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December 8, 2023

Youth on COP28: few women but an ‘overwhelming number of fossil fuel lobbyists’

COP28 youth climate activists (Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)
Young climate activists at COP28. ‘The UNFCCC process needs to regulate the amount of lobbyists that come to COP’, says Pacific Climate Warriors’ Brianna Fruean (Photo: Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

December 8 is ‘youth, children, education and skills day’ at this year’s UN climate conference

Sustainable Views spoke to young climate leaders who are attending COP28 in Dubai, to hear about their experiences at the conference. Below is what they shared with us.

Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dominika Lasota, climate justice activist with Fridays for Future

We are just after the first week of negotiations, and the situation looks really difficult at the moment. As a global movement, we focus largely on fighting for the full, fair fossil fuel phase-out this year, but the fight is very tough. There is a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists this year: 2,456 — at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh last year it was 636, at COP26 in Glasgow it was around 500 — and the COP28 presidency, led by Sultan al-Jaber, the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is obviously directly linked to the oil industry. Lobbyists are doing what they can to push the topic of the fossil fuel phase-out away.

There are not many activists in Dubai, perhaps 300 or so, mainly due to funding and visas issues. We are doing everything we can here: pressuring the delegations, exposing some of the lobbyists, and informing the public through the media. But the exhaustion is palpable.

I heard a really good comment this week that this COP feels more like a theme park rather than a serious place to discuss an existential threat to the human race, and I found it to be really true. The United Arab Emirates is putting tremendous efforts into PR. The conference location itself could not be made more perfect. There is joyful music playing at the venue, the air seems perfumed, it looks idyllic — if not for the fossil fuel deals and industry’s mingling in the process that is happening in the background.

It all makes activists like me and my friends question the process altogether, but I think COP is still the best international option we have to work out climate policy, and we shouldn’t give up on that just yet.

Brianna Fruean, member of the Pacific Climate Warriors youth-led grassroots network

Inside events, I feel like there’s been a bigger number of young Pacific people present. But I think that’s because of the climate leadership of our own countries; I think that has nothing to do with COP and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process. Outside our national delegations, I don’t feel like young people are being heard, and I don’t feel like young women in particular are being heard. We haven’t seen women in the plenary sessions. COP has always been historically very male-heavy, and I think that this is just a repetition of that.

One of the biggest challenges for young people at COP28 is the overwhelming number of fossil fuel lobbyists, it just makes our campaigning so much harder. The UNFCCC process needs to regulate the amount of lobbyists that come to COP. At the very least, lobbyists should be named in badges. They shouldn’t be walking around under UNFCCC or country badges, they should be walking around with labels saying they are lobbyists. In an ideal world, they wouldn’t even be allowed at the table. You wouldn’t allow Big Tobacco at a table discussing how to decrease cancer rates.

In the Pacific, we have very close proximity to our COP negotiators. We even have youth negotiators who participate in talks with our country delegations. Our governments are helping hone the thoughts of our young people, and empowering them to take a step into these types of leadership roles. I also think young people are serving their governments so well because what we decide today, our young people will have to implement tomorrow.

A lot of these policies that are being written, the people that are writing them will not be in government long enough to implement them, especially when we’re looking at targets for 2030 or 2050. I would love to see more country delegations include more youth representatives, young negotiators. That would be very helpful in negotiation rooms, where we do need to push for more ambitious measures. I think young people can do that.

Avery Johnstone, climate risk and strategy associate at KPMG

As a young person COP is always challenging, but rewarding. It can be frustrating to feel like the negotiations and compromises made at COP are simply not good enough. However, it is empowering to know there are so many other young people and future leaders who are part of this process and that you are working on these goals collectively, rather than alone.

This COP is certainly more complicated than other years’, and it’s difficult for young people to be included in the negotiations. But, we are seeing multilateral agencies and the private sector with an increased willingness to listen to young people — including through shadow boards, advisory councils.

Progress is slow, and more pressure needs to be applied to the public and private sectors to advance climate action. Young people, and in particular their role in climate storytelling, and the media can put pressure on the negotiations, but we are still fundamentally missing from the top tables where the key decisions are being made.

Julie Segal, senior manager at Canadian non-profit Environmental Defence

There isn’t a huge presence of young people advocating for integrity in sustainable finance, and that’s one of the things that I do. Young people are being celebrated more and more at COP, but we need processes that give them formal influence, and I don’t think we’re quite there yet, even if there’s been a lot of progress towards it.

A lot of global south countries include young people in their formal negotiation teams, in part because they need that additional support to track all of the many and complex negotiation streams. The majority of global north countries include young people only in their consultation process.

Cynicism about COP has increased in the past years and I think that’s misplaced. Way too many oil and gas lobbyists show up at these events, but that isn’t a reason for young people and climate experts not to come. It’s even more important that we do. We want to make sure the narrative is not owned by oil and gas lobbyists, and that civil society and climate experts drive forward action. We need to make sure that this conversation is moving in the right direction.

COP has achieved progress on climate action, and we have to double down on bringing integrity to this process. We want to make sure that people back home know that action is happening in their best interest.

A service from the Financial Times