May 10, 2021
Young people offer incredible opportunities for change with their new ideas and verve. However, part of the challenge for young people around the world is finding a platform from which their voice can be heard and valued. Thankfully, when it comes to the energy sector, climate change, and what's in store for the future, an organization by the name of Student Energy seeks to bridge that gap. Here with us to discuss the keys to unlocking a sustainable energy future and how we can work together with today's youth to get there is Shakti Ramkumar, Director of Communications & Policy at Student Energy.
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Dan Seguin 00:02
Hey folks, welcome back to another episode of the ThinkEnergy podcast, youth climate change, clean energy, the future. These are all pretty loaded topics. But believe it or not, we're here to discuss all of these today, and how they're connected. With every new generation that comes of age, there's a fresh perspective introduced to the table. Young people offer incredible opportunities for change with their new ideas, and verve. However, part of the challenge for young people around the world is finding a platform from which their voice can be heard and valued. Without well established networks and resources, young people can easily be stifled or forgotten. Thankfully, when it comes to the energy sector, climate change, and what's in store for the future, an organization by the name of Student Energy seeks to bridge that gap. Student energy is a Global Youth led nonprofit organization that strives to empower young people to accelerate their sustainable energy transition. They connect young people to global changemakers and provide them access to decision making spaces, so that they have opportunities to play a part in their energy future. They started with three driven students who, in 2009, set out to organize the first international student energy summit. Since then, it has expanded into a global organization, with programs engaging over 50,000 students from over 120 countries, alumni are going on to develop and implement renewable energy technologies, advise the United Nations and advocate for a clean energy future while working with some of the largest energy companies. So here's today's big question. What are the keys to unlocking a sustainable energy future? And how can we work together with today's youth to get there? So joining me on today's program is Shakti Ramkumar, Director of Communications and policy. Shakti oversees a strategy and operations of the organization as it continues to build the movement of students across the world committed to a sustainable energy future. Shakti, thanks for joining us today. Perhaps you can start by telling us a bit about yourself, your background, and what led you to becoming the Director of Communications and policy for Student Energy.
Shakti Ramkumar 03:47
Hi, Dan, thank you for having me today. So I'm currently the Director of Communications and policy at Student Energy, and it was a bit of a winding path for me to get here. I've been deeply concerned about climate change since I was really young. My very first science fair project when I was in third grade was actually on public transportation, and how it could reduce emissions for my city if we replaced a lot of car traffic with rapid transit like sky trains and buses. And after that, I did a whole bunch of projects on ecological footprint on using phase change materials to heat homes. And this initial experience of trying to find solutions and explore solutions is what led me to Student Energy. When I was in university at UBC, I was actually a participant in one of student energies programs called Generation energy, where I hosted a dialogue focused on what you'd want to see for the future of BC. And the reason I want to bring this project up is all of the youth champions from across Canada gathered in Winnipeg to put together a vision for Canada's energy future. And we were able to come up with this in about half a day. We were able to work through our differences and figure out the common values that we share. And what we want to see in Canada in about half a day, and that really demonstrated that young people just have a lot in common regardless of where they're from, and what situations they're living in. So that initial experience with Student Energy as a participant is what started my journey here.
Dan Seguin 05:17
Are you able to unpack for me? What's a sustainable energy future for us? And why is it so important that we work towards it? And what might it look like once we've achieved it?
Shakti Ramkumar 05:31
A sustainable energy future, for me is one where our global energy system is designed to support people and communities to thrive. And doing that through clean, affordable and reliable energy. To limit global heating to 1.5 degrees, which we know is necessary for the safety and survival of so many people and ecosystems, we will have to shift away from fossil fuels and drastically reduce our carbon emissions within the next really critical few years. And what would a sustainable energy future look like once we've achieved it? For that, I really want to emphasize that part about energy being a means for people and communities to thrive. Because I think sometimes there's a tendency to say, well, this renewable energy technology isn't capable of meeting this high level of energy demand. So we can't possibly shift away from the current system. And take, for example, one of the arguments that we often hear at Student Energy is, well, we couldn't possibly electrify every single car and truck on the road. Because we'll need a lot of minerals, it's going to cost a lot, it will have so many adverse impacts. And that's where we have to take a step back. And remember, the goal is not to replace every single car and truck on the road with a different cleaner version, the goal is mobility for people to get to where they need to go to meet their basic needs, and just enjoy their lives. And if we keep that end goal in mind, we won't have to reduce the energy transition to just swapping out one energy source for another. But really zeroing in on what makes a community livable and supports people to thrive and building an energy system around that. And we can do that with a combination of things from walkable communities, lifestyle shifts to reducing energy demand, ensuring people's basic needs are met through public transit, and then where we need them the odd electric car. So my point there is that a sustainable energy future is really not just about swapping energy, one energy source for another, but focusing on the end goal, which is we want a good standard of life for everyone. Now, this year,
Dan Seguin 07:32
I see that Student Energy launched a very unique research project designed for millennials to share their perspective on the energy transition. Student energy has named it the Global Youth Energy Outlook, the first project of its kind made by youth for youth around the world. What was the inspiration behind the development of this project?
Shakti Ramkumar 08:00
So yes, the Global Youth Energy Outlook is a report that we're developing. And it's completely led by young people for young people. And we're gathering perspectives from 1000s, 10s of 1000s of youth from all over the world on what they want to see for the energy future of their region. And the first phase of that research is a 10 minute questionnaire that but that we're inviting all young people who are between 18 to 30, to take, and there are a few things that inspired us to create this report. And to start developing it. The main reason is that we will be the ones building the infrastructure, implementing the policy changes, changing our communities, and as we work to address the climate crisis, and therefore we should be considered important stakeholders in that process. And for a long time, young people were either left entirely out of the energy sector or tokenized, without being given a real voice, and student energy was founded to create to change both of those things. And now we're doing that on a global scale with the Global Youth Energy Outlook. Another reason we were inspired to create this report is to show that young people are not a monolith. The outlook is led by 12 young regional coordinators in 10 regions around the world. And they're actively building that works in their own communities that kind of highlight the unique energy challenges that face each region, and to demonstrate that young people are engaging on that community level, and solving the kind of nuanced complex energy issues in their region and that we can't be treated at a global monolith.
Dan Seguin 09:33
And now, what are the key issues addressed in this questionnaire? How did Student Energy narrowed down the questions to ask what do you hope to achieve with the data collected from the Global Youth outlook?
Shakti Ramkumar 09:51
So the questionnaire covers quite a wide range of topics. We the big question we're asking is what young people want the energy mix in their region to look like in 2030. And we're also asking who young people believe is most responsible for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whether they believe their governments are investing enough and fighting climate change. And we're also asking which policy options but young people prioritize over others in order to achieve net zero emissions. And these are really important questions for both young people to know how other youth around the world see the future of energy in their region, and also for decision makers in the energy industry to see where their future voters, consumers and workers are heading. So these are the big areas that we're covering in the questionnaire. And narrowing down the questions to ask was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I think we started with 160 questions and realized well, no one's gonna take the survey, he asked 160 questions. So we cut it down to about 40. And then cut it down to even further to just 10 questions covering the most important things with the option for people to take the 40 question one if they if they're particularly interested. So now it just takes 10 minutes, covers the the most important pressing questions that we had from our very long version. And we are quite excited about what this report could mean and what impact it could have once it's completed. For young people, we want this to be a powerful data backed tool that they can use to lobby their city governments, their state governments, their federal governments, the energy companies in their region to take action showing that here's what 1000s of young people around the world, your most important constituents and stakeholders want to see for the future of energy. And here's what what we want to do to help make the future happen. So we hope it's an advocacy tool for young people. And on the flip side, we also think it will provide some really important insights for people in government, people in the energy industry. And we've already heard from a number of our partners that they really need this kind of report in their own decision making to have kind of numbers and evidence behind what young people want to see. And using that to push their own climate action plans forward. So we hope it'll be a tool on both fronts for both young people and for decision makers to understand how best to work together.
Dan Seguin 12:19
By the way, folks, there will be a copy of the questionnaire within the show notes. Okay. Why is it so important that millennial voices on energy and sustainability be heard? What do you think are the most important distinguishing beliefs and/or values of this generation compared to other generations? And finally, what can older generations like mine be doing to better support this group?
Shakti Ramkumar 12:55
I think there are two main things that we have recognized are distinct about young people's values when it comes to the energy transition that kind of makes this era of the environment and climate movement a little bit different than the previous era. One is the timeline in which young people expect action. We're seeing commitments now, finally, from companies and governments about aiming for net zero emissions by 2050. And young people who are climate activists are saying, Okay, that's good, but we need to see action right now. And that's why our Global Youth Energy Outlook actually works on a timeline leading up to 2030, not 2050. As we will have to take drastic climate action by then if we want to act in accordance with climate science. So as the years pass, and our global climate commitments are still not strong enough to meet the 1.5 degree target that we've set as a collective the sense of urgency among young people, I think, is something that is really distinct. The second big value that we've seen from young people is that we are not siloed in our thinking, and that young people won't consider it a success. If we successfully decarbonize our energy system. The harms that the current energy system has inflicted on people and communities, and haven't made sure that the benefits of the clean energy transition are equitably distributed. So an emphasis on seeing energy as a mechanism through which we can build a more just and equitable society is something that is a really strong value for young people that I think is something new to the energy transition. And on the question of what can older generations do, at Student Energy, we really value intergenerational collaboration. We have a lot to learn from people who have set up the energy system as it is now about the complexities and the nuances of producing distributing supplying energy, so we really value intergenerational collaboration. And there's three main things that I think older generations can do, particularly those with resources. power to make decisions. One very simple invest in young people. That can look like financially supporting youth led organizations, youth led projects, or investing time through mentorship and guidance. Two is understand the value of youth, a lot of work organizations, we want them to really think, are we meaningfully engaging with young people? What can we do to meaningfully and equitably engage with young people, not just on a tokenistic basis, but on a really kind of equal relationship. And this is something Student Energy often works with organizations to help them figure out especially if they're navigating youth engagement for the very first time. And the third thing I would say is to create space for young people, older generations who have access to a large platform, or an influential position, think actively about how you can make space for young people are using that privilege. Whether this looks like asking an event organizer why there are no young people on the panel and recommending some young people join that panel, whether it looks like bringing up in a meeting, why we're not funding youth led organizations, or taking into consideration the youth voice when making that next strategy, that next plan. These are some tangible ways that older generations can really support young people.
Dan Seguin 16:20
I read that you served as the director of common energy at the University of British Columbia, one of the university's largest student sustainability organization. Can you tell us about that experience? I'm curious, what did you work on? What did you learn? And did anything surprise you?
Shakti Ramkumar 16:43
So at Common energy, our goal was to build community first and foremost, and invite people into the climate movement, many of them for the very first time as they entered university, and to help people understand the links between themselves as an individual and the changes they can contribute to as a collective. So we were all about tangible action. We recognized early on that one of the best ways to get people involved was to do something real physical and hands on. So we conducted waste audits on campus, we hosted student friendly plant based cooking workshops, things you can do in your dorm, we launched a reusable mug share program at our campus cafe. And while doing these hands on projects, we also held workshops on climate justice, on food justice, on transforming our cities. And these would regularly draw a packed crowd, because I think there's a real desire from young people to see what they can do to contribute to larger systems change. So we kind of brought both perspectives like here's what you can do on a day to day basis, using your time and your skills and your expertise. And here are the bigger issues that we need to always keep in mind on justice and equity that we're collectively working towards. So that was my big goal as director of common energy. I learned a lot during this time. And the most important thing, I think, is that collaboration and sustaining a movement is not easy, and it actually takes work. It takes intention and consistency. And isn't just something to say you're going to do and then it just happens. While I was co director of climate energy, I also collaborated with all the other climate and sustainability related groups on campus. And together, we worked to launch the UBC climate hub, which is now a fully fledged student driven initiative at UBC entering its third year. And what made us successful at the time was, yes, we were very concerned and passionate about climate action. But we also took meeting minutes, we helped each other stay accountable. We encouraged people to rest when they were burnt out. We chased every staff and professor who seemed even remotely likely to support us, we built a network of supporters and engaged every single day to working towards this vision. And I think these day to day things are what will make the climate movement successful. So a lot of people might see, you know, big climate strikes on TV or big speeches. But it takes a lot of coordination behind the scenes to to make that an impactful experience. And it takes a lot of just hard work and working with people's personalities and working in big groups and making sure everyone feels supported. And that those minute details I think are what I took away most from my experience at UBC.
Dan Seguin 19:27
Well done, Shakti, based on your learnings from working with UBC and student energy. What do you think are the most important energy transition steps to be taken now by governments, businesses, and individuals in order to have a significant impact by 2030 and by 2050?
Shakti Ramkumar 19:51
I think number one has to be to actually set emissions reductions targets that meet the scale of the climate crisis. All countries are still behind when it comes to their nationally determined contributions for the Paris Agreement. And I think the most important action now would be to be honest about the magnitude of the climate crisis and not hide behind far off targets, while leaving it hazy how exactly we're going to get there. So recognizing the carbon budget that we have, and setting real targets that will get us to our 1.5 degree target, I think it's the first step. The second one is, of course, our mission at student energy is to get people to recognize the importance of young people and to invest in youth, young people will be the ones to work in the energy system of the future. And right now, many renewable energy companies and even other energy companies that are trying to transition to clean energy, are looking at a major skills shortage. So if they want innovative ideas, fresh voices, building a dynamic workforce of the future, we need to bring in more young people. And we need to bring in young people who have historically been excluded from the energy space. This includes women, young people of color, indigenous youth youth from the global south, and ensure that whatever energy system we're building is actively mentoring and training young people to be a part of it. And this is a major gap that we're seeing in both renewable energy companies, and just the energy sector overall.
Dan Seguin 21:26
Now, I'm looking forward to hearing how you'll be tackling this next question. What do you think, are the greatest challenges ahead for sustainable energy transition? What will be essential to overcome them? What are the consequences if we don't?
Shakti Ramkumar 21:49
This is a great question. I mean, I've talked a lot about how we're failing to invest in young people. And I do think that's one of the greatest challenges. And the consequence, of course, is that we will not have people to to transform the energy system if we're not investing in training up young people. But another challenge in for the sustainable energy transition that's always on my mind is just the fact that a lot of the solutions we need do exist, they already exist. For example, improving energy efficiency could enable I think, 40% of the emissions reductions, we need to meet our climate goals without new technology. But despite that global improvements in energy efficiency have been declining. They're extremely slow, just 1.2% a year. And even as of last year, over 2.6 billion people around the world don't have access to clean cooking facilities. And this number has shifted so slowly over the past 20 years, and these kinds of things make it clear that many of the technologies and solutions we do need already do exist. And what we need is for people and companies and governments to broaden their definition of what innovation means, not just focus on novelty on emerging technologies, but to actually create incentives to implement and scale the solutions that we know that they work to, to accelerate the energy transition. So that's a big challenge that I see. A final challenge is not seeing the importance of nature and land in the energy system. And kind of seeing that as a separate environmental issue, which I think is sometimes the case in the energy sector. And I think this will have major consequences. First of all, we can't meet our climate goals, if we're not thinking about the natural ecosystems that we depend on about our unsustainable food system. If we're not supporting indigenous leaders who are on the front line of climate action, whether that is fighting against extractive industries, deforestation and land grabs, if we don't see that as part of the energy transition, there's no way we'll successfully meet our climate goals. And I think this is the responsibility of everyone working on an energy to also think about nature and land and in the work that they do.
Dan Seguin 24:05
Now Shakti, what makes you tick? How has your own lifestyle changed as a result of your studies and work on achieving sustainable energy? Was there a turning point for you? And how has the goal of a sustainable energy future challenged you personally?
Shakti Ramkumar 24:27
Since I was young, my parents have always encouraged me to think about fairness. And so I do take my own lifestyle choices pretty seriously as a type of climate action, especially living here in Canada. I think there's sometimes tends to be some binary thinking about whether we should focus on individual action or whether we should fight for systems change. And to me, those have always seemed like parts of the same whole. To me making the choices that are within my reach, whether that's going vegan, not buying too many things that I don't need. These are things that align with my values and something I've taken on as a result of my work. And they also fuel my commitment to systems change work. And I think the choices we make as individuals, as families of households, they lay the foundations for the kind of society that we're working to build as a collective. So I do try to think about, okay, if the policies and changes that I'm fighting for through my work become a reality, how would that trickle down to me as an individual? How would that change my life, and then I just try to do some of those things already, while we're still fighting for them. And what makes me tick, honestly, it's just community and having friends who are doing this together, I think the magnitude of the climate crisis and the barriers we face to climate action are so overwhelming, and honestly, sometimes really discouraging that we have to fight so hard to shift the needle so little, so slowly. So it's really necessary to find some joy within all of this and find people who you can laugh with. And this is why, you know, climate memes are a really big thing on the internet, because we need this laughter and these moments of joy to keep this movement going.
Dan Seguin 26:09
What do you think, is the most important thing that today's youth should hear right now, as it relates to sustainable energy? What call to action would you give them
Shakti Ramkumar 26:24
so for young people who are passionate about climate action, my message is to really consider the role that you can have in changing the energy system and in shaping the energy future, energy has often been a space that seems really inaccessible to a lot of young people. You know, there's the sense that you need an engineering degree, you need connections, you need a lot of money, to work in energy. And groups, like student energy are actively trying to change that. To help all youth understand that no matter what background, you're from, what career you're trying to have, understanding the complexities of the energy system, and seeing yourselves as part of the energy transition, are just a really important part of the future that we're all working towards. And there's also a lot of exciting opportunities on the horizon, in energy, and in all kinds of fields. So my message to young people is really kind of engage with energy and consider it as a possibility if you if you've never thought about it, to consider as a possibility. And to not shy away from the hard questions on energy. So what will it take to produce enough clean energy to meet the world's needs? What do we need to do to make sure everyone has access to energy, which utilities and regulators and power companies need to step up their game on climate action? What infrastructure needs to be upgraded? getting into the details and considering energy as a space for major systems change as well as a fulfilling career? I would say as my main call to action on the long term for young people, and student energy is here to make that happen for you. And on the immediate scale, I would say, you know, check out our Global Youth Energy Outlook questionnaire, because we really want to hear from young people from all backgrounds. And this is how we'll make kind of global policy change in the energy system.
Dan Seguin 28:17
Okay, now for the fun part. Shakti. Are you ready to close us off with our rapid fire questions?
Shakti Ramkumar 28:25
Yes, I sure am.
Dan Seguin 28:27
What is your favorite word?
Shakti Ramkumar 28:30
Since it's spring: metamorphosis.
Dan Seguin 28:34
What is one thing you can't live without?
Shakti Ramkumar 28:38
Oh, honestly, it's just time to be silly with friends.
Dan Seguin 28:42
What habit? Or hobby? Have you picked up during shelter in place?
Shakti Ramkumar 28:48
This was unexpected for me, but painting.
Dan Seguin 28:52
Cool. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Shakti Ramkumar 28:59
I'm gonna cheat and say I would love to teleport. And wherever I land, I would like to speak the language that is spoken there.
Dan Seguin 29:05
Now moving on, if you could turn back time and talk to your 18 year old self, what would you tell her?
Shakti Ramkumar 29:12
I would say, go to more parties, because soon you'll have to sit in your bedroom for a whole year and not hang out with people.
Dan Seguin 29:20
And lastly, what do you currently find most interesting in your sector?
Shakti Ramkumar 29:26
I mean, there's a lot going on. But I'm really excited about the possibilities around distributed energy.
Dan Seguin 29:31
Well, Shakti we've reached the end of another episode of The ThinkEnergy podcast. I truly hope you enjoyed this interview. And I hope you had a lot of fun.
Shakti Ramkumar 29:41
Definitely. I had a great time.
Dan Seguin 29:44
Thank you for joining us today. I truly hope you enjoyed this episode of The ThinkEnergy podcast. For past episodes. Make sure you visit our website hydroottawa.com/podcast. Lastly, if you found value in this podcast, be sure to subscribe. Anyway, this podcast is a wrap. Cheers, everyone.