COY & the Role of Youth at COP17

By James Hutt

From November 25th to November 28th, the Canadian Youth Delegation took part in the 7th Conference of Youth (COY). The conference is both organized and facilitated by youth and takes place every year before the UNFCCC climate conference. With over 600 registered participants, it brought together passionate youth from around the world to build capacity and move forward on issues of sustainability and climate change. The conference features an impressive array of workshops, such as introductions to the UNFCCC; the connection between reproductive rights, gender and climate change; and strategies of social movements, just to name a few.

COY is a forum for global youth to share ideas and promote a stronger global response to climate change – and to protect our futures. Dozens of countries were represented at the conference, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Egypt, Norway, India, and Germany. The Trans-African Caravan brought large numbers from across the continent, including representatives from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi and more. Local South Africans and Durbanites were also there in full force. However, many countries were not present; very few countries from the Middle East and Latin America, for example, could make it. There is little to no funding available for delegates to attend. Just to be here is a privilege.

According to its website, COP17 is the “African COP.’ It has been hailed as the moment for building the African youth climate movement and a chance to address many of the specific challenges climate change presents to the continent. Africa is incredibly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and hosting COP here strengthens the voice of frontline communities within the negotiations. But for many, getting to Durban is not a possibility. South Africa has the largest economy on the continent, and the 28th in the world, which creates a strong pull for Africans seeking secure livelihoods and a better life. Over 5 million illegal immigrants live in South Africa, despite ever increasing restrictions. While Canadians can enter RSA with just a passport, most countries in the global south require visas to enter the country, which are very difficult to obtain. The fear of illegal immigration has kept out many delegates, especially those from lower income backgrounds who will be the hardest hit by climate change.

The voices of people from the global south are not the only ones missing from COP17. Youth are not meaningfully engaged in the process. COY, “the kid brother conference” as one blogger put it, is the alternative. It exists in opposition, or at least to counter balance the official UNFCCC conference. It is a civil society space, where amazing activists and young leaders come to collaborate. It is not, however, the site where the decisions that will affect the future of the planet are made. COY is inclusive, while COP is exclusive; many of the youth here at COY have not been accredited to attend COP. Even those who have are only allowed to observe through civil society organizations – participation is reserved for the official delegations that countries send.  Like most delegations, Canada’s team is made up of old men. Other than a few exceptions (most notably the Philippines), youth are not invited to the table.

Our governments need to do more. We need to actually include youth in the decision making process. It is our future that is being debated; to exclude our opinions and expertise is an injustice. Official delegations must include youth representatives.

The Conference of Youth remains an unofficial side event, important, but excluded from the negotiations and overlooked by most of the media. This is problematic on many levels, but for youth it means that we have been silenced -the possibility to inherit a planet rich in resources and biodiversity and to lead healthy lives has been taken out of our hands. Instead, our future rests in the hands of those who will not live to see it, or to suffer the consequences of present actions.

This is our future – it’s too important to leave up to anyone else.

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