At an age where many of his peers aspire to get the latest sneakers or video games, Ali Shahbaz had his eyes on a much larger prize: attending Rio+20, the biggest conference in the history of the United Nations with over 45,000 participants. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) took pl ace in June and from the moment he found out about it at the start of the year, the then 15-year-old Pakistani began a relentless campaign to convince his government’s leaders that his generation needed to be represented. Ali spent several hours a day, every day, emailing officials and anyone who would listen.
It worked: in May, the Lahore-based teen was invited to represent the country’s youth at the National Consultation on Green Economy in Islamabad, where he gave a presentation. “I said it was their obligation to include a youth delegate because the next UNCSD conference, the Stockholm+40, is not going to happen for another 20 years, so we need to start awareness at this point.
“They were also convinced because they thought a 15-year-old could only play soccer and be at school but there I was,” says Ali, who is now 16.
His impassioned speech, which can be viewed on YouTube, had the desired effect and with just two weeks to go before the June 20 convention, Ali got word that he was going to Rio de Janeiro. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute ( SDPI ) announced Ali as its youth ambassador.
At the time, SDPI executive director Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri said he hoped Ali’s representation at Rio+20 would help to flag a positive image of Pakistan, its youth and its potential to the world community – a huge responsibility to place on such young shoulders.
But it quickly became obvious the high school student, who had to juggle his environmental activism with his GCE O-level examinations, was more than up to the task. The outspoken teen already has very clear ideas on what his country needs in order to make progress on green issues.
“Half of the world’s population is under the age of 25 and when they are not involved in the decision-making process, they are not aware of what is taking place,” he says. “Once we provi de environmental education, [the youth] will become more aware of the issues that we are facing, such as climate change and biodiversity. Once t hey have sound awareness, they will be able to think critically and come up with viable solutions," Ali says, emphatically.
Ali’s father is an engineer at the natural gas resource headquarters and his mother teaches deaf students at a special school. They’re both sup- portive of his passion but also keep a close eye on him. “They check up on me, what am I doing, how am I doing it and is it the right way?” he says. He also has two younger siblings.
So what did he learn during the conference? Well, for one, an event touting sustainable development may not itself be very environmentally friendly. “I was stunned to see that it had a huge carbon footprint – it was fully air-conditioned and we used polystyrene and plastic cups,” Ali says. Another example: at such conferences involving political elements, there is room for huge clashes.
“I learned you have to be diplomatic, very precise and straightforward, but then also sugarcoat your words and crosscheck that they don’t harm the progress of other people on your side.”
The great part about all the publicity he received from being the first youth representative in the Pakistani delegation, as well as the youngest participant at Rio+20, is that people in government and the NGO sector now know him and pick up his calls. “I now have more allies, support, recognition, and resources, and can work more effectively,” Ali says.
At press time, he was raising funds to attend UNFCCC COP18, an annual conference on climate change that took place in Qatar earlier this month. “You can’t stop after attending one event . One thing the government hasn’ t realised is that they haven’ t made the youth a priority as yet. They don’t have a youth action plan. This is something I need to work on.”