Why unborn children must be part of the UN climate deal

Stopping climate change means valuing the people not yet born as much as those alive today, argue youth delegates in Lima

By Anna Pérez Català and Leehi Yona

‘Youth are the future.’ We have heard and heard this sentence time and time again from negotiators at the Lima climate talks. But the truth is, I’m not sure if they understand what it means. 

In terms of climate change, youth are the future, and therefore will see the worsening of climate impacts. We will see sea level rising, ecosystems changing, populations moving. We will be the ones to feel its impacts on economy and society: we will fear for our children, for our jobs, and for our lives.

Without having to be very dramatic, it is easy to understand that a long-term and gradual process such as climate change will have more effects on generations to come, or young people.

That’s why Article 3.1 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change states that ‘the Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind’. People in this process should matter, and we need to acknowledge that what is being discussed in the negotiating rooms has an impact on people that are very young or may have yet to be born.


Equity in many senses has become one of the core components of the talks. And following that spirit, the Conference of the Parties yesterday celebrated its Young and Future Generations Day, which focused on intergenerational justice and proposals of young people, as active agents of change.

Intergenerational justice is essential to the understanding of youth participation in climate negotiations.

As young people, we are not only the moral voice at the United Nations, but we are also the face of future generations. We represent those who have not yet been born, those whose lives have been discounted as worthless. Young and Future Generations Day at the climate talks is about bringing the voices who aren’t heard into these halls, about bringing the future into the present.

Intergenerational justice, or equity, rests upon the assertion that the future is valued at a lesser rate than the present. The future costs of climate change and damage are discounted in the UN process, a significant roadblock when it comes to building the motivation to achieving a binding, fair, just, and ambitious agreement.

In economics, that’s what is called a discount rate: a cost-benefit analysis that renders future benefits derived as less valuable to benefits derived at present. Therefore, with that calculation, any measure to combat climate change it is cheaper if it is done in the future, thus easing inaction.

Current discount rates estimate that the lives of those born in the future are, effectively, worth 0$. This fact is why intergenerational justice is crucial to these negotiations – there should be no excuse for governments to dismiss or ignore the overwhelming cost of climate inaction.


There are challenges with intergenerational equity principles at these negotiations, most prominently the fact that governments appropriate the term and use it to tokenize youth.

Many governments – including the Canadian government – have responded to calls for intergenerational justice by asserting that they already incorporate it in their work by virtue of the agreements signed at the UN.

This appropriation is why the emphasis needs to be placed on a discount rate of 0% over simply requesting justice. Another important factor to keep in mind is common but differentiated responsibility – while the future cannot be forgotten, the past must never be dismissed either.

‘Youth are the future’ but also the present, and our voices need to be taken into account both inside and outside of the UNFCCC process.

At the moment, we are only tokenized and used as photo opportunities at this conference. If negotiators are serious about stating that we are their future, then they must walk their talk. Youth deserve, and demand, that their futures be deemed just as valuable as the present, and that they have a seat at the table.

Anna Pérez Català and Leehi Yona are at the UN climate talks in Lima as part of the Adopt a Negotiator programme

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