Sustainable UCL


Navigating meaningful youth engagement at COP28 and beyond

21 December 2023

COP28 is officially over and student journalist, Antara Basu, spoke to two of our COP28 team — Student Union Affairs Officer, Mary McHarg and Professor Nicola Walshe — about their experience of COP and how to meaningfully engage young people at climate conferences.

COP28 team standing in front of Expo city dubai

Image description: UCL's COP28 team at Expo City, Dubai. From left to right - Catalina Turcu, Mary McHarg, Nicola Walshe, Alex Pigot, Becca Burns.  

Author: Antara Basu, BSc Politics and International Relations student, Student Journalist.*

The 28th session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference referred to as COP28, was held at Expo City, Dubai, United Arab Emirates from 30th November to 12th December 2023. Historically, COP has served as a platform for addressing the global challenge of climate change. Each year UCL sends a diverse team of experts to participate in the conference. What set UCL’s COP28 delegation apart is the inclusion, for the first time, of a student representative—Mary McHarg, the UCL Student Union Affairs Officer— highlighting UCL's commitment to amplifying student voices on a global stage.

Youth leadership has been a central focus of COP28, which witnessed the launch of the first-ever Youth Stocktake with YOUNGO (the official youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) on its flagship Youth Day on December 8th. This forum brought together young climate leaders, activists and other stakeholders from across the world to discuss youth policy proposals and culminated in the 2023 Global Youth Statement. The statement consolidates young people's combined climate policy demands, incorporating perspectives from over 700,000 young people across 150 countries. It signifies the significant appeal of young individuals to address the climate crisis and embrace a paradigm shift.

In a conversation with Mary, and Professor Nicola Walshe, who is the Executive Director of the UCL Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Education, and Pro-Director Education at the UCL Institute of Education, I gained insights into youth engagement and participation at COP28. This discussion underscored the resilience of young climate leaders, their inspirational contributions, and their hopes for the future at UCL and beyond.  

How was your experience of COP28, specifically concerning youth engagement?

Mary: I was cautiously pessimistic going into it, with the COP president being the CEO of ADNOC (Abu Dhabi National Oil Company). But, over the week, going to the panels, and interacting with the participants, especially the young activists, I came out the other end optimistic about the progress that's being made. The fact that there's such a large community pushing for change gave me reason to be hopeful.

Nicola: COP takes you through a whirlwind of emotions. On one hand, you hear stories about the devastating impact of climate change on people and it is upsetting because you know how significant this is for many communities. But on the other hand, being with so many people, particularly young people, who are passionately committed to climate action is uplifting. It gives you a real sense that we will overcome this.

What according to you were the main challenges and barriers young people face in accessing the conference and climate change efforts?

Mary: The number of young people that currently go to COP is such a small percentage of the delegates. I was one of only two sabbatical officers from the UK. In the high-level rooms, youth voices can be tokenistic. I attended a leader's event on youth participation, with all the world leaders and heads of major charities like UNICEF but very few young individuals. They discussed various initiatives they have for youth but only a brief three-minute slot was allotted to young people to present the Global Youth Statement. At that level, meaningful youth participation is difficult because it’s a challenge just to be able to get into the room and make your voice heard. 

Nicola: I think there's a real danger that those young people that are being brought to COP by formal delegations do not feel fully able to say what they want and feel in relation to climate change policy, especially if they are there as part of a party or party overflow. Hosting a Youth Day creates the illusion of comprehensive youth involvement, but in reality, their formal participation can be limited to making summary comments at the end of negotiations, which impedes meaningful participation. Also, youth-organized sessions are often in the Green Zone due to limited access to Blue Zone spaces. Youth voice ultimately needs to be integrated into wider forums, particularly those attended by decision-makers.

Did COP28 prioritise empowering diverse youth voices in shaping global sustainability policies? Was it effective in capturing intersectional perspectives? 

Mary: Some spaces within the conference emphasised greatly on youth engagement, diversity and inclusion. The Australian Pavilion, for example, brought young activists and artists from not only Australia but also Pacific Islanders representing communities which have been hit particularly hard by the climate crisis. On Health Day, I attended a panel discussing the intersection of mental health and climate change, which fostered dialogue on eco-anxiety and its mental health implications, exploring global perspectives at the crossroads of health, climate change, and disabilities.

Nicola: It is critical to include a diverse range of youth voices in all discussions around global sustainability and climate change policy. When there are relatively small youth delegations, the danger is that the same few people are asked to be part of many panels; there is a limited pool of youth available to be asked, particularly those who have Blue Zone badges. We need to have a more diverse range of youth voices represented, in the fullest sense of the word, and the only way to achieve this is by having more young people there. 

Nicola, what are the key things that UCL is doing well or needs to do towards climate education?

Nicola: UCL is making commendable strides in addressing the climate crisis, with the recent announcement of the Pro-Vice-Provosts for the Climate Crisis Grand Challenge. There is also an increasing focus on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) across our portfolio through the work of the ESD Steering Group and the newly launched ESD Network. Currently work around ESD is rather separate from work being undertaken through the Climate Crisis and I think it would be of significant benefit for greater synergy and collaboration between the two. More specifically, the ESD group has launched a toolkit to integrate sustainability into teaching, but the challenge lies in encouraging its widespread adoption across UCL. We need to ensure that none of our students graduate without formally having studied anything related to sustainability or climate change. Looking ahead to 2025, the IOE (UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society) will launch a pioneering degree, ‘Youth, Society and Sustainable Futures.’ This innovative programme will offer students the chance to explore youth through the lens of sustainability and climate change, including modules exploring Youth and Sustainable Futures, Youth and the Green Economy, and Youth and Consumerism. However, we must ensure that all students across UCL have the opportunity to engage with these ideas. 

Mary, as the first student representative, what improvements can we make in our communications about the climate to enhance student engagement at UCL? 

Mary: Firstly, UCL needs to continue sending students to COP every year. We need to ask—how do we encourage agency in this space rather than apathy? For long, climate communication has been fear-inducing, rather than action-focused or hopeful. We have a small engaged group of climate-conscious students but getting more students invested is a challenge. A step forward is in the way we talk to them about climate action. We have to ask, how can we make this conversation personable to them? With a large international student body, our communications should focus on the global effects of climate change and what students can do about that. Another thing is to ensure that we cultivate hope despite discouraging headlines, by spotlighting the work being done in the diversity and inclusion space. I'm very optimistic about this and with good reason. The Student’s Union and Sustainable UCL are launching a Climate Leadership Training Programme in 2024 and with over 400 sign-ups, even before COP28, signals that we're on track to getting more students involved.

COP28 concluded with an agreement signalling the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. Despite years of international negotiations, as noted in the Global Stocktake, the world struggles to limit global warming to 1.5°C. With rising global temperatures, youth mobilisation has become more important than ever and as Mary said—“We frame the youth and young people as the leaders of tomorrow, we need to stop and start treating them as the leaders they are now.” 

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* Antara is a final year BSc Politics and International Relations student, an avid dog-petter and enjoys exploring local cafes in her free time. She is ever on the lookout for new eateries, and postcard shops. Her passion for journalism began in school and has thrived at UCL. As a VPEE Student Journalist, she hopes to amplify diverse voices and bring forth compelling stories from across campus.