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The official Pakistani delegation that headed to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development or the Rio+20 Summit, which took place in Rio De Janeiro this week, included besides officials 15-year-old Ali Shahbaz, an O Levels student from Lahore. Ali was selected as a Youth Delegate from Pakistan by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) who funded his air ticket and stay in Rio.

Earlier last month, at the National Consultation on Green Economy in Islamabad that was organised jointly by the Ministry of Climate Change, the One-UN Joint Programme on Environment, SDPI, LEAD Pakistan and Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Ali had impressed the audience with his confident speech. He had given an impassioned plea, asking to be taken along to Rio as a youth ambassador representing the 60 per cent of Pakistan’s population who are under the age of 25. His speech inspired everyone in the audience, including Tariq Banuri, the founder of the SDPI who is now working for the UN headquarters in New York. In Tariq’s words, here was “something to give one a sense of hope”.

Those of us sitting in the audience urged Tariq, who was compiling the recommendations for the Rio+20 process, to give Ali Shahbaz a chance to be heard in Rio. The Lahore based architect Imrana Tiwana, who had been in touch with Ali for a few months and had in fact brought him to the National Consultation in Islamabad, recalls: “I first met Ali at the Beaconhouse school where I had been asked to give a presentation as a member of the Lahore Bachao Tehreek (a group of architects, urban planners and environmentalists who are trying to save Lahore’s trees from being cut down). We stayed in touch over email and he was really determined to go to the Rio Summit. I tried for months to get someone to sponsor him and wrote to several businesses and even to the school he attends but no one came forward. Then, I brought him along to Islamabad to the consultation and in less than a month to go before the Rio conference, the SDPI agreed to sponsor him!”

Imrana herself was nominated as an official delegate to represent Pakistan on sustainable development, urbanisation and environment and last week, both she and Ali finally made it to Rio. Ali discovered that he was the youngest official delegate in an international conference hosting over 80,000 delegates in addition to over 100 head of states. Ali participated in both the official negotiations and a number of side events, including acting as a panellist in an event hosted by the UN Education Caucus, to represent the views and approach of Global Youth in a green, sustainable society. In Ali’s words, “youth participation and empowerment have become essential to catalyse the rate of sustainable development”. Ali also involved himself in the Group of 77(G-77) official discussions, ensuring that the text produced did not oppose youth interests. In collaboration with the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, he also tried to convince countries’ delegates and blocs to endorse the appointment of a High Commissioner for Future Generations, to guarantee that political elements are in coherence with youth interests.

The main objective of the National Consultation on Green Economy held in Islamabad had been to compile recommendations for the Rio+20 process, and identify actions that could be undertaken by the Government of Pakistan, by Pakistani civil society, business, media, and academia, and by the international community in this regard. The green economy, one of the core themes of the Rio Summit, will not only play a crucial role in the future of the global community but is important for Pakistan as well.

While there was no consensus on the definition of the green economy at the consultation, most participants viewed it as an instrument for facilitating the transition towards sustainable development within Pakistan and globally, including the urgent challenge of eradicating poverty, promoting social equity, ensuring economic growth, and protecting land, water, forests, rangelands, oceans and marine resources. Given the enormous energy crisis in the country, one major recommendation was for the promotion of alternative energy: “Widespread use of renewable energy could make a major contribution to poverty eradication. Pakistan has immense resources of renewable energy, including hydel, micro-hydro, solar, wind, and waste-to-energy. In order to benefit from this potential, it was necessary to establish a level playing field based on a clear and transparent policy framework, including for example the feed-in-tariff approach, to give incentive to the power sector to contribute to the national effort to provide safe, affordable, and adequate energy services in all parts of the country...There was appreciation and support for the plans to initiate a return to hydel power sources, as long as it is undertaken with due regard to social and environmental impacts and safety considerations”.

The national and provincial governments were also asked to support sustainable development and the green economy through a strategic approach, including developing a National Sustainable Development Strategy (NSDS). It was recommended that its implementation should seek to revive and update the recommendations of the 1992 National Conservation Strategy (NCS) through the effective participation of all stakeholders, especially youth, women, small and landless farmers, and indigenous people.

The NSDS, which took months to prepare, was finally launched in Rio+20 by the Pakistani delegation in a specially held side event. Now let’s hope that all these preparations, recommendations and strategies are not ignored and that the Pakistani delegation comes back from Rio with a renewed commitment to initiate the greening of Pakistan’s economy.