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Youth engagement at UNFCCC COP28 – how can we ensure it is meaningful, intersectional and inclusive?

Nusrehena, 12, f, fetching water © Nathalie Bertrams/GAGE 2023

It is that time of the year again, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 28th Conference of the Parties (COP28) is here, and tough negotiations are anticipated over climate finance deficits, meeting emission targets, setting the global goal on adaptation and funding for loss and damages. Against this broader backdrop, the question of who will be left behind remains pivotal.

There is growing consensus on the importance of youth leadership and engagement in climate decision making. Youth are impacted by climate change, compounded by intersecting inequalities based on identity including gender, socioeconomic status, citizenship, and disability status.

Our recent policy brief on youth-inclusive climate change adaptation, reviews intersectional risks facing adolescents due to climate change, underscoring the need to give greater attention to these intersecting challenges.

Intersecting challenges to youth engagement in climate action

Vulnerability to climate change is shaped by social identity and marginalisation. Climate change increases exposure and risks for people who are already disadvantaged for a range of often interconnected and overlapping reasons.

Disadvantaged due to location

Climate risks are heterogeneous and present themselves differently across the world. Least developed countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) face greater impacts of climate change, despite contributing minimally to its impacts.

Unheard because of their age.

Research shows that children, adolescents and youth will be uniquely impacted by climate change. A child born in 2020 will face twice the risk of experiencing wildfires, 2.6 times the risk of drought, 2.8 times the risk of river floods and 6.8 times the risk of heatwaves compared to a person born in 1960.

Despite the risks, in the eyes of policymakers and legacy industries, people under 30 have too little experience and knowledge to add value to systems-level decisions, and are often excluded.

The current youth cohort is the largest the world has seen, and Africa in particular has more people aged under 20 than anywhere in the world, thus the voices of future generations need to be listened to.

Excluded due to gender barriers.

Climate change has differential impacts based on gender, with young women and girls facing specific challenges due to pre-existing power dynamics, gender norms and social inequity.

Girls face barriers related to gender and cultural norms, including disproportionate housework and caring responsibilities, a challenge to engagement in climate action. Our research on youth engagement in climate action in Tanzania and Ethiopia noted that girls are impacted especially in communities where young women face challenges attending and speaking at public meetings.

While there is limited research on the gendered impacts of climate change on men and boys, they still face significant challenges. During times of drought male farmers in low-income contexts such as India have increased rates of suicide due to limited support networks.

Unheard because of refugee and migrant status.

The world immigration report 2020 notes that while there has been growing attention to climate change as a driver of displacement there has been less attention to the vulnerability of refugees to the impacts of climate change after they have become displaced. Many refugee communities are in ‘climate change hotspots’ prone to the effects of climate change which compromises their security and places them at risk of secondary displacement.

These conditions affect young people’s livelihoods, education and have long term impacts on their life trajectories.

Excluded based on disability status

Adolescents with disabilities are at greater risk during climate-related natural hazards. Globally, people with disabilities are between two and four times more likely to die during climate-related hazards, compared with those without disabilities.

The adverse impacts of climate change on individuals with multiple vulnerability factors, require adequate measures that take an intersectional approach. COP26 for example was  criticized for not even providing accessibility for people with disabilities, underscoring that disability was an afterthought.

How to meaningfully include adolescents and youth in climate action

Promoting participatory approaches

There is need for adolescent and youth-led participatory approaches in climate research, policy, financing, programming and monitoring and evaluation as a way of centering the needs and priorities of the youth. The COP28 Presidency has launched a new global initiative, the ‘International Youth Climate Delegate Program’ and has engaged youth climate champions pre-COP in defining youth demands. However previous commitments still need to be fulfilled and youth need to be supported to hold leaders to account for moving from rhetoric to action.

Harnessing skills of youth in entrepreneurship, digitalisation and innovation

Youth are increasingly becoming the most connected age group constituting 71% of people aged 15–24 globally who are online, compared to only 48% of the total population. These skills need to be tapped into when exploring ways of addressing climate risks.

Building resilient youth institutions and strong youth leadership capabilities

 There has been increasing attention to the role of young people within the climate change space, with young people demonstrating leadership globally and bringing attention to the climate crisis.

Making speeches and protesting is shifting the needle in signalling the problem, but youth groups have raised the need for greater support, funding, mentoring and action. Youth-focused initiatives need to be considered in financing for climate adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage initiatives, tapping into their entrepreneurship and digital skills.

Using an intersectional approach to promote youth-friendly climate action.

 A lack of an intersectional approach misses the diverse and interconnected challenges that young people face in adapting to and tackling climate change. The 2019 report on the invisibility of adolescents within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) notes that only 8% of indicators across only six goals were disaggregate by sex or age. Notably, SDG 13 on climate action is not one of these six goals, i.e. monitoring efforts do not disaggregate by gender or age at all.

The COP28 presidency launched a bid to put vulnerable youth at the center of negotiations, we can only hope that delegates are not the usual suspects, but those from LDCs and SIDS whose voices are often unheard. In addition, the signatories to the Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action need to be held accountable vis-a-vis their commitments and fast track implementation to ensure inclusive child and youth-centred climate policies and action at national and global levels.