By Jayathma Wickramanayake, Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and Heeta Lakhani and Marie-Claire Graf, Focal Points – UNFCCC Youth Constituency
“Climate change will affect youth, children and future generations the most if we do not take action now!” This narrative is frequently heard at climate events in recent years, yet climate commitments and targets set by world leaders continue to focus on the distant future instead of prioritising the urgent climate action needed today. Families are already being repeatedly knocked into poverty, while eco-anxiety is rising among children and youth confronted by a disastrous future. Heat waves are leading to school closures, while floods, cyclones and droughts are driving unprecedented rates of food insecurity.
Despite ongoing efforts from youth constituencies around the world, the world remains far off track from limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – which science tells us is the only way to protect nature and humanity. In 2015, through the Paris Agreement at COP 21, governments committed to keeping global warming well below 2.0 degrees Celsius and as close as possible to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in large part by achieving carbon neutrality. Currently, out of the 137 countries that have announced plans to achieve carbon neutrality, only two have delivered on it, while another six have set targets for before 2050. The other 130+ countries have yet to release concrete plans to achieve this goal by 2050. At COP 26, China and Russia set targets for 2060, and India announced a target to achieve net zero by 2070.
Given this lack of meaningful commitment to action, the voices of young people at COP 26 were at the fore in reminding world leaders that developing countries need an annual investment of USD 100 billion to tackle climate change, with at least half of this amount allocated to adaptation and resilience, while also ensuring distribution equity. Additionally, young negotiators demanded the inclusion of human rights as fundamental to the implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement.
For young people, fighting to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees means fighting for our rights and fighting for our survival. For many of us, it is a question of whether we will have a future in our countries, where 1.5 degrees is clearly a matter of life and death. Although youth actions are commonly perceived as predominantly protests and strikes, it is critical to acknowledge that young people are also actively contributing to climate policy. YOUNGO, the Official Youth Constituency to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has taken the lead on ensuring that the 1.5 degrees threshold is given priority in policy dialogues.
World leaders must deliver on their commitments for today’s youth and future generations to be healthy and safe. Saying that youth and future generations will be affected the most by climate change tends to automatically put them at the receiving end of climate policies – as beneficiaries rather than as equal stakeholders in finding solutions. Why do we assume that young people do not have a role in climate policies and defining targets? This narrative must change! Not because young people demand it but because they have demonstrated through their own actions and initiatives that they are actively committed to contributing to innovative solutions.
Recognising that current commitments by world leaders do not live up to their promises made in the Paris Agreement, youth continue to lobby and campaign through capacity-building initiatives and dialogues to set the focus on 1.5 degrees. One such global movement championed by young people is the SC1.5NCE NOT SILENCE campaign led by March for Science, YOUNGO and supported by the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.
In the lead-up to COP 26, the Youth4Climate Summit in Milan brought over 300 young people together to empower them in meaningfully contributing to climate policy. Among the key outcomes of the event, young people called for “an urgent, holistic, diversified, and inclusive energy transition by 2030, that prioritises energy efficiency and sustainable energy, keeping the 1.5 goal within reach; financing for capacity building, research and technology sharing, to ensure a transition with decent jobs; and providing adequate support for affected and vulnerable communities,” as per the Youth4Climate Youth Manifesto.
Building on this foundation,the 16th Conference of Youth (COY16) gathered over 400 young people in Glasgow ahead of COP 26 to finalise a Global Youth Statement, delivered to Alok Sharma, President of COP 26, and Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UNFCCC. With inputs from over 40 000 young people, the statement covered several crucial topics on climate negotiations such as loss and damage financing, technology transfer, adaptation, Article 6 of the Paris Agreement and a just energy transition.
A key component of these outcome documents has been a recognition of the urgent need to invest in adaptation and resilience in emerging economies, and to provide support to strengthen the youth climate movement. Fortunately, there are some examples of institutions and governments already responding to these demands.
During the Adaptation and Loss Damage Day at COP 26, the Adaptation Fund raised its highest amount of funding in history — USD 351.6 million. While YOUNGO has been advocating for an innovative financing scheme for youth-led adaptation projects in previous COPs, this year, the Adaptation Fund added youth engagement as an indicator to the fund, meaning that countries will have to report on how they are engaging young people when they access funding from the Fund. Additionally, the Fund will engage with YOUNGO when reviewing funding proposals from governments prior to making final decisions. Furthermore, a 10-year Glasgow work programme on Action for Climate Empowerment was launched, calling for governments to include young people in national delegations and establishing a permanent youth forum following the Youth4Climate event held during the pre-COP.
In addition to these small wins amidst the climate (in)action at COP 26, the UN’s first-ever system-wide youth strategy, Youth2030, continues to provide an important framework for assessing how countries engage young people in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals at the national level. It is another valuable tool for the UN system to continue advancing and improving the way young people are engaged in decision-making fora, including on climate.
As young people continue to call for more ambitious targets and the delivery of existing promises by world leaders, the United Nations will stand with them in advocating for the common goal of a better, safer and healthier planet for all. More importantly, by building on the various success stories of youth advocacy, young people have an opportunity ahead of next year’s COP 27 to mobilise better, build capacities and work with relevant stakeholders to keep the 1.5 goal alive — not just for our future, but for the future of humankind and our planet!
 Article 6 acknowledges that Parties may choose to co-operate internationally (including non-market approaches) to meet part of their NDCs using emission reductions achieved in other countries. Having failed to reach agreement since COP21 in Paris, it was critical for COP26 to reach an agreement to enhance the credibility of this multilateral process.