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In October, climate activist Greta Thunberg made headlines when she said she’d skip this year’s UN COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. She criticized the UN climate conference as a space for “greenwashing” where people with power go to seek attention.
Thunberg isn’t alone in sharing doubts about the processes at COP. A number of other activists and scientists have also shared their concerns over the slow pace of climate action facilitated by conferences like COP.
Still, for many youth environmental leaders, COP is a space where they can meet other youth doing similar work, share their ideas on a global stage, and have an opportunity to collaborate with others.
“A lot of people might think ‘what’s the point of COP?’, but there has been action before COP, there was action and ambition at COP, and there will continue to be action and ambition after COP. And it’s really civil society, Indigenous peoples, and young people who are bringing that action forward,” says Soomin Han, finance lead at Youth Climate Lab.
This year, COP27 saw around 45,000 attendees from all over the world to take part in the conference, including a handful of young Canadian environmental leaders. The two week event closed with a historic win for a loss and damage climate fund to help vulnerable countries that are highly impacted by climate disasters. The conference also had its first ever youth envoy in a pavilion dedicated to youth-led events.
“I think we’re making progress at every COP — it’s so easy to criticize but it’s actually very difficult to stay hopeful and optimistic and actually see where there’s been progress,” says William Gagnon, chair of the Northern Council for Global Cooperation.
Win for historic loss and damage fund, but fossil fuels phase-out took a “u-turn”
While the loss and damage fund was a major victory this year, and one which many countries have been fighting to have for decades, “there was a little bit of a u-turn on the focus on fossil fuels in the final text,” according to Shakti Ramkumar, director of communications and policy at Student Energy.
In COP26, 196 countries made commitments to phase out fossil fuels; however, Ramkumar says there’s been a loss of momentum between last year and this year as only a fraction of those countries actually submitted their fossil fuel emissions this year.
“It becomes very difficult to count [the loss and damage fund] as a perfect win because if we don’t phase out fossil fuels and reduce emissions, there’s no way we will be able to cope with the escalating loss and damage that we’ll have from the climate crisis. We definitely need both, and on the fossil fuel front we did not see a continued momentum,” says Ramkumar.
There was also a huge presence of the fossil fuel industry at COP27, which disappointed some youth leaders. From COP26, the number of fossil fuel delegates at COP27 increased by 25 per cent to around 600 delegates.
“That really goes to show who gets access to these spaces, who gets to talk to these decision makers, and who gets to have influence over these conversations,” says Han.
Han says that some of these delegates were with the official Canadian party as well, which felt like a “slap in the face” considering how many young Canadian climate leaders weren’t able to go to the conference because they couldn’t get accreditation and how expensive it is to attend.
“I would really like to see a COP where the fossil fuel industry has no influence,” says Gagnon. “Imagine a healthcare conference where we allow tobacco lobbyists … we could imagine that in the 50s and 60s, but now, it’s just unimaginable.”
The role of civil society at COP and progress that happens on the sidelines
When Ramkumar attended COP26, she saw thousands of people take to the streets of Glasgow to hold leaders accountable while trying to push for more climate action.
“I think that’s when I understood that civil society plays a big role at COP by making it transparent to the [general] public what’s going on behind negotiation rooms, and also pushing back when progress is slow or delayed” says Ramkumar.
This year, however, the accessibility of the Sharm el-Sheikh posed a barrier for people to participate in climate strikes on the streets, like they did in Glasgow, because the Egyptian government rules against protesting. Anyone who wishes to protest, according to the law, has to submit a written notification to the government at least three days in advance.
However, hundreds of people marched within the COP27 conference centre instead to voice their concerns and opinions on climate justice. But there was a limited civil society presence in general at COP27.
“There’s a lot that happens along the sidelines that doesn’t receive as much attention as the negotiations but has been really valuable for us and for other youth organizations who don’t really get a lot of spaces to work together,” says Ramkumar, “COP has become one of these spaces where youth can collaborate, validate our own efforts and understand what other groups are working on.”
COP27 posed a number of accessibility issues for youth leaders
The location of COP27 was not only an issue in terms of organizing climate protests but also a barrier for those wanting to attend the conference itself because of its remote location.
Accessibility at COP for young people is not a new issue. Many youth groups have to fund their trip to the conference, including flights and accommodation, from their (often limited) organizational budgets. Also because the conference is highly anticipated, when the location is announced, hotel rooms get booked in a flash.
When Ramkumar and her teammates attended COP26 in Glasgow, they couldn’t find any accommodation in the city. They had to stay in Edinburgh and commute for two hours every morning to go to the conference and then back again at night.
“Sharm el-Sheikh was really difficult to get to for a lot of us, and very expensive. So I think maybe the civil society presence was a little bit smaller than it would have been had it been in a more accessible location,” says Ramkumar.
Han says that in her experience at COP25, there’s a lot of passion and energy from young people to be involved in spaces like COP. But because of the lack of accessibility and remoteness of COP27, Han says “it really creates that question of who gets access to these spaces? Who is able to attend? Who has funding to attend to these spaces? Who is this COP for?”
Though COP27 was supposed to be the ‘African COP,’ Han says that many of these barriers to accessibility even prevented youth from African nations to attend the conference.
“Hopefully that is a priority for next year for the COP28 presidency to consider not just whether youth are able to protest and participate, but whether they’re being cared for and have access to necessary accommodations and resources that they need,” says Ramkumar, “because the more we don’t have to worry about those pieces, the more we can put energy into our work and do our best.”
The youth envoy was a positive step, but there needs to be more youth negotiators
At COP27, there were a few new victories for youth, including the first ever youth envoy in the Children and Youth Pavilion, where youth leaders could run their own events. Ramkumar says the energy in this area was different from the rest of the conference.
Youth hosted unconventional panels, and speaking events where young people talked about their experiences fighting for climate action in their home countries. Also many young Indigenous leaders were profiled in the pavilion.
For Han, though these elements were a positive addition, she still feels that the conference needs to move beyond just engaging young people to speak at COP.
“There’s still a tendency to silo young people into only spaces for youth or intergenerational [conversations]. I was hoping that we were at a place where young people would be invited into every single conversation and at every stage of the conversation and negotiations, but there remains that gap,” says Han.
While some countries including Paraguay, Great Britain, and Jordan have started to implement youth negotiators who represent their country and its interests, Han says it should be a common practice among all countries to have a youth negotiator.
“In Canada we don’t have a youth negotiator — we don’t have any youth negotiators. We don’t have any programs to train youth to join in on the conversation and bring the expertise they absolutely have, and also to help them understand the international process,” says Julie Segal, senior manager of climate finance at Environmental Defence.
As her first time at a COP this year, Segal says she saw many adults and youth working together and creating positive outcomes and positive change. But outside of COP, Segal says many young people are discouraged from international climate negotiations because of the lack of opportunity for them to participate.
“We need to engage young people [in negotiations] to improve the process and to also help build ongoing faith on collaborative global action for climate change,” says Segal.
On an informal level, young people are already doing the work of pushing their agendas forwards and speaking up for climate policies they believe are needed. But youth involvement needs to move beyond being ad hoc — and toward their leading the conversations, says Han.
“Giving crumbs of space and time isn’t enough. We need to actually shift how we frame conversations, we need to shift who gets access, we need to shift to get the time and the resources and the funds to influence change as well. Things need to ultimately shift at a systemic level,” says Han.