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Youth at UN Climate Conference Working for Best Possible Outcome


The UN Climate Talks, also known as COP 16, are a step toward an international agreement on carbon mitigation and better environmental practices.

CREDIT: Flickr / UN Climate Talks

It’s easy to be cynical about the most recent installment of international negotiations regarding climate change. COP16, as it is referred to in UN parlance, is taking place in Cancun, Mexico. Far from the frigid temperatures of Copenhagen (the site of last year’s conference), delegates representing all nations will attempt to forge an agreement to mitigate climate change. Well, not really. No one is expecting an internationally binding agreement of any kind or even something less ambitious. Thus the deep frustration held by many.

Cynicism towards these types of international gatherings would be reasonable. What this UN process hopes to deliver, eventually, is a treaty that all 194 nations consent and are legally bound to. (If only international politics could work that way.) But putting our cynicism aside for the moment, these negotiations are awfully important. Yes they are tough, verging on the impossible, yet it’s the only process that can comprehensively address climate change and do so in an equitable manner.

In Cancun there are over 100 youth activists, joining several other youths from across the world attempting to influence the conference’s proceedings. They are there as the YOUNGO constituency, an officially recognized group representing international youth. Youth were only given this recognition last year just in time for the Copenhagen conference. Their work can be best described as holding people in power accountable and speaking truth to power.

Cynical, they are not. It’d be hard to fly across the world if you were. But they are not naively sanguine about the process either.

“This year is about foundations, not roofs. We expect governments to reach a few agreements on some of the policy pieces that are needed to get a legally binding agreement,” says Kyle Gracey, one of the individuals leading the youth effort in Cancun.

Gracey adds: “What we hope to have is creating a fair, ambitious, and binding global climate treaty yesterday, because that's what we need. Whatever the politics in the U.S. or the world, we're focused on getting what the science demands and justice requires.”

What Gracey describes as fair, ambitious, and binding (or FAB) may be what’s most in jeopardy at these talks. Ideally, and at some point, an agreement would be reached where heavy polluting countries commit to significant cuts in carbon emissions, there’s a mechanism for verifying those commitments and aid and technology is extended to poor countries whom experience the most adverse effects of climate change.

The Copenhagen Accord; the one-page, rushed-to agreement from COP15 undermines that architecture. The science is the science. And the emission cuts agreed to in the accord are a) not steep enough to avoid a dangerous rise in temperature and b) not at all binding.

Commenting on this Gracey says, “The legal form of the next agreement will also probably not be decided this year. It will probably instead be more like a fight to extend what we already have—the Kyoto Protocol—which is the only binding pollution reduction in the United Nations climate convention.”

At the end of this week, when the Cancun conference concludes, the most important news will be whether delegates decided to continue along or abandon the Kyoto framework. Or it’s possible that this issue will be punted to the next climate change conference in South Africa.

“Even with less funding, less ambition from non-youth organizations… the level of youth organization is even higher this year, even if more of it is happening in the streets of Cancun.” “The impact we expect to have is getting big wins on minor but important long-term issues”.

And indeed youth have had an impact. Through an impressive array of lobbying, advocacy and communicating with other youths, YOUNGO was able to ensure that climate change education and awareness will be a part of the final agreement.

Christiana Figueres, the UN official responsible for managing negotiations, summed up best what to expect out of COP16;

Honestly, there’s no perfect job here, okay? Nothing that we are going to do in Cancun is going to be perfect. Don’t expect perfection. Nothing is going to be highly ambitious. Nothing. Everything here is going to be one step, and everything is going to be insufficient. But it is the best that this group of people in these circumstances, with these political constraints, in this economic environment, can do for the time being. And as soon as this finishes we have to start pushing for the next step. And so it goes. But each one of us that is here has the moral responsibility to do the absolute best that we can at that moment under those circumstances.

OK, hopefully you’re not so cynical anymore.

You can follow the efforts of youth in Cancun at:

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