Toronto’s net zero carbon plan needs young people — researchers are helping get them involved

A protestor with a sign reading "Cherish or Perish"
U of T researchers are co-designing a youth engagement strategy with the City of Toronto as part of an ambitious plan to drastically reduce carbon emissions city-wide (Photo by Unsplash).

Alexa Battler

The City of Toronto plans to reduce city-wide carbon emissions to net zero by 2040, and U of T researchers are helping make sure young people play a key role in reaching its goal. 

A new report outlining best practices will guide researchers as they co-design a youth engagement strategy with the city for its TransformTO Net Zero Strategy — one of the most ambitious plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North America. Researchers will spend the next year working with youth climate activists and youth-led organizations to begin pilot projects and boost existing programming, all while studying which approaches work best and why. 

“We’re helping support the change while we're studying the change,” says Laura Tozer, co-author of the report and assistant professor in the department of physical and environmental sciences at U of T Scarborough. “We have lots of research questions around what young people think a good life would look like in Toronto’s net zero carbon transition and how we would get there.”

A photo of Laura Tozer
Laura Tozer's research focuses on energy governance and how urban settings can become sustainable (Submitted photo).

The project, dubbed Youth Climate Action in Toronto, will also study ways to support young people from historically marginalized communities in overcoming the additional barriers they face, such as stereotypes and a lack of representation in environmental work. Several research questions and initiatives will focus on ways to reach underrepresented demographics and communities, and amplify their voices.

Researchers plan to support about eight pilot projects so far. For example, Eve Tuck and Fikile Nxumalo, associate professors at U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), are working with the Tkaronto CIRCLE Lab to run an afterschool workshop where Black and Indigenous youth are designing a land education program focused on climate justice. One initiative led by Dr. Michael Classens is examining how youth’s work on improving food justice can overlap with climate action, while another will study ways to spread the word on climate change in ways that address, not exacerbate, the significant impact the climate crisis has on youth mental health.  

“We really want to fundamentally resource the action that is already being taken,” says Tozer, director of the IMPACT Lab, a research group focused on climate change policy and action. “This project is really about supporting the way that young people want to do this work.”

Several initiatives are bridging different fields of study — a core aspect of the U of T centre co-funding the project, the Climate Positive Energy Initiative. Many of the centre’s experts — which span scientists, engineers and economists to social scientists and policy researchers — are bringing different research questions and insights to the project.

“It's very diverse interdisciplinary team coming at this question for a lot of different angles,” Tozer says.

Report highlights opportunities and obstacles to engaging youth

The researchers’ report lays out best practices gleaned from existing research and their own interviews with young climate activists, city employees and youth engagement specialists, which probed what makes young people want to take action, or avoid it.

They found youth are deeply worried about climate change, so much that it’s harming their mental health, but many are convinced their actions won’t make a difference. Some see climate change as just one of many threats facing the world. Some don’t know where to start and some are moored by feelings of frustration and betrayal at older generations.  

Young people in front of a fence
Researchers will spend the next year working with youth activists to create avenues for climate action and engagement (Photo by Unsplash).

The report does strike an optimistic tone, and highlights successful programs, workshops and events across North America. Many are hosted by schools and noted as accessible entry points. Youth climate councils working with municipal governments were found to be powerful outlets, though more difficult to join.

While many youth believe governments should be held accountable in finding solutions to climate change, they often had low levels of trust in the political process. Young climate activists also shared a concern at being seen as a token young person in political spaces, and Tozer says unless they see their voices making an impact, they risk further losing trust in governments. 

“Young people need to get something out of this engagement. They don't want to just be extracted from,” says Tozer. “They’ll stop engaging if nothing happens, and stop lending their brilliance to what should be done on climate action.”

The report also highlights the importance of community. Young people are effective recruiters, and spaces that are welcoming, fun and community-oriented tend to not just get young people involved, but keep them coming back. The report also highlights how important it is to acknowledge youth as individuals with varying goals, free time and capacities — as one interviewee put it, “We’re not all Greta [Thurnburg].”

“There are differences in which young people are able to take climate action now, or think of it as part of their lives, so taking an equity-based approach is also important,” Tozer says. “Young people hold strategic power when it comes to climate action, and they are capable of great influence.”