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Fostering climate action in young people—the student experience at COP 27
When I was an undergraduate student studying environmental science, attending an international climate conference would have been a dream. Twelve years into my career as a sustainability professional and current director at SFU Sustainability, I still feel the same sentiment. The opportunity to attend the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 27) is considered by many in the field to be a career highlight.
Last year, these aspirations came to fruition when I travelled to Sharm El Shiekh, Egypt, alongside Simon Fraser University (SFU) community members, as part of the university’s first formal delegation to COP 27.
While at the conference, I wanted to better understand the student experience and support youth climate action. I connected with three SFU student delegates, resource and environmental management student and SFU350 member Paige Hunter, sustainable business student and SFU350 member Skye Noh and international studies student Alea Mohamed, to get their perspectives on the power of youth climate action leaders, the importance of experiential learning and what needs to change in our approach to climate action.
What were your initial goals heading into COP 27?
Paige Hunter: I had two goals coming into COP 27: my first was regarding climate education. I wanted to see how universities are supporting educators and students. My second goal was to dig deeper into the business case and financing of nature-based solutions.
Skye Noh: Linking to my work at SFU350 in divestment and community reinvestment, I wanted to understand how institutional investors, such as university endowments, can be a finance mechanism for battling climate change on a global scale.
Alea Mohamed: My initial goal was to learn more about international climate policy negotiations and to discover ways I could get involved. I also wanted to take this as an opportunity to meet those who are pushing ambitious climate action targets and to get reinspired around climate action.
How has your advocacy work with groups on campus in climate action and climate justice (i.e., SFU350 and Embark Sustainability) guided your experience at COP 27?
PH: My advocacy work at SFU350 has shown me that the time that youth and students invest in advocacy and the knowledge we bring to the table is worthwhile and does impact our futures. You have to be patient, but eventually the right people will listen to you.
SN: I work with a divestment and community reinvestment group at SFU350, and our campaign aligns closely with the approach taken at COP. It's been an amazing experience to have similar conversations with other youth delegates and panelists. I've been tapping into my background knowledge that I've learned at SFU350 and my experience from working with the university treasury to understand the technical elements [of these conversations and discussions].
AM: Rather than the theoretical concepts I discussed in class, my work with Embark Sustainability last year really showed me what tangible sustainability looks like. I worked on making our food-related programming more justice-oriented during my time there. This was a great opportunity for me to see what other folks are doing around the world in my interest areas.
There is an emphasis on youth and future generations at COP 27. What has your experience been in connecting with other youth climate action leaders?
SN: The energy at the Children and Youth Pavilion has been so invigorating. I've met other youth from around the world who are working on similar divestment campaigns as I am. What I see missing is a lack of cooperation between the youth voice and certain panels and events. A lot of the time there are corporate and public sector leaders and the youth seem to be siloed rather than being fully incorporated into the discussions.
PH: Youth are very up to date on climate and climate justice information. I think people still see youth as being synonymous with being naïve, but many of us are already working professionally in the climate space and have been engaged in this work since we were very young.
It was very exciting to see this acknowledged in the first-ever Children and Youth Pavilion as well as a day at COP dedicated to future generations. It's been enlightening to see the struggle that youth are facing in trying to be involved in formal negotiations and declarations. I think there are a lot of missed opportunities from delegations not formally including youth in events like COP or other climate planning in our own countries.
AM: Meeting and hearing from all these incredible young people from around the world was—without a doubt—the highlight of my trip at COP 27. It was so inspiring to see and learn from folks around the world! In the future, I hope that COP is an opportunity for meaningful youth engagement at the negotiation level so that young people can have a say in what the future of international climate policy looks like.
Has anything surprised you or caught your attention at COP 27?
SN: In some sense there are still many silos—it's great that everyone here is from all different sectors, but you can still see boxes and silos, which hold back collaboration in a big way.
PH: It's been hard to see that Indigenous land defenders and land rights discussions are still a ‘special interest’ in the COP discussions and pavilions. I've been to several panels on nature-based solutions from colonial countries like Canada, the US and Australia and was really surprised (but at the same time not at all surprised) to see a lack of Indigenous representation, inclusion and perspective from panel discussions. Unfortunately, this made a lot of climate justice discussions on nature-based solutions feel like lip service.
AM: One thing that surprised and disappointed me was the amount of fossil fuel lobbying. There was a whole pavilion dedicated to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Many pavilions were hosting events in collaboration with or were funded by big oil companies. Countries and organizations need to do better and recognize that we cannot be pushing for climate action while simultaneously supporting those who are the very ones destroying the Earth.
One of our goals in ensuring that students were included in the SFU delegation was to bring the student experience and advocacy lens to the delegation, as well as provide hands-on experiential learning. By expanding the classroom to Egypt, what have you learned?
SN: This has been an incredible networking event, but it's more than that because it has been a great way to easily access many of the world and C-suite leaders. We would never get the chance to chat with these people in our day-to-day lives on campus.
PH: Because COP is an international conference, it’s been exciting to hear from countries that rarely have the platform to showcase their actions, especially countries in the Global South. In BC and at SFU we often don't hear about climate solutions from areas outside of the Global North. It’s also been fantastic to network with other like-minded youth, and I’m sure I’ll see many of them again throughout my career.
AM: Networking and being able to learn outside of the classroom are two of the biggest things that I was able to benefit from at COP 27. I am grateful that I had the chance to really learn about so many different areas of climate change policy and action that I never would have heard of from so many cool folks from all over the world!
Do you have any takeaways you want to share with the SFU community?
SN: “[Emissions] don't have a passport.” - Fatih Birol, executive director, International Energy Association (IEA)
PH: Ali Zaidi, assistant to US President Joe Biden and national climate advisor said, in summary, that we don't have the time for more analysis and reporting or writing subject matter reports. We need to take existing ideas and research and implement the solutions now.
AM: One thing that my time at COP 27 made me realize is the power of networking. One thing we often overlook is that networking can happen in our own existing communities. The students in your class, student club or student union are not only current and future friends, but also networking opportunities!