How a chance encounter with Kofi Annan sparked a global youth biodiversity movement
Christian Schwarzer is a biodiversity conservation advocate from Germany and Co-founder of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN), the youth constituency of the Convention on Biological Diversity that represents 1.25 million youth across 172 countries. In an interview ahead of the GEF Assembly, he shared lessons from his work to mobilize and empower young people around nature loss, and shared his messages for today’s political and business leaders.
GYBN has grown from an idea to an established network with 60 national and regional chapters and 700 member organizations. What does this work involve?
Our network operates at the grassroots level, implementing youth-led biodiversity projects and advocating for policy changes based on that knowledge and experience. The work we support includes environmental education initiatives, conservation projects, clean-ups, advocacy, campaigns, and demonstrations.
Another big part of this work is fostering alliances among and between young professionals in different places. Our “youth-for-youth” workshops have connected more than 6,800 participants across 121 countries. We have also raised funding for 410 youth delegates from 100 countries to attend UN environmental negotiations and summits.
In preparation for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP15, we organized a youth consultation process with more than 4,000 young people and 25 national consultation and intergenerational dialogue events. As result of this, 16 of our policy proposals were included in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, including on intergenerational equity, rights-based approaches, transformative education, and the full and effective participation of youth.
How did you get involved in this area?
I guess I am a stubborn person who doesn't easily accept problems that others see as inevitable. As a young person growing up in Germany, challenges around me included urban sprawl, intensive farming, and car-centric infrastructure. The forest next to my parents’ house was sliced in two halves by a giant highway. At the same time, as a young person, climbing trees in that forest was my favorite pastime, and I continued to spend a lot of time in the woods as I got older. Over the years, I got more and more interested in the complexity of nature and its web of life.
When I was 12 years old, I started a research project. I wanted to see if I could prove that nature was changing. I mapped all tree species in three different areas and consulted the local weather station to get information about changing weather patterns. After four years, I had collected enough data to prove that the local climate was indeed changing and that the tree species in our forest were not likely to be able to adapt to extended periods of heat and low precipitation (a fact that has since been confirmed by the mass decline of spruce trees in Germany). A teacher persuaded me to present my project at a fair for young scientists. I received a special award for my environmental project – a category that did not exist until then, as the fair was dominated by physics and chemistry projects.
A few years later, I participated in the inauguration ceremony of the new UN campus in Bonn and I ended up bumping into then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. I asked him how he thought young people could make a difference, and why there were such few young people taking part in UN conferences on the environment. To my astonishment, he sat down with me and we had a short conversation. He encouraged me to follow my path in the environmental sector and put all my energy into achieving my goals. I promised him I would not give up and that I would dedicate myself to become part of a youth movement for biodiversity. Until he passed away in 2018, I wrote letters to him with "progress reports" about my work. It was because of this chance encounter that I felt motivated to create GYBN.
What message do you have for today’s political or business leaders?
Stop the same! Stop thinking that the same way of doing things that brought us here is going to get us out of the twin biodiversity and climate crisis.
Start thinking in more radical and truly transformative ways -- because short-term solutions and quick fixes are not going to solve anything anymore.
Stop any false solutions, such as carbon credit schemes or biodiversity-offsetting - the science is clear - they don't work and they only delay real solutions! We don't have time for this anymore.
Start thinking about equity and justice and what it means for your work and realize that we cannot design any biodiversity policies without addressing them, because inequality and injustice are the true drivers of biodiversity loss.
Stop looking at the world as a place that is divided into countries that will forever remain poor or always stay rich and think about how we can truly live in solidarity and build a world where the Global North and Global South truly work together to save the one shared ecosystem that allows all of us to live.
What are your other interests and areas of study?
I love teaching about environmental governance and international negotiations. I have taught several courses for master's and PhD students at different universities in Europe.
I also like art history. I am passionate about photography and historical architecture and am working on a project create a World Atlas of Art Nouveau Architecture. This architectural style was in many ways inspired by nature. So far I have been to more than 700 places in 75 countries, and still counting.
I also love trains and public transportation. Whenever possible, I try to travel by train and write travel guides about the beauty of train travel.
What are you looking forward to at the GEF Assembly?
I hope that the GEF Assembly will be a space to really rethink biodiversity finance and funding systems. In particular I hope that the GEF Assembly will focus on making biodiversity funding systems, especially the Global Biodiversity Framework Fund, more accessible for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, civil society, women, and youth. Specifically, I look forward to discussions about how funding can be distributed in a more targeted and much less bureaucratic way than it is today, with more funds made accessible for civil society and youth-led organizations.