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Is youth a real stakeholder in today’s climate negotiations?

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Yaroslav Melekh, the National Programme Officer for Environment, Climate and Energy Efficiency for the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my personal and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Embassy of Sweden in Ukraine.

While the world’s eyes are on the COP26 in Glasgow this week, a high-level political climate negotiation, let me take you on a journey to what happened behind the scenes a few weeks ago.

Earlier in October, the planning event – what is commonly known as pre-COP26 – happened in Milan. Government representatives from 50 countries that have championed climate action gathered to streamline the agenda of COP26. The event also included a youth-driven part, where delegates from more than 190 countries were involved in lobbying their governments for more ambitious climate action. This included developing and presenting messages to respective ministers demanding more ambitious climate action, as well as teaming up with politicians in the fight for a sustainable future.

Yet, although youth was invited to ‘sit at the table’, its role was still one of consultation, rather than decision-making. The youth-led part of the pre-COP26 happened ahead of the initial ministerial convention. The real decisions followed once the dialogue with the youth was done, making public scrutiny the only hope young people have of securing decent livelihoods beyond 2050.

So why was there a youth-led pre-COP26?

Youth will be the most impacted by the decisions made today. The current generation of under-30s will be in their 30-60s in 2050. As humans, we are dependent on our natural environment, namely temperatures, biodiversity, sea levels, access to clean water and sufficient nutrition. Take this out of the equation, and the ‘economies’ will collapse without a workforce in a healthy, liveable area.

Hence, the ‘youth of today’ has every right to demand a more equitable future. As Boris Johnson, the UK’s Prime Minister, pointed out during the event:

‘Young people around the world are already paying the price for the reckless actions of their elders. There is still just enough time to put on the breaks’.

Consequently, the youth-led pre-COP26 was about intergenerational dialogue, to build bridges between the decision-makers of today and tomorrow, and increase the representativeness of the younger generation in the decision-making process, something that many young delegates indicated ‘needed to be done yesterday’.

With that being said, inequalities also exist within and across different social groups and countries. Perhaps, there is no better platform to develop one’s empathy and sympathy than having representatives of more than 190 countries in the room, sharing their pertinent issues. For instance, while some find carbon pricing an efficient mechanism to tackle emissions, others are climate migrants who simply seek to escape droughts, driven by man-made climate change, and can hardly meet their ends. When OECD-countries’ leadership debates about energy transition, some people still struggle to access energy so its ‘cleanness’ isn’t a priority. Equally, demanding carbon-dependent regions and economies to simply stop drilling the well isn’t a silver bullet – we also have to think of inclusive economic transformation, smoothly redesigning economies.

After all, having all the backgrounds in the room, putting together expertise and empathy is something we can all benefit from. This complexity of climate negotiations around overarching issues of justice and the equitable transition was well picked by Antonio Navarra, IPCC’s Focal Point for Italy:

‘Once you connect the biosphere with society you’re opening the Pandora box of moral issues and inequalities’.

What were the outcomes from the youth-led pre-COP26?

The youth delegates aimed to compile the most striking issues of our generation and debate findings with the ministers, with concrete wording to be presented this week at the COP26, the highest political-level climate negotiations.

During 2 days participants worked in 4 Working Groups:

  • Sustainable Recovery;

  • Non-State Actors’ Engagement;

  • A Climate-Conscious Society

  • Youth Driving Ambition;

I was humbled to be invited as a facilitator for the sub-working group ‘Financial Flows’ within Sustainable Recovery, focusing on climate finance. This area is critical in achieving climate neutrality, as ‘without investments, conservation is just a conversation’. The working group put its efforts in preparing a key message for the ministers, by reflecting on the thematic Zero Draft. Zero Draft is an initial draft the UNFCCC Secretariat prepares for climate negotiations, which is then debated during the initial round of negotiations before being finalized after a common consensus is reached. We debated the issues of:

  • The high cost of capital. as most developing countries can’t deploy climate projects at scale, yet these are the countries that require those investments the most to ensure timely energy system transition and the reduction of carbon emissions.

  • Cross-country and intergenerational inequality in carbon pricing, whereby vulnerable communities and youth are left worse-off.

  • The WTO rules for carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM).

  • Bureaucracy and corruption in distributing climate funds, whereby a big share of funds doesn’t reach communities, esp. youth.

  • Forced women and child labour exploitation.

After two days of hard work, through a few iterations of facilitation, our Working Group prepared a key message on financial flows:

‘We urge decision-makers at all levels, in public and private sectors, to create a transparent and accountable climate finance system with robust regulation of carbon emissions, eradicating the ‘climate investment trap’ in the most vulnerable communities, while ensuring equal opportunities for people of all genders, ages and backgrounds, as well as eradicating exploitation of women and child labour.’

Our message was presented to the high-level panel, including PM of Italy Mario Draghi, UK’s Boris Johnson, Secretary-General of the UN, US Special Climate Envoy John Kerry and President of COP26 Alok Sharma and to over 40 more ministers attending pre-COP26. During a 2-hour meeting with ministers, the Working Groups clearly addressed messages, with special attention to concrete, non-ambiguous statements, urging decision-makers at all levels to raise the ambition of achieving climate neutrality at COP26 in Glasgow, while ensuring that vulnerable groups aren’t left behind.

Also, I was honoured to attend a special meeting with COP26’s President Alok Sharma in an informal setting, where I was able to frame the issue of climate finance beyond just ‘availability’ but also ‘affordability’, namely the ‘climate investment trap’ that leaves most vulnerable communities not only with limited access to climate finance but also at enormous costs, delaying energy transition.

As the tone of pre-COP26 was largely political, addressing ministers wasn’t easy. Everyone has her/his own agenda, their own wins to push for and tend to be less comfortable digesting the bitterness of the fight for the climate. Hence, the younger generation played a big role in scrutinising politicians and acting as a strong unambiguous voice to push politicians to agree publicly on certain topics.

Luckily, the pre-COP26 efforts haven’t been left and forgotten in Milan. For 3 weeks following the event, the youth-driven messages were finalized together with the UNFCCC Secretariat. Now those have been taken by ministers and are being discussed at COP26 in Glasgow this week with clear actions to follow.

What is the real role of youth in climate negotiations?

My first major experience with climate negotiations reassured me that youth have every right to be a stakeholder of climate negotiations, not just a ‘witness’ or an ‘observing’ party. It is important that youth are only considered as consultants in the process, but also as decision-makers as the current generation of under-30s will be in their 30-60s by 2050, which, according to science, could be the tipping point for climate change. Individuals under-30s are already in possession of deep expertise and experience in changing the status quo. They shouldn’t be just labelled as ‘youth’ because of their age. Instead, they should be at the table and part of the decision-making process.

Just recall the suffragist movement – the aim was not just to listen to women, the idea was to make them equal decision-makers. Hence, in the modern political system, we don’t consult women in the government, we have them as a part of the government. The same principle has to be considered for youth.

We’ve had enough ‘youth councils’ and ‘youth delegates’. It isn`t rare for those types of delegates to be exploited in ‘youth-washing’ by politicians with a nice façade but often little or no mandate. Instead, being young shouldn’t be an implicit ‘sentence’ and an unconscious treatment of ‘lack of responsibility’ or ‘low experience’. The youth of today are citizens with the same equal rights as older generations. One of those rights is having a sustainable future.

As the COP26 President Alok Sharma pointed:

‘You’re to inherit decisions taken by the current generation of decision-makers’.

And it’s better that ‘current’ doesn’t only include the ‘older’ generation but also the ‘younger’ generation.

Remember the SDG17 ‘Global partnership for sustainable development’ – demanding doesn’t mean fighting - we need constructive intergenerational collaboration.

It is each and every person’s responsibility to be proactive and demand from our governments to increase ambition and ‘walk the talk’. Some people might find it naïve but as an optimist, I truly believe that every tool is good to fight climate change [unless it breaks ethics].

So let’s work together and make sure it happens!


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