COP28 Priorities: Aligning with Youth Aspirations?

Moving away from fossil fuels, lowering CO2 emissions, financial aid for the most vulnerable countries… Are the negotiations at the 28th edition of the United Nations’ major annual climate meeting (COP28), which was held in Dubai from November 30th to December 12th, responding to the concerns and aspirations of the younger generation?

In 2023, the Earth is grappling with a series of climatic crises: soaring record temperatures, severe droughts, and accelerated ice melt. These indisputable manifestations of global warming are propelled by the relentless increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, representing not just looming threats, but tangible and dire effects that are already present.

In response to these pressing realities, the global community convenes annually at the COP (Conference of the Parties), gathering delegations worldwide to deliberate on the future of the climate and implement concrete actions. The COP 28, chaired by Sultan Al-Jaber this year, holds significant importance in assessing the situation and establishing new initiatives in support of the climate.

Amid these circumstances, a pivotal question emerges: Does the direction of COP 28 resonate with the concerns of the youth, who will directly bear the impacts of these decisions and stand at the forefront of future challenges?

The Youth Talks consultation initiated in 2022, the world’s largest youth consultation to date, gathered over 45,000 young people aged 15-29 to voice their future visions and aspirations. Spearheaded by the Higher Education for Good Foundation, this survey delves into the perspectives of the younger generation, cognizant of the weight of climate challenges in their upcoming years. 

Let’s explore further details.

The environment, young people's prime concern

The outcomes of the survey undeniably highlight the environment as the primary concern for young individuals when responding to the query, “When I contemplate the future, what troubles me… about the world.” A startling discovery highlighted by 40% of the world’s youth. Wars and conflicts, followed by economic issues, secure 2nd and 3rd place, with percentages of 22% and 17% respectively.

Globally, the environment emerges as a paramount concern for the planet’s future. Except in North Africa and West Asia where the urgency of wars and conflicts casts a shadow over environmental apprehensions.

Notably, young people in Western Europe exhibit profound concerns about the planet’s future regarding environmental issues, with an alarming 63% expressing worry.

The most troubling aspect for young people globally regarding environmental issues is global warming and its repercussions for the planet, constituting 21%. Faced with an alarming array of impacts, young people fear scenarios like “a mass extinction of the human population linked to a natural cataclysm or an epidemic”, “a planet less and less livable and more and more sterile”, and a polluted planet and a world with more and more social inequalities”.

The worries encompass environmental catastrophes impacting the most marginalized communities and ecosystems. The looming uncertainty stemming from climate change significantly weighs on the future. Moreover, the fears of “biodiversity extinction” and the looming specter of “imminent ecosystem collapse,” alongside apprehensions regarding sustainable long-term food security, are deeply troubling for young individuals.

Their discontent extends to political inaction and insufficient attention to climate-related matters, amplifying the ecological crisis.

Young people distinctly vocalize their apprehension in the face of these critical challenges, emphasizing the imperative for immediate, collaborative efforts to safeguard the planet’s future. When asked, “What collective issues must we tackle to shape the future I desire?” environmental concerns emerge as the primary focus for 4 out of 10 youths globally.

They perceive “global warming as the biggest threat to our future…” and passionately advocate for immediate, tangible measures to curtail greenhouse gas emissions and alleviate climate change.

Paris Agreement objectives in jeopardy, but young people ready to act

The central objective of the COP28 remains crucial: conducting the inaugural global review of commitments made by nations during the 2015 Paris COP21. As a reminder, within the Paris Agreement, all countries committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050, and striving to cap average global warming at 2°C (preferably 1.5°C) by the end of the century. It’s now imperative to assess accomplishments and chart a new path for climate action.

However, this task proves to be a complex challenge. In early September, the UN released a technical assessment regarding the implementation of the Paris Agreement, indicating that “Global emissions are not following mitigation trajectories (…) consistent with the temperature objective of the Paris Agreement.”

Estimates from the Climate Action Tracker research group align with these concerns: if considering the concrete measures adopted by parties of the Paris Agreement to fulfill their commitments, global warming could potentially escalate to 2.7°C by the century’s end.

According to findings from the Youth Talks Consultation, young people are acutely aware of the climate emergency and are open to taking drastic action by altering their behaviors and lifestyles. Their primary willingness to sacrifice, constituting 28% of young individuals globally and rising to 61% in Western Europe, is their material consumption.

The sacrifices they are willing to make differ by region. Notably, relinquishing material consumption ranks highest in industrialized countries, whereas in developing nations, moral aspects (such as laziness) or personal resources (like time) are preferred choices for sacrifice.

By choosing to curtail their material consumption, young people are expressing their intention to: limit the intake of industrial food and meat, decrease reliance on polluting vehicles, minimize non-essential travel, reduce the production of plastic waste, and question fast fashion and excessive consumption practices.

Young individuals express their readiness to modify behavior to forsake “anything deemed necessary to stop carbon emissions” and “any type of item or behavior harmful to the planet or to others.”

Another aspect of renunciation contemplated by young people involves their lifestyle and activities (averaging 24% worldwide). They frequently mention giving up their comfort zone, travel (especially by plane), use of the Internet and social networks, and luxury.

Give up fossil fuels to preserve the planet

One pressing matter during these negotiations revolves around the gradual phase-out of fossil fuels, promoting the shift towards clean, sustainable energy sources.

Negotiations, previously unsuccessful at the preceding COP, face obstacles due to the vested interests of fossil fuel-producing nations, often acting as impediments. The intricate economic and political stakes involved pose challenges in reaching a unanimous global consensus.

At the center of the discourse are fossil fuels, which account for nearly 80% of the world’s energy production, as noted by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Primarily utilized for power generation and fuels, these energy sources significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, hastening climate change. Unfortunately, their attractiveness lies in their affordability, ease of utilization, and contribution to rapid economic progress.

Youth Talks also delves into the theme of energy production, specifically when young people shared their opinions regarding the issues we need to address collectively to build the future they desire.

Responses also touch upon the topic of energy production, a recurring motif across various parts of the world. This trend is notably observable in Europe, North America, and Western Asia.

Young people are stressing the imperative of environmental preservation by transitioning away from fossil fuels toward renewable energies like solar and wind power. The collective issues that we need to address to build a future for all is to find ways to become more energy efficient and less dependent on fossil fuels.” “We need to move away from using finite resources and use clean energy so we know we aren’t destroying our planet as we live our lives.”

Certain individuals, particularly in France, emphasize the significance of nuclear energy and fusion as indispensable solutions, despite their controversial nature, underscoring their determination to renounce fossil fuels at any cost.

International aid for greater climate justice

Another crucial topic on the agenda of climate negotiations is the “loss and damage fund,” which essentially pertains to financial assistance allocated to aid in the recovery from climate-related disasters in vulnerable nations. This measure was embraced at the onset of the COP 28, hailed as a promising stride towards alleviating financial strains between Northern and Southern countries.

The goal is to augment financial aid to the least developed nations, which suffer the most from the impacts of climate change despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions. Acknowledging accountability for the global environmental crisis, developed countries, chiefly responsible for these emissions, are acknowledging their obligation to the Southern nations through the notion of a symbolic “climate debt.”

Certain nations have voluntarily expressed financial solidarity. Examples include the European Union’s pledge of 225 million euros and the United States’ commitment of 16 million euros. However, the current financial commitments, totaling less than a billion dollars, cast doubts on their ability to address urgent needs. For instance, projected costs for loss and damage in developing countries are estimated to range between $290 billion and $580 billion annually until 2030.

The message of aiding the most vulnerable and sharing resources resonates strongly among young people worldwide. In response to inquiries about their aspirations for the planet’s future, 23% of young individuals express a desire to prioritize environmental protection, ranking second only to world peace (34%).

With an aim to preserve the environment, some young individuals aspire to advocate for supporting disadvantaged countries by emphasizing, “More consideration for neglected or poorly managed causes (climate, inequalities, etc.),” and promoting a more equitable distribution of resources to contribute to a less unequal society, expressing, “I want the planet to be protected from global warming and I want there to be a big reduction in global inequality.”

The alignment of the world’s youth with the critical issues addressed at COP 28 contrasts starkly with the sluggish pace of state action, despite the fervent calls from young individuals for swift change.

Youth Talks’ results clearly indicate that young people aren’t solely concerned about climate change; they possess valuable ideas that merit central placement within the debate. They harbor a deep-seated ambition to reshape society, yet their contributions often go unnoticed.

Youth Talks stands as a platform aimed at elevating the voices of global youth, bringing them to the attention of organizations and decision-makers, seeking to more effectively address their aspirations. Their viewpoints, gathered through open-ended questions, are notably processed using technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing (NLP).