Kelo Uchendu, 26, is the policy lead of YOUNGO, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) children and youth constituency. He shared some of his experiences promoting the voices of young people, at home in Nigeria.
by Kate Okorie, bird story agency
In 2016, during a visit to the oil-rich Niger Delta, Kelo Uchendu witnessed the impact of acid rain for the first time. As the rain came down, people hurriedly closed drums used for storing water.
Asking why he was told it was because the rain was so acidic, that it contaminated drinking water and made people sick. He was shocked.
“I asked, ‘why are people not talking about this?" Uchendo said.
The experience initiated a search for answers. He learned that acidic aerosols from gas flaring and refinery operations were falling to earth when it rained, causing deforestation and impacting farming and even infrastructure. He also learned that above-average levels of carbon dioxide in the air were turning the oceans acid.
"There is no direct connection between climate change and acidic rainfall, but the study exposed me to the other issue of ocean acidification," he explained. He decided to do something to draw attention to these issues.
Two years later, while still a mechanical engineering student at the University of Nigeria, Uchendu launched the Gray2Green Movement. He and his team organised climate marches, planted trees and pushed for the inclusion of climate education among the university’s general-level courses.
Today, at 26, Uchendu is the policy lead for YOUNGO, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) children and youth constituency, He is responsible for ensuring the voices of children and youth are heard at COP27, he and his colleagues have been developing a “Global Youth Statement” for the event.
Getting to this point required a great deal of determination. Despite resistance to his calls for a louder youth “voice”, in 2020 he joined forces with more than 330 young climate activists to organise a “Mock COP26”.
Afterwards, Uchendu contacted Nigerian lawmaker Samuel Onuigbo, who was preparing to propose the Climate Action Bill for the second time.
"We worked with him to push for the inclusion of the conference’s demands in the bill,"
The bill - passed into law as the Climate Change Act, 2021 - reflected a commitment by the Nigerian government to achieve net zero (reducing carbon emissions to the lowest amount) by 2060 – not easy for a country that relies so heavily on oil exports. While the country has moved to limit gas flaring and decarbonise gas operations, oil is expected to play a key role in the economy, for years.
In the Niger Delta, residents continue to complain about acidic rainfall and their degrading environment. With the region’s mangrove forests, creeks and farmlands heavily contaminated by oil, much still need to be done to reverse the effect of harmful human activities on the environment.
“We have to commit to decarbonising our major energy sectors,” Uchendu said. While the road to net zero might seem like an impossible feat, Uchendu and his colleagues at YOUNGO remain optimistic. They have been engaged in developing a “Global Youth Statement” to serve as the policy position for youths worldwide at COP27 in Egypt.
Considering his experience, Uchendu is well-placed to ensure that the voices of children and youth are included in the outcomes of what is already being billed as “Africa’s COP”.
bird story agency