Want to save the world? This 15 year old will tell you how

Exclusive interview with Kehkashan Basu, the youngest Global Coordinator for the United Nations Environment Program

“The only way forward, if we are going to improve the quality of the environment, is to get everybody involved.” – Richard Rogers

Kehkashan at Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps training

15 year old, Kehkashan Basu, a Year 10 student at the Deira International School in Dubai, has been spreading the message of peace and sustainability since she was only 8 years old.

She has been working tirelessly to enlist the support of children and youth across geographical boundaries.

In 2013 at the tender age of 12, she was elected as UNEP’s (United Nations Environment Programme) Global Coordinator for Children & Youth and a member of its Major Groups Facilitating Committee making her the the youngest person and the first minor, ever, to be elected into this position in the history of UNEP.

Major achievements

Her internationally acclaimed work on sustainability has resulted in her appointments as :

Youth Ambassador of World Future Council – Germany
Global Advisory Council member of Young Men 4 Gender Equality -USA
Global President of the Children’s Board for Plant for the Planet – Germany (2013-2014)
Chairperson of the UAE chapter of the International Youth Council
Global Youth Ambassador for A World At School to promote the cause of global education
In her role as the voice of children and youth, she has spoken at over 45 United Nations and other international summits, travelling to over 20 countries.

Kehkashan campaigns globally for gender equality, sustainable consumption, future justice, rights of the girl child and the right to education. She is a member of the Commission on Ending Violence Against Women and Girls at the World Future Council, Germany and a Volunteer with the World Youth Foundation.

For her environmental advocacy at a global level, Kehkashan has received international awards such as :

2012 UNCCD (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification) Award
2012 Korea Green Foundation Award
2013 International Young Eco-Hero award from Action for Nature, USA
2014 Kids are Heroes, USA Award
2015 Solar Pioneer Award
2015 “Ambassador for the Environment” at GESS Education Awards
2015 Diana Award
2014 NRI ( Non-Resident Indian) of the Year Award
HH Hamdan Award for Distinguished Academic Excellence in 2010 and 2013

In an exclusive interview with NRICafe, Kehkashan Basu talks about her journey as an environment crusader.

You started talking about environment at a young age of 8. What was your pathway to the environment becoming your cause?

It began with the realization, close to my 8th birthday, that I was coincidentally born on the same day that is celebrated globally as World Environment Day.

It made me realise that it was probably pre-ordained that I should grow to be an environmentalist and a sustainability crusader.

Kehkashan Basu at the United Nations in New York
My parents also encouraged me to follow my passion and instead of buying expensive gifts, I spent my birthday money on planting a tree in our building’s garden.

That was the starting point and my work, thereafter, has taken me to the world stage where I have the immense privilege of engaging with and learning from experts and crusaders who are icons in their own respect.

Kehkashan Basu with Julia Guillard (Ex-Prime Minister of Australian), Mary Robinson (Ex-President of Ireland) and HE Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs)

Being the Global Coordinator for Children and Youth at UNEP and a member of its Major Groups Facilitating Committee is an amazing achievement. What are your activities in these roles?
At the age of 12, in 2013, I was elected for the position of Global Coordinator for UNEP’s Major Group for Children & Youth and became a member of it’s Major Groups Facilitating Committee.

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Kehkashan Basu representing Children and Youth Major Group, delivering her statement to UN HLPF 2015

I am the youngest person, ever, in the world to hold this position and this was the first time in UNEP’s history that a minor had been elected to this position.
Mine is not a decision making role but that of a facilitator and operating partner for UNEP’s children and youth constituency. We act as a seamless conduit of engagement between our constituency and UNEP processes.
We share updates on the various actions and forums concerning the environment and sustainable development, obtain inputs from the constituency as desired and requested for by UNEP, facilitate discussions on various related subjects and also represent the views of our constituency at UN conferences and meetings.
Since it’s a global position, I need to engage with children and youth from across time zones from Latin America to SE Asia and it has been an amazing experience for me to network with such a varied spectrum of cultures.

How was the experience of delivering speech at 12th UN youth assembly?

This was my first speech at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in New York .

I was only 13 years old and it was a dream come true for me to address the gathering from the same podium from where I had seen world leaders speaking.
Speaking at the 2014 UN Youth Assembly in New York

The 12th UN Youth Assembly brought together over 1200 eminent youth leaders from over 150 countries and I was the youngest delegate and speaker at this summit.
Public speaking comes naturally to me and since I was communicating to my peers, I was very excited at the opportunity to share my vision and work with them. I was quite overwhelmed by the response after my speech and it is one of my cherished memories.
Since then I have spoken at several UN forums and as I give this interview, I am in New York attending the High Level Political Forum at the United Nations where I had the opportunity of delivering two statements on behalf of my constituency.

You are the founder president of Green Hope UAE. Can you tell us about this organisation and the activities?

At the Climate March in New York in September 2014

In 2012, I attended the Earth Summit, also known as Rio+20, in Brazil. On my return to Dubai, I realized that our region’s children and youth needed an engagement platform through which they could learn about sustainable development and then contribute to impacting society and the environment through community action.
This led to the formation of Green Hope which started off with just 5 members in Aug2012. Today we have over a 1000 members, not just in the region, but also from many countries across the world.
Our organization is run “by youth – for youth” because we feel that the message is conveyed seamlessly when peers talk to each other. We organize and hold environmental academies, which are tailor-made workshops, varying from two-hour sessions to full day events, targeting students from schools across the country.
We educate, engage and empower young people on various aspects of sustainable development such as stopping land degradation, understand the concepts of sustainable consumption, climate change impacts and its mitigation, biodiversity conservation, social upliftment and the need for future justice.

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Conducting environment academies for schools in the UAE

Each academy is conducted by a fresh group of members and during our preparations I train them on public speaking and presentation skills. Our academies are now much awaited events and not only schools, even corporates, have started to invite us to hold sessions for their employees.
We have also begun conducting road shows so that we can reach out to a wider segment of civil society. Green Hope has now been accorded partner status by several international organisations, such as Connect4Climate ( A World bank initiative) and Dr Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots.

Green Hope marching to celebrate UAE’s National Day in 2014

Environmental protection for most people is planting few trees during Environment Day. What else can we do to protect mother nature?

Kehkashan with NRI of the Year award

The environment is just one aspect of sustainability. Sustainable development is a combination of three pillars : economic, environment and society. Focussing on just one out of the three makes the process ineffective.
All three pillars need to flourish in harmony, but the sad fact is that , globally , economic progress is being achieved at the cost of the environment and is benefitting only a small segment of civil society.
Since its inception in 1972 , World Environment Day (WED) has a dedicated theme each year. It goes way beyond planting trees, which is still an important, simple yet effective way of mitigating climate change. The 2015 WED theme was “7 billion dreams, One Planet, Consume with care” and it sought to draw our attention to the fact that our planet’s resources are finite and we needed to waste less and consume with care.
In other words, the theme focused on sustainable consumption which is all about “doing more with less”. Urban societies produce copious amounts of waste most of which ends up in landfills and causes further degradation to the land.

We should look at changing our lifestyles to reduce waste in all its forms.

Our region has amongst the highest carbon footprint in the world and we need to move to renewable energy sources , such as solar, instead of fossil fuels so that we can move to a zero carbon future.
What are the greatest obstacles to immediate, collective action on climate change?
Robert Swan ,the famous explorer and environmentalist once said “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it”.
This apathy , of civil society and policy makers, is the greatest obstacle towards mitigation of climate change. For years , the world has also debated whether climate is a reality or a hyped up myth. However, we see the disastrous effects of global warming and climate change everyday and in all parts of the world.

Addressing students at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi

There is also a lack of political will on the part of developed nations to reduce their carbon emissions  Every year , UNFCCC holds its climate change conference where world leaders meet to negotiate a reduction in carbon emissions in line with the Kyoto protocol.
I had the privilege of attending the last UNFCCC summit held in Lima, Peru, but again it failed to deliver on the promise of limiting global warming to a level below 2 deg C by 2050.

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Time is not our side and many of the impacts of global warming are irreversible.

We as responsible members of civil society must take it upon ourselves to influence policy makers to take the step towards reducing carbon emissions as soon as possible.
If you could have the ears of world leaders, what is the one message you would most want to tell them?

With the GESS – UK award as “Ambassador of the Environment”

My message to them would be “Time is not on our side. You need to act now to reverse this trend of environmental degradation before it’s too late. If not for yourself , do it for your children so that they do not inherit a hot , barren planet”.
Do you think environmental conservation should be a subject at schools?
Environmental awareness is definitely an important aspect in guiding civil society towards the goal of sustainable development. If schools start including this in their curriculum, it will definitely be a step in the right direction as young minds will be able to gauge its importance from an early age and work towards achieving it.

You have travelled all around the world attending environment related events. We also heard that you are a topper at school. How do you manage studies along with your commitments? How supportive is your family and teachers?

I firmly believe that one can always find time for one’s passion. Even though I travel almost every month to different countries, it does not affect my studies or my other activities.

Receiving her first Hamdan Award in 2010

I have always topped my class and won the prestigious HH Sheikh Hamdan Award for Distinguished Academic Excellence twice, in 2010 and 2013. Music is my passion and I play the piano, guitar and sing and regularly perform on stage, including ones at UNEP TUNZA closing ceremony in Indonesia and at the UN Youth Assembly in New York. Last month , I passed Grade 8 level exams in piano from Trinity College London and have just started my diploma.
I have won prizes in quiz, public speaking , debates , dance and drama having represented my school at various events. I have also received international awards for my essays and poetry , notable amongst them being the 2014 GOI Peace Foundation, Japan’s International Essay Competition and the Taaleem Poetry award at the Emirates Airlines International Festival of Literature.
It was a huge privilege for me when I received the NRI of the Year award in April this year in the academics category at a glittering ceremony in Mumbai.
My parents and school are extremely supportive and encourage all my efforts. A lot of my school work is now available online and this makes it easy for me to stay abreast of my homework, which I can submit even when on a transcontinental flight.

Conducting a workshop at a school in New York

What is your message to the children of the future?

I would like to remind them that destiny is never a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice.

Young people have the capability to be changemakers and we must be fearless in our efforts to define our future.

I would like them to take inspiration, like I do, from Pearl S. Buck’s quote “The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible — and achieve it, generation after generation.”

You can connect with Kehkashan on Facebook and Twitter.

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