Emma Clemens (22, Master International Economics and Bachelor of Laws) has made it to the last round in the race to become UN youth representative for sustainable development. The UN youth representative will address the UN regarding sustainability on behalf of all young people in the Netherlands.

Emma saw the opportunity for her first sustainable deed of the day at the Erasmus Pavilion: “Which tea do you prefer? If you’re not sure, we can just share the same bag.”

Emma doesn’t immediately fit the image of a sustainability activist. She’s not a sandal-wearing type; rather a neatly dressed economics student. No dull appearance because of a lack of vitamin B12, but an energetic radiance that betrays that she sometimes eats a little meat (Emma is flexitarian). “We need to get rid of the nerdy environmental image. It’s a real handicap for sustainability issues. I want to mobilise young people to address climate issues; I’m tired of just talking and not acting.”

Letter to the Prime Minister

Emma has been involved in sustainability since she was very young. “It’s been the central theme in my life”, she explained cheerfully. “My father was always involved in sustainability; he was the first in the neighbourhood to have solar panels on the roof and a boiler heated by solar power. He transferred his passion for sustainability to me.”

When Emma was seven, she was already so involved with sustainability that she wrote a letter to former Prime Minister, Jan-Peter Balkenende regarding the introduction of car-free Sundays. “I thought: if everyone would just leave the car for a day, it would really help our environmental problem. And I received a personal and signed response! The signature counterbalanced the fact that, in his letter, he hardly made any promises.”


“It’s my generation that wants to be able to lead a good life in thirty years’ time, without standing knee-deep in water”, said Emma. “As UN youth representative I want to create awareness among young people. I aim to do this by informing young people about the subject and forming a bridge between young people and politicians.” Emma feels that, in concrete terms, the position of UN representative means a lot of lobbying. “You start discussions with young people and politicians, are invited to think tanks, debates, conferences; you make yourself heard at various levels.”


Emma Clemens 2
Emma Clemens in front of the Polak building. Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

According to Emma, the climate issue is too big and intangible for young people. Emma: “This morning I went to my former secondary school to talk about my campaign and to discuss sustainability with pupils. They had the feeling that they didn’t know enough about environmental issues.”

“I have the same feeling”, explained Emma. “Only after following the Grand Challenges honours programme have I been able to consider the problem in a more structured way. Henk Oosterling’s Ecophilosophy philosophy course has also given me more tools to comprehend the problem.” Emma has also now been able to formulate her own definition of sustainability: “Sustainability is thinking and acting in such a way that your actions do not hinder future generations. Education plays a key role in developing this way of thinking and acting. As UN representative, I really want to focus on this.”

When Emma was board member at EFR, she established an economic minor focusing on the transition to a sustainable economy. She felt that sustainability did not feature sufficiently in the Economics curriculum. “There should be a greater focus on sustainability within each study. In the coming years I aim to help establishing more of these types of courses about sustainability.”


According to Emma, education can create awareness, but politicians and the business world are the ones that can take the really big sustainability steps. “It is of course fantastic if people want to take personal steps towards sustainability and I’m doing that myself too (by eating less meat and cycling as much as possible instead of using the car) but, in the end, it’s the worlds of business and politics that can have the most effect.”

“By making their products more sustainable, businesses that manufacture products on a large scale can achieve much more than an individual could ever do”, stated Emma. “The same applies to the influence of policy developed by politicians; this has much more impact than individual efforts. As UN youth representative, I can and aim to contribute on this bigger scale to the transition to a sustainable economy.”

The UN event on 30 October includes the election for the UN youth representative for sustainable development. Emma Clemens is competing against a student from Wageningen, the environmental city of the Netherlands. You can vote for her from 23 October via jongerenvertegenwoordiger.nl/stemmen. Emma is organising a bicycle trip from the campus to The Hague on 27 October, to offer the new minister of climate affairs a To Do-list in the name of all Dutch youngsters.