COP can only improve with more meaningful youth engagement

More must be done to include the generations likely to be left dealing with the worst of the climate crisis. As talks in Dubai finally conclude with some significant success stories, we find efforts to bring fresh voices to the negotiating table still lacking. 

green tree under gray clouds

‘Young people’s voices have been glaringly omitted at global climate negotiations, and COP28 is no exception. For too long, their concerns and perspectives have been ignored.’

Morgan Phillips, Head of Education and Youth Engagement at Global Action Plan, is clear on the failings of the annual UN climate summit. Hence his organisation going to great lengths to try and address the imbalance, hosting COP28: A Youth Perspective in the run up to this year’s main event to platform a broad cross section of young people. 

An extension of the Transform Our World campaign, which now has more than 5,000 teachers signed up to tackle historic neglect in climate education, Phillips is equally candid about the aims of the initiative overall: ‘We want every child to leave school prepared to take collective action for the good of people and planet, and this is a great chance for them to join the conversation.’

One of the speakers at the event, Phoebe L. Hanson, drew attention during the pandemic when she coordinated Mock COP26. The online gathering was specifically aimed at young people, with 800 delegates attending from 140 countries. Many had opportunities to collaborate with leaders and draft policy proposal as part of proceedings. The idea being fill a void left by the official conference’s Covid-19 cancellation, although her efforts served dual purposes. 

‘We’d been watching COP and a couple of people [involved] had attended, so we’d seen how it engages, or perhaps doesn’t engage young people. We mostly felt disengaged with the whole process. As much as we’re a leading voice within the environmental space overall, we are not a voice at those negotiating tables,’ says Hanson. ‘So we were trying to correct that with limited resources at the time.’

Hanson tells us she was ‘pleasantly surprised’ by the response from those at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). And, over the last four years, Mock COP has become a central policy voice for young people, giving the adults involved an opportunity to productively engage with youth directly. Formalised youth delegation roles have also been created, joining national representatives in discussions while also receiving a form of on-the-job training. But the partnership isn’t always straightforward.  

‘I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the limitations of this, and one clear example is the lack of UNFCCC definition of what a national youth delegate should be. So it varies wildly,’ Hanson explains, telling us some youth delegates are not permitted to talk during negotiations, while others are encouraged to do so. ‘People can also expect you to be the apprentice – scribbling minutes in the corner – and radical actor. Say things from the outside those on the inside of politics and climate can’t, but also learn from those people. In many ways, those two roles are opposites.’

Like previous editions, COP28 did run a youth sponsorship programme, covering travel and accommodation costs for around 100 people, this is a fraction of those who are interested in attending. As such, many go to desperate lengths to participate, with ‘stories of five or six people sharing rooms’ and ‘commuting for hours’ from hostel or hotel to conference venues not unheard of. 

‘People don’t always realise they can access formal negotiating rooms, so their observer status is sometimes not really being at the negotiations, but panels, the expo. That’s all really important too, but it can mean missing out on engaging with the actual COP process,’ Hanson says, explaining clearer information would help people understand where they can and cannot go.

‘Let’s bring young people into the design of it, loop in the grass roots organisations and non-state actors that connect those people, make sure that whole mailing list is informed. I think it would really benefit the process itself,’ she continues, adding that simplifying language also demystifies notoriously opaque ‘policy speak’. ‘This way, we’d have young people actually observing. At the moment, you have two separate bubbles – those at the conference centre, who know things first hand, and everyone else.’

As the pack down begins in Dubai following COP28 the real question is whether organisers can learn from mistakes of the past. In a year that finally saw a historic oil and gas agreement drawn up to begin transitioning away from fossil fuels, attendance from those industries still broke records, leaping 400% and surely increasing their influence. So it’s hard not to wonder why more isn’t being done to bring younger voices to the table, too. Especially given they’ll still be cleaning up long after the adults are gone.

More on youth engagement:

dentsu and Generation C pilot new climate education programme

Local authority assemblies are empowering community net-zero strategies

The lasting impact of teaching sustainability in schools

Images: Elias Maurer (top), Phoebe Hansen/Mock COP/Global Action Plan (bottom)



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