Beyond Climate Advocacy: Youth-led Innovation Fighting Climate Change

Published in the SDSN 2019 Youth Solutions Report


In 2019, young people around the world are bringing a renewed sense of urgency to climate action as the world faces record-breaking sea ice loss, heat waves, biodiversity loss, and other climate change-related impacts. In addition to advocating for urgent, ambitious action from governments and industry, young people are also leading the way in developing and implementing innovative solutions, from developing novel energy technologies and policy instruments, to implementing ecological restoration projects. However, the role of youth-led innovation in fighting climate change remains undervalued and under-researched, particularly within the national climate plans developed by governments and intergovernmental organizations.

This case study explores the work of Student Energy, a global non-profit that empowers young people to accelerate the sustainable energy transition. Throughout the organization’s ten year history of working with post-secondary students and young professionals around the world, there are a few factors that seem to consistently enhance youth innovation:

  1. Actively empowering young people with opportunities and resources to develop critical soft skills that complement their academic and professional education.
  2. Connecting young people to a diverse global network of peers, and providing opportunities for collaboration.
  3. Creating spaces for young people to directly engage with established actors in the energy system.
  4. Advocating for organizations to sufficiently value and meaningfully engage young people throughout their work.

The chapter begins by setting the context for Student Energy’s (and other youth-led movements’) work, followed by a brief overview of Student Energy’s theory of change and core programs, through which the organization engages a network of over 50,000 youth. The chapter then identifies some of the factors that make young people particularly good innovators, drawn from Student Energy’s experiences and stories from the network, as well as from emerging research. The section ‘Youth-Led Innovation in Action’ features seven profiles of young people in Student Energy’s global network and illustrates the many ways young people conceptualize innovative climate action.
This case study demonstrates how organizations like Student Energy can help bridge gaps between young people and large institutions to accelerate climate action, and demonstrates how young people’s innovative abilities can be unlocked and supported by the right resources, networks, and platforms.


To fight climate change and limit warming to below 1.5°C, scientists are calling for an urgent transition to a low-carbon energy system, as the energy sector is the largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions (International Energy Agency, 2018). The global energy sector is already undergoing large shifts that contribute positively to decarbonization, including increased electrification and rapidly declining prices of renewables, allowing clean energy sources to compete with fossil fuels. However, overall demand for energy is projected to continue to increase in the coming years, due to growing demand for electricity, heating, and cooling services in warming regions (International Energy Agency, 2018). Keeping up with rising demand, particularly in the Global South, is of critical importance as providing sufficient and reliable energy access is one of the key factors in alleviating poverty. Currently, approximately 840 million people globally still lack reliable energy access, with the majority being people in rural communities.

As energy intersects nearly every aspect of society, transitioning the energy system requires innovation on all fronts: decarbonizing the energy supply, improving energy access, reducing the ecological impacts of energy development projects, and reducing energy use on a large scale.

About Student Energy

Student Energy, a global charity, creates the next generation of energy leaders who will accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy future. Founded in Calgary, Canada, in 2009, by three post-secondary students, the organization’s network has now grown to include 50,000 young people in over 130 countries.

Student Energy’s vision is centered on the knowledge that we need to transition the energy system to one that is both equitable and sustainable. A guiding theory of change document identifies six building blocks that are necessary to realize this sustainable energy future:

  1. Intergenerational and Global Equity
  2. Cultural Shifts
  3. Collaboration and Cooperation
  4. Mobilized Finance
  5. Policy Frameworks
  6. Technologies Developed and Implemented

To set up these building blocks, Student Energy intervenes by empowering young people with the skills and networks they need to be systems-level critical thinkers who can take action on complex energy challenges in their local communities, and in their academic and professional careers. Student Energy also creates a space for young people to act within decision-making institutions by working with governments, companies, and organizations to identify how they can meaningfully engage young people in their work.

Core programs

Energy Systems Map

Student Energy’s digital Energy Systems Map reaches over 2 million unique visitors annually, providing an accessible, simplified overview of the energy system.


Student Energy Chapters are university-level clubs that empower students to take action in their local communities. Currently, Student Energy has 40 chapters in 19 countries. Chapters have engaged over 20,000 people through their local events and initiatives, with over 5,000 people engaged in the first half of 2019.

International Student Energy Summit

The international Student Energy Summit (SES) is the largest student-led energy conference in the world, taking place every two years in a different region, and organized by a team of students in the host country, with support from members of Student Energy staff. SES 2019, the sixth Student Energy Summit, took place in London, UK, and brought together 650 students from 98 countries.

Space for Youth

Through the Space for Youth program, Student Energy partners with governments and other institutions to create meaningful opportunities for young people to engage with decision-makers. For example, Student Energy worked with Natural Resources Canada to bring 60 young leaders from all 25 member countries to the Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation (CEM/MI) forum in 2019. Typically, these ministerial meetings have not included young people, so this marked a first for CEM/MI. Young people were not only in the audience, but participated in bilateral meetings, as panellists, and held official side events.

How do young people redefine innovation?

A theme that is evident in Student Energy’s programming is that young people are constantly redefining and broadening the scope of what ‘innovation’ means, by prioritizing social and policy innovations on par with technological innovations.

One of the ways Student Energy facilitates open-ended opportunities for students to define innovation for themselves is through the ‘Innovation Jam’. The Innovation Jam is a fast-paced collaborative brainstorm session where students pitch solutions to a room of their peers, and form groups to brainstorm and refine their solutions, often pivoting and iterating on their original idea based on the group’s feedback and knowledge. Students often name these sessions as their number one highlight, and many ideas that were initially generated at an Innovation Jam have gone on to become fully-fledged start-ups and conferences, or have inspired participants to pursue new career paths (see the ‘Youth-led Innovation in Action’ section for some in-depth examples from Student Energy’s network).

What makes young people particularly good innovators?

“They are collaborative, creative, observant, curious, willing to experiment, willing to challenge the status quo, risk-takers, action oriented, and visionary.” (Dougherty and Clarke, 2017)

The idea that today’s young people think and work differently than previous generations is not a new one – however, diving into why young people are good innovators reveals a compelling case for why there is an urgent need to invest resources into youth-led innovation. By examining Student Energy’s programs and impact reports, there appear to be four factors that contribute to young people’s unique ability to create change in institutions:

1. Ability to raise the level of ambition

As national governments continue to move slowly on setting and meeting emissions reductions targets, young people have been advocating for bold climate action in creative ways, from direct action, to youth voting initiatives, to engaging with the policy creation process at forums like the UNFCCC COP.

Student Energy’s Space for Youth program identifies opportunities where young people can directly engage with high level energy actors, particularly in spaces where youth are typically underrepresented. For example, at the 2019 Clean Energy Ministerial and Mission Innovation Forum, youth delegates participated in an informal Q&A with the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources, Amarjeet Sohi, where they asked about Canada’s plans to upskill and transition fossil fuel workers to renewable energy, Canada’s industrial and residential energy consumption, and how the government plans to address the impact of energy projects on local Indigenous communities. The discussion that followed made it clear that young people have clear priorities for federal governments that sometimes differ from and often go beyond the discussions taking place between member states.

Research shows that young people are more willing to question the status quo, examine why things are done the way they are, and radically reimagine alternative systems (Jones, Reedy & Weinberg, 2014). Constructive spaces to engage directly with decision-makers, like the exchanges at CEM/MI, let young people exercise their own political agency and break down traditional structures of authority and expertise, allowing for innovation in discourse within traditional institutions.

2. Ability to implement unique localized solutions

Young people today are connected to each other across disparate geographies and backgrounds, owing greatly to technology access. This growing global consciousness and access to information, coupled with knowledge gained from their lived experience, allows young people to develop innovative local solutions that tackle multiple aspects of energy and climate issues at once.

Student Energy runs Greenpreneurs, a 10-week, virtual, green entrepreneurship accelerator, in partnership with the Global Green Growth Initiative and Youth Climate Lab. In two years, Greenpreneurs has helped 25 teams from developing and emerging economies take their local energy solutions from idea to fully viable business plan, and has provided winning teams with seed funding. A central focus of the program is that the solutions presented must be based on an in-depth understanding of the teams’ local context, identifying the social, ecological, cultural, and economic aspects of their selected program, in addition to addressing sustainability. The story of WEYE Clean Energy Enterprise and Kakembo Galabuzi Brian, described in the ‘Youth-led Innovation in Action’ section, illustrates how young people innovate to address multiple local challenges at once.

3. Valuing and implementing diversity of thought

Another theme that emerges from Student Energy’s global network is a broad consensus that all climate action must be just and equitable. Climate change is inherently a justice issue; relatively few countries have contributed the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, while some communities (the poor, island nations, women, and racial minorities) bear a disproportionate burden of climate impacts. Research suggests that Millennials and Generation Z have a “heightened awareness” of their social context and relationships, supported by broad, global interconnectedness through technology (Ito et al., 2008; Tapscott, 2009). Given this unprecedented exposure to diverse people and communities, collaborations between young people (and intergenerational collaborations led by young people) prioritize creating space for diverse voices and ideas.

In January of 2019, Student Energy’s Mount Royal University Chapter in Calgary, Canada, hosted SevenGen, the first Indigenous Student Energy Conference. The goal of SevenGen was to create space for Indigenous youth to connect with each other and with Indigenous leaders in Canada to see how they could take a leadership role in Canada’s energy transition. Recognizing that Indigenous communities have historically been left out of this conversation, SevenGen aimed to build new networks between Indigenous youth across Canada, and with the Canadian government and actors in the energy industry.

4. Ability to engage their peers

The ability of young people to engage and mobilize their peers is a key climate innovation, as building widespread public support is one of the biggest barriers to taking bold climate action, according to many governments and industry. Student Energy Chapters address this challenge by leveraging peer-to peer engagement and providing engagement pathways for people who are new to climate action. Chapters are led by local students, allowing them to respond to their communities’ needs. This means that Chapters’ annual activities range widely – from running regional Summits and collaborating on local energy issues, to hosting green building tours and documentary screenings, to installing solar power projects in their cities.

Youth-led Innovation in Action

The following profiles are a sample of the innovative work led by young people in Student Energy’s network. These stories have been selected to demonstrate the broad ways innovation takes place in youth-led climate action.

Kakembo Galabuzi Brian – Uganda
CEO, WEYE Clean Energy Company, Ltd.

Kakembo Galabuzi Brian was inspired to start the Waste to Energy Youth Project at an Innovation Jam at the 2015 Student Energy Summit in Bali, Indonesia. The project rallies youth to transition East Africa from wood fuel to affordable fuel briquettes and biogas. Initially, Kakembo’s initiative engaged over 200 young people, with the goal of providing energy to the 85% of Ugandans who cannot afford clean energy sources. As of 2019, the project has become a fully-fledged commercial enterprise with 12 full-time and 4 part-time staff working across two production units. In addition to producing and distributing briquette stoves, WEYE Clean Energy Company also holds training workshops for women and youth, for which they were awarded the iF Social Impact Prize. Demand for WEYE’s technology and products is currently growing faster than their production capacity, a positive indicator that the sustainable energy transition in Uganda is underway.

“Diversity in education, gender, language, location, origin, culture, and nationality will be a very big advantage to any initiative. In my case, my finance background was helpful in sourcing and managing funds, but every colleague in the initiative plays a unique role.” – Kakembo Galabuzi Brian

Emma Wiesner – Sweden
Energy Marketing Analyst at SWECO; Centerpartiet First Substitute for the European Parliament

Emma gained valuable understanding of the international perspective on energy while attending SES 2015 in Bali, Indonesia. Her experience there inspired her to work in the European energy system and ultimately to run for European Parliament in the 2019 election as an engineer wanting to change the energy system politically. As a young candidate, she’s working to empower youth in the energy sector. With a foot in both the energy industry and in energy policy, Emma helps her clients understand the energy transition, create scenarios for the future energy system, and analyse policy instruments.

“Student Energy gave me this really international perspective. I’ve always been involved in politics, so I’ve been mixing politics with engineering and energy engineering and always knew that I wanted to work with policy to influence society, but before Student Energy I was more interested in national politics. But Student Energy really broadened my perspective, I was starting to think more in an international way, how can we influence the energy system on a global level. So being at Student Energy Summit in Indonesia really gave me perspectives from all around the world and really seeing that the energy system is much broader and you have to work with it on a global level.” – Emma Wiesner

Alec Macklis – USA
Founder and CEO of Gridspan Energy

At SES 2017 in Merida, Mexico, Alec gained access to key advisors and mentors who have helped him to build his company, Gridspan Energy. The company is pioneering new markets and new use-cases for energy storage systems with a clear value and market in small island developing states (SIDS). To date they have raised over $700,000 in funding, and have signed publicly-facing agreements for their 1st project with both the Government of Anguilla and ANGLEC, the local utility. Alec has lived the Student Energy experience of creating a company that understands the multi-disciplinary nature of energy and the challenging road of commercializing a novel, technology-enabled business model.

“Student Energy has had a huge influence on my career path. I ended up meeting a great mentor who was a founder of Student Energy, a co-founder of Student Energy: Janice Tran and she played a big role in mentoring me and advising during the last two years of starting this company.” – Alec Macklis

Ashley Pilipiszyn – USA
Project Lead, Grid Resilience & Intelligence Platform Participant, Global Himalayan Expedition

Ashley first attended SES 2013 in Trondheim, Norway, as a biotech student at Harvard. Inspired by her participation in the Summit, she decided to switch gears to work on energy systems, after learning that transitioning the energy sector is one of the greatest challenges facing the planet. Now, Ashley’s mission is to create a sustainable energy future by using AI for Planetary Good. Ashley is currently a PhD student at Stanford University in Management Science & Engineering and Computer Science, the Project Lead for the Grid Resilience & Intelligence Platform, the Science Communicator of OpenAI, and participated in the 2017 Global Himalayan Expedition where she electrified one of the most remote villages in the Himalayas by installing three solar microgrids.

Joshua Miguel Lopez – Philippines
Assistant Program Coordinator, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Philippines

Attending SES 2017 introduced Joshua to climate and renewable energy work, where he was exposed to changemakers who, despite their youth, had pursued leadership roles in shaping the energy future. Joshua works in the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Philippine Office on climate action and renewable energy and created Renewable Energy Bootcamp, or REBOOT, a program that trains youth from various professions to pilot renewable energy projects that also solve development needs in marginalized communities. Joshua also created the Renewable Energy Congress, a national, multi-stakeholder conference that brings together leaders from politics, local government, industry, academia, and civil society. Its goal is to build a broad consensus and develop catalytic projects that will accelerate the renewable energy transition in the Philippines.

Churchill Agutu – South Africa
Founder of the Africa Green Collar Project

Churchill attended SES2017 in Merida, Mexico, where he first began to explore energy solutions from a socio-techno-economic perspective. Churchill has a background in chemical engineering, and presented some of his research findings on improving the performance of solar cells during SES 2017. Residing in South Africa where the energy transition is still in its nascent stages and an estimated 60% of the population are youth, he’s pursed work focusing on the intersection between youth empowerment, climate change, and energy policy. Churchill founded the Africa Green Collar Project, which works to build a knowledge economy for young people in Africa, to enable them to create a sustainable future for the continent. He also works as an analyst at a global not-for-profit company working in the low carbon space. Previously, he worked as a Climate Change Advisor at a firm working in South Africa’s climate change environment.

Churchill is also a former project leader for the Engineers Without Borders UP Litre of Light (LOL) Project in South Africa, and he has been involved in other projects that originated at SES 2017, including a project where he worked with an international cohort of students to build cooking stoves for a local community in Zavalla, Mexico.

Cory Beaver – Stoney Nakoda First Nation, Alberta, Canada
Co-Chair, SevenGen the Indigenous Student Energy Summit 2019
Former President of Student Energy at Mount Royal University

At SES 2017 in Merida, Mexico, Cory Beaver first shared his vision for a Canada-wide Indigenous Student Energy Summit. The International Student Energy Summit was an empowering experience for Cory, showing him that young people could lead and implement large-scale, impactful projects in different contexts around the world. Just over a year later, Cory, along with Co-Chair Disa Crowchief (also a SES 2017 delegate), realized their vision and ran Canada’s first-ever Indigenous youth-led energy summit in Calgary. SevenGen united 200 Indigenous youth from every province and territory across Canada to learn how they can lead in Canada’s energy transition. The success of SevenGen led Cory to bring a delegation of Indigenous youth to the 2019 International Student Energy Summit, to provide pathways for more Indigenous youth to take action on energy issues in their communities.


Dougherty, I., and Amelia Clarke (2018). Wired for Innovation: Valuing the Unique Innovation Abilities of Emerging Adults. Emerging Adulthood 6(5): 358-365.

Jones, B., E.J. Reedy, E. J., and Bruce A. Weinberg (2014). Age and Scientific Genius. In Simonton, D. K. (ed.), Handbook of Genius. Chichester: England.

International Energy Agency. (2018). CO2 Status Report 2017. Paris: International Energy Agency.

Ito, M., et al. (2009). Living and learning with new media: Summary of findings from the Digital Youth Project. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Tapscott, D. (2008). Grown up digital. Boston: McGraw-Hill Education.

Zeldin, S. (2004). Youth as agents of adult and community development: Mapping the processes and outcomes of youth engaged in organizational governance. Applied Developmental Science 8(2): 75-90.