Published on May 31, 2024

You(th) have a say in shaping the EU’s just transition

, Joanna Jakubowska (CEE Bankwatch)

Picture a large, stuffy room within European Commission headquarters usually reserved for formal gatherings. On 19 April, at an event that officially concluded the EUTeens4Green initiative, the space was transformed by the infectious energy of over a hundred young leaders. These EUTeens4Green ambassadors shared their inspiring messages and passionate stories, calling on the EU to involve the young generation in climate action.  

Among the many inspiring speeches, Damjan Kozarov, a student from Greece, delivered a poignant reminder that the future of our planet rests in the hands of young people, calling for collective action to make sustainability more than just an idea – to make it a way of life, a legacy to pass on to future generations. 

The young people’s powerful voices and impassioned pleas for green policies resonated deeply with all in attendance, including high-level representatives of the European Commission. They conveyed a strong sense of purpose and urgency, highlighting the importance of youth leadership in shaping a European future based on solidarity, inclusion, and sustainability. 

The event also served as a fitting celebration and reflection on the achievements of the two-year EUTeens4Green journey. The initiative, spearheaded by the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO), was conceived as a way of empowering young people to embrace the transition goal of the European Green Deal – a climate-neutral economy that’s fair, sustainable, and leaves no one behind.  

A key aim of the initiative was to address the many challenges faced by Europe’s just transition regions, not least the dreaded ‘brain drain’ that so often plagues regions in transition. As they embark on significant transformations, these regions are required to reshape not only their economies, but also their social structures and identities. And this is where schemes like EUTeens4Green can make such a difference. 

Green innovation blooms across the EU 

The success of EUTeens4Green, an initiative that saw EUR 10 000 in direct funding going to each of the youth-led projects in the just transition regions, has exceeded all expectations. We’ve seen the planting of hundreds of trees, new blossoming gardens, the establishment of installations like escape rooms showing the consequences of climate change, workshops on sustainability, art exhibitions, cycling festivals, and much more.  

The official EUTeens4Green booklet, which lists all of the projects implemented in the 19 EU Member States over the past two years, showcases the creativity and transformative impact these initiatives have had not only on young people but also on their local communities.  

On the island of Crete, for example, a group of young people installed a green rooftop on their university campus, enhancing the beauty of their environment while delivering social and economic impacts associated with the low-carbon transition. Their initiative has helped foster a broader understanding of the interconnectedness between ecological responsibility and community well-being.  

In the Czech Republic, a group of young people from the town of Šluknov on the German border set up the Young Friendly Region project. By promoting the natural beauty of their local environment, they’ve proved that this excluded location is actually a place where young people can live fulfilling lives, realise their dreams, and transform the future development of their region.  

In Romania, the Ride a Bike 4 Green Life project promotes the daily use of bicycles and the benefits of adopting a healthy lifestyle. As a result, bicycle use has increased, and participants are now more aware of sustainable behaviours, envisioning a greener future and inspiring others in their community. The project’s success has led to plans for further cycling competitions and campaigns promoting other non-polluting forms of transport. These are just a few of the many inspiring projects that have been rolled out across the EU.  

Empowering young people to flourish 

One unique aspect of EUTeens4Green is that all of the grantees were given the freedom to come up with their own ideas and execute them from start to finish. On top of that, the streamlined selection process, tailored to suit different age groups, meant that none of the topics and methods were imposed ‘from on high’. On the contrary, participants were fully empowered to propose sustainable activities that made sense for the environments in which they live. In this way, EUTeens4Green is a great example of an initiative fully rooted in the local context, free from any political pressure from the Brussels bubble or national authorities.  

It also demonstrates that empowered young people can positively affect their own lives and the lives of others. The already visible effects of EUTeens4Green show that entrusting young people with agency and the freedom to make their own decisions – as opposed to in a token way – nurtures their leadership skills, enables them to engage with diverse stakeholders in their communities, spark dialogue, and inspire others to take action.  

Learning lessons for a more sustainable future 

The impact of initiatives that provide both financial and administrative support for youth-led projects is undeniable. When allocating funds, the EU, along with national and regional authorities, should prioritise the needs of the younger generation and create tailored programmes that unlock their potential. This is especially true of the just transition regions, which have experienced a significant decline in the populations of their youngest and most talented citizens. For example, the traditional mining region of Jiu Valley in southwestern Transylvania in Romania has endured over two decades of poorly planned transitions, remaining in their home towns.  

Thankfully, the Just Transition Mechanism has created an opportunity for Jiu Valley to reverse unsuccessful practices and create an attractive environment for its residents, including young people. Ten inspiring EUTeens4Green projects located in Romania, including Jiu Valley, have demonstrated that young people are determined to become actively involved in shaping the future of their regions, a sentiment echoed by Valentin Foger, a young participant from Spain, at the final conference: ‘We’re here, we’re unified, and we’re asking you to give us the tools to fight for our future!’  

Sustaining the momentum of youth 

Through their actions, these young EUTeens4Green ambassadors have ably demonstrated their creativity, problem-solving skills, and commitment to addressing the most pressing environmental and social challenges within their regions. That’s why building on the momentum established by initiatives like EUTeens4Green is so important. The EU must coordinate efforts to ensure that all of these ambitious people receive the necessary tools and support to implement their projects, ultimately making Europe greener, more inclusive, and more attractive to young people. 

To ensure decision makers heed the lessons learned from EUTeens4Green and effectively involve young people in policymaking, the initiative has published a report – Empowering youth in Cohesion Policy: Lessons from EUTeens4Green. The report provides policymakers with comprehensive policy recommendations, including creating dedicated channels for youth engagement through youth councils, regular consultations and follow-up mechanisms, providing funding for youth-led just transition projects, developing youth-focused indicators to gauge success within the cohesion policy, prioritising educational and training programmes, and raising awareness and building capacity among young people. 

Planting seeds for a better tomorrow 

As emphasised during the conference, young people should continue ‘planting seeds’ in local communities to put more pressure on European, national, and regional institutions to address climate change and drive the green transformation across the EU. Given the multitude of crises affecting the world today, coupled with the ongoing distrust in politics, initiatives like EUTeens4Green are now more crucial than ever. Encouraging the perspectives of young people is also particularly important in the context of the upcoming European elections, where young voters will have the opportunity to exercise their rights and shape the future of their countries.