Clean Energy Company in Uganda, is providing households with a more sustainable form of fuel for cooking. Rather than chopping down trees to burn wood, the project trains communities to turn agricultural waste into charcoal briquettes that release less pollution and protect forests.  

In Indonesia, a team of students is creating solar street lights and electric bike networks to reduce transportation-based emissions.

Santiago Antonio Espinosa de los Monteros Harispuru co-founded the startup Toroto in Mexico to facilitate carbon capture programs, and Austin Zacharko of the Metis Nation of Alberta, Canada, is working on wine, solar, and thermal projects.  

With the help of Student Energy, these and other innovators are developing energy compacts at the local, regional, and national levels to get the world closer to achieving the goals of the Paris climate agreement. In the aftermath of COP26, which featured woefully inadequate commitments by world leaders, these energy compacts will be crucial for establishing the concrete policies and securing the necessary finance for an energy revolution.

And students, so used to operating on shoestring budgets, are showing that with just a little bit of funding, the world can both leapfrog and phase out the dirty forms of energy that are warming up the atmosphere.  

“For decades, youth ambition and motivation have existed to transition our world to a more sustainable and equitable energy system; there just simply hadn’t been the resourcing to bridge that motivation into action,” Meredith Adler, executive director of Student Energy, said in a press release announcing the organization. 

“Launching the solutions movement, we’re shifting gears into taking action and deploying the energy and technology solutions we already have at our fingertips.”

Community Heroes

Defend the Planet

Students Aren't Just Protesting for Climate Action — They're Changing How We Get Energy

By Joe McCarthy