By Emily Hunt

COP28, the 28th annual UN climate meeting, took place in Dubai between 30th November and 12th December 2023. Roughly 200 countries were represented in the discussions, and thousands attended the meeting, making it one of the biggest climate summits yet. One of my fellow SEEd Youth Board members, Keira, attended COP28. In this article, Keira talks to me about her experience as a young person at this hugely important and influential event. Understanding climate conferences from a young person’s perspective is very valuable if we are to take the opinions of young people on board and learn how to best support the younger generation in tackling the climate crisis.

Keira felt that this year’s COP was ‘receptive to the opinions of young people and wanted to engage more young people during the discussions’ – she told me ‘COP28 was the first COP to create a whole day dedicated to youth… which involved talks, panels and activities mainly geared towards young people’, and due to this there were ‘thousands of students from schools in Dubai taking part in the Youth Day’. So, could we see this as a turning point in levels of emphasis placed on young voices at COP? The Youth, Children, Skills, and Education Day hosted in Dubai is a sure sign that COP is making some effort to put youth voices at the centre of climate conversations – the day was designed to represent young people, prioritise climate education and amplify young voices within COP28.

I asked Keira if the introduction of the Youth Day means that youth voices are now fully considered at COP – does COP need to do any more to involve young people? In many ways, the introduction of a Youth Day at COP is just the beginning – engaging youth is not a ‘tick-box’ exercise. This is echoed in Keira’s response: ‘There is always some room for improvement… Seeing the improvement in governments’ attitudes when involving young people is already a massive step in the right direction… For now, most young people are kept outside of the topics that are considered not to concern them, such as oil contracts and changes to infrastructure. Although the talks I attended were specific to young people and education, often the truly important talks (the negotiations) tend to be much less accessible – but I think young people should also be exposed to these conversations.’ As Keira describes, there is a definite divide between what young people are allowed to hear and learn about and what they aren’t, almost as though leaders ‘cotton-wool’ the event for young people. What they might not realise is that many young people are most interested in hearing about the actual negotiations, rather than attending a talk on a less directly-related topic. Afterall, the conclusions reached during the negotiations will ultimately affect us for the rest of our lives.

Keira attended COP28 for a reason – ‘I was at COP to present a declaration I created on behalf of my school, following an event we hosted called Mock COP which involved over 60 students from multiple schools – students were split up into groups and each given a country to represent’. The declaration Keira presented expressed the desires of the young people involved in the Mock COP – it had three main themes: acknowledging youth and action, leading by example and recognising global interconnectedness. These were the topics that were mostly widely debated at the Mock COP and therefore the highest on the students’ agenda. Keira had the fantastic opportunity of presenting this declaration to ‘a member high up in the Ministry of Education in Dubai and the Assistant General Director of Education for UNESCO’. When I asked Keira how they received the declaration, she said they were ‘so positive and encouraging’.

Therefore, due to the combination of a brilliant response to receiving the declaration, and COP’s introduction of a Youth Day, Keira came away from COP28 with ‘lots of hope and optimism for the future’. Although the negotiated outcomes may or may not be what we were hoping for, as Keira says, ‘COP is on the right track to involving more young people and it seems that the future is looking positive, so long as governments take on the mentality of forming strong intergenerational relationships’. It is very promising to see COP begin to make a substantial move towards involving youth in the event. Young voices have so much to bring to the table, as shown by the insightful declaration produced by Keira’s Mock COP. Afterall, why shouldn’t young people have a part to play when our generation is going to be experiencing the consequences of agreements made at COP (or the lack of them)? It is logical to involve youth in some way. It is important too that young people feel heard – it gives us a sense of hope and purpose, something hard to find in an issue as overwhelmingly negative as climate change. In Keira’s words, ‘it is important to be realistic but also positive when sharing facts about climate change with young people, as it can influence the way they perceive the issue as a whole’.