Young People and the Challenges of Rio+20

Children have a remarkable ability to live in the moment, to lose themselves wholly in an activity and take pleasure in the most simple of things. They do not spend time dwelling on the past, worrying about the future or deliberating on the consequences of their actions. That's what adults are for. And yet, as we prepare for the Rio Earth Summit later this month, it is hard not to have a sense that this generation of adults are collectively failing our children.

Yesterday provided an opportunity for a handful of those children to take center stage as over 30 young people aged between 12 and 21 sacrificed a day of their precious school holidays or reading weeks to attend a 'Rio Youth Question Time' event at the Science Museum. The event brought them together with a variety of environment and sustainability experts including broadcaster Simon Reeve and Stern Review co-author Dimitiri Zenghellis to discuss the key issues they want addressed by world leaders at the Earth Summit. In the afternoon they were joined for a lively final discussion by environment secretary Caroline Spelman.

The young people pointed out that unlike many of the political decision makers attending Rio+20, they would still be around for Rio+40, Rio+60 and Rio+80 and they challenged the minister to help instill a long term vision among policy makers for a sustainable future for the planet.

"We are part of nature but we are not apart from nature," 21 year-old student at Sheffield University Rachel Hall told the minister. "Children have had no hand in the current global challenges caused by humanity but bear the daily brunt of their consequences. Therefore prioritizing children at the Rio Earth Summit is not only morally just but also critical for improving the lives of children today and in the future."

Caroline Spelman responded telling the young people that "everything you've told me I will take with me on the plane to Rio. We have got to leave the planet in a better way than we inherited it."

Earlier in the day, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had endorsed this message in a specially pre-recorded video in which he admitted that there was "no better way to inject a sense of urgency than to hear from the people that will be most affected; the people who will hold us to account if we fail; the people who will run the businesses, communities and governments of the future. You are those people."

The young people at the event were joined by others from around the world including those who had experienced the devastating affect of climate change themselves. Linking live via Skype from Nairobi, Miriam Otieno, a 27-year-old Girl Guide, described her work to promote environmental sustainability. "There have been serious shortages of water here in Kenya," she said. "In recent years the rains have failed and I have been working with my community on water harvesting and water storage projects."

Having travelled to over 110 countries, most recently 16 around the edge of the Indian Ocean, Simon Reeve has seen some of the great challenges and issues facing the planet, including climate change, the destruction of our oceans, pollution and over-fishing. "My journeys have convinced me that we need leaders who can take tough decisions and can stop us from squandering the resources of planet earth," he said. "We have to think more long-term and protect our planet for future generations. And so of course we have to get youngsters and children involved, and make them central to the debates and discussions that take place in Rio."

On paper the future of the planet ,with its rising population and decreasing resources, may not give great cause for optimism but the passion and knowledge of the young people attending yesterday's event and their determination to affect positive change was infectious. Even Caroline Spelman was clearly moved.

Stefan Simanowitz is currently a media manager at UNICEF UK.