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Geopolitical tensions overshadow climate change, food security, say speakers at global summit for young leaders

Geopolitical tensions and conflicts between countries are holding the world back from resolving major concerns such as climate change and mental health.

Business leader Paul Polman said the world has waited too long to address some of these global problems, resulting in “enormous costs” in various areas from biodiversity destruction to food crises.

“Wherever we look, we see costs coming in that are becoming significantly higher than what we actually would have had to spend to avoid these issues in the first place,” said Mr Polman, who was sharing his views on the sidelines of the One Young World Summit in Belfast. 

The annual summit convenes the brightest young talent around the world to work together to accelerate social impact. 

CLIMATE ACTION AS AN ‘ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY’

Some 2,000 young delegates from over 190 countries are in the Northern Ireland capital for the four-day forum, which ends on Thursday. 

“While most of the issues are global and need to be tackled together, we seem to be growing apart,” he told CNA’s Asia Now.

“The young people have an enormous amount of energy … they understand it’s their future that is at stake and they don’t want us to hold back, especially when it comes to these burning issues.”

However, the problem “is that the speed and scale with which we attack the issues are not sufficient”, he said. 

NEED FOR RIGHT LEADERS TO RUN COUNTRIES, COMPANIES

To reach the aim of limiting the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degree Celsius under the Paris Agreement, emissions need to reach net zero by 2050.

“What we now need is the right policies and the right consistency of these policies. (But) what we see is that many of the politicians, under the pressure of short-term political cycles, are choosing the easier route of being re-elected, whilst doing damage to the long-term health of this planet,” said Mr Polman. 

“We also need businesses to step up. Many businesses that have made commitments on climate change are not yet in line with what the science tells us.”

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He believes the real issue then is one of leadership. 

“At the end of the day, we have the tools to tackle it. We now need the willpower,” he said. 

“So perhaps it’s more of an issue of greed, apathy or selfishness, and we need to ensure that we have the right leaders running these companies, running these countries.”

Mr Polman added that food security is also a concern highlighted at the summit. 

“Our food system itself is a very destructive system. It drives poverty and deforestation. It depletes our water,” he said, noting that food systems alone account for over one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

“And yet if we turn that around, restore our forests, get our soils to be healthier, and get more nutritious food, we can actually make it 30 per cent of the solution.”

Observers said the One Young World Summit gives young leaders a chance to connect, share insights and confront the biggest challenges facing humanity. 

During the summit, young delegates are mentored by influential political, business and humanitarian leaders. 

Past speakers at the event include Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, actress Emma Watson and former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Former Afghan Women’s Minister Hasina Safi, who is one of the speakers this year, said the summit is an opportunity to guide the younger generation and build a more stable future. 

“As an elder generation, as a generation (that) has experienced more times of achievements and failures, it’s an opportunity to share with them and give them the realities in order to move forward and bring back the stability, which is almost vague around the world,” the civil society and women rights activist told CNA’s Asia Now. 

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ENCOURAGING YOUNG LEADERS

At the summit, young delegates attend workshops and networking sessions, as well as listen to prominent speakers. 

One Young World peace ambassador and registered nurse Zoya Miari, who was a refugee twice, said sharing her experiences helps to encourage fellow young leaders.

She was raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon before her family moved to Ukraine for a fresh start, only to have her life disrupted by the Russian invasion. 

“I remember (growing up) as a child in a Palestinian refugee camp, I used to feel ashamed of my reality for living in a refugee camp, for living in a single room with my whole family for the first 15 years of my life,” she said. 

“(And then) I was escaping the war in Ukraine – death was very near – and I thought if I make it out alive, I’m not gonna be the silent Zoya anymore.”

Ms Miari, who is now residing in Switzerland, said the hardships of being a refugee has given her a new perspective on life. 

“It’s true that wars and occupations bring so much trauma, struggles and pain. But I also want to focus on the side where it also brings so much resilience and so much strength,” she added. 

“We, as refugees, are put in a situation where we often victimise ourselves because of wars we did not choose, because of struggles we did not choose. 

“We should not let these struggles define us, but rather, our resilience.”

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