A breath of fresh air: Why young people’s voices must ring clear in climate negotiations

Youth representatives with former UNFCCC secretary general Christiana Figueres

Jeanne Martin, an alumnus of  Imperial’s Centre for Environmental Policy, will be attending the UN’s COP22 climate conference in Marrakech next week as a member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition. She explains why the UN climate negotiation process is lacking – and how the youth can improve it.

Full of hope. This is how I felt last year, when I walked into my first United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) plenary session in Bonn as a youth representative. At this event designed to lay the groundwork for the COP21 climate conference in Paris, I had imagined that our negotiators would be discussing the most effective ways to curtail climate change. With COP21 only 6 months away, I had expected the text to be in an advanced writing stage.

Instead, the focus was an 86-page long document that had to be whittled down to 22 pages. A painstaking ten days later, the text of the agreement was a mere five pages shorter.

UNFCCC plenary in Bonn, June 2015

I have come to the realisation that the UN’s excessive focus on procedures numbs negotiators of any feeling of urgency, robs from them a sense of purpose, and makes them fall into a state of collective amnesia. Indeed, they seem to forget about scientific warnings of agricultural collapses, rising sea levels, extreme weather events. What matters most in plenaries is not the protection of our planet, but whether brackets should be added to the sixth word of the 154th paragraph. Procedure gently, albeit effectively, kills purpose.


Of course, with stakes so high, it goes without saying that the way things are phrased does matter. Words define the legal strength and ambition of an agreement. Yet, this exclusive focus on wordsmithing creates blinkers. As a side-effect, negotiators lose track of what they are really trying to achieve.

This is where youth comes in.

Young blood

Youth involvement in the UNFCCC negotiations can be traced back to COP5, in 1999. However, it was not until COP15, in Copenhagen in 2009, that youth organisations the world obtained an official constituency status through the establishment of YOUNGO. YOUNGO is a network of youth non-governmental organisations and individuals who identify as youth, both of whom must come from one of the 196 UNFCCC Parties. YOUNGO members are granted access to the negotiations as observers.

Does this mean that we are now considered as equal negotiation partners? Far from it. Observers can only speak at certain pre-specified times and are not always allowed inside the negotiation room. This strictly limits the influence that they could have. Yet, has the creation of YOUNGO increased our ability to effect change? Yes, in some respects.

Jeanne (5th from left) and other YOUNGO members holding a youth declaration, which if ratified by the UNFCCC Parties, would increase their ability to engage in the negotiation process.

As youth representatives, we see ourselves having three main roles: to humanise the negotiation process, push for more ambitious climate targets and empower citizens to take action in their daily lives.

1. Putting a human touch back into the negotiations

The conditions in which the negotiations take place are not always conducive to discussions on finding fair and effective solutions to climate change. Most negotiators are well-meaning but often get side-tracked by the previously mentioned “bracket issue”. Youth representatives are here to remind them that the way climate change is addressed matters, and to provide them with means to achieve climate justice. For example, in the lead-up to COP21, YOUNGO members worked with other constituencies to include a paragraph on addressing climate change in a human rights-based manner in the Paris Agreement. This paragraph made it to the Preamble, which introduces the tone and direction of the Agreement, but is legally weaker.

2. Driving higher levels of ambition

For young people across the globe, strong climate action is a necessity, not a luxury. As cliché as it sounds, we will be the ones most affected the most by the actions societies take today. We thus have a greater stake in ensuring that the negotiation objectives are as ambitious as they should be—which has not been the case until now—and that the resulting agreements reflect this.

As it stands today, the Paris Agreement will not trigger the energy revolution needed to keep global warming within safe levels. Parties agreed to keep temperature rise below 2°C, but preferably below 1.5°C. They drafted national plans (called Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) that describe how they will meet these targets. Yet the NDCs are non-binding, meaning that no country will be sanctioned for failing to meet its national targets. Furthermore, if added together, the NDCs only bring us down to a 3-3.5°C trajectory—conditional on the $100 billion target for climate finance being met.

In 2009, the world’s industrialised countries pledged to raise $100 billion per year by 2020. This sum will be managed by the Green Climate Fund and assist the poorest countries in mitigating their emissions and adapting to climate change impacts. Most developing countries have submitted two NDCs, whose ambition levels depend on the amount of climate finance available. For now, the $100 billion goal is only aspirational. Total contributions to the Green Climate Fund are estimated to be around $9.9 billion and it is still unclear how the remaining $90.1 billion will be raised.

As youth representatives, we have a moral responsibility to stand up for our generation. We have a duty to use our privileged position inside the negotiation centre to lobby negotiators for fairer and more ambitious targets. Important wins were made by youth – in collaboration with other members of civil society – in the past, such as pushing for the inclusion of the 1.5°C temperature target in the text. Let’s hope that we can earn similar wins on climate finance at COP22.

3. Empowering citizens to take action

The UN process is far from perfect. The Paris Agreement is a first step in tackling climate change. But, it is insufficient on its own to avert a climate crisis. Despite this, after COP21, a sense of joy and relief was communicated to citizens, giving them a false impression that the climate problem was in good hands and that there was nothing to worry about.

As youth representatives, we want to communicate that this is not the case. We want people to understand that these international commitments will have to be accompanied by strong local climate action to be effective. We appreciate our power as citizens to push for a better world by changing our behaviours, lobbying our political representatives for stronger action, switching to renewable energy providers, starting our own campaigns, our own petitions, etc. As youth representatives, we are compelled to drive people to action.

A call to action

Next week, the 196 UNFCCC parties will meet in Marrakech for COP22. The three main themes of this COP will be climate finance, climate adaptation and loss and damage. In other words, our negotiators will start discussing about the best ways to implement the Paris Agreement and meet their international commitments. YOUNGO will be there to push parties to take ambitious action and deliver on their promises.

In summary, do climate negotiators address issues that matter to people? Not always and not enough.

Are ambition levels high enough to keep us below safe levels of warming? No. Not yet.

Can we, as empowered and empowering citizens, make a difference? Yes. We can!

And there’s no better time to act than now.

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