Global Human Rights Defence

Youth Participation at COP26: An Inside Insight - Part 1
Clara Winkler Photo by Ali Khademolhosseini

Katherine Willey
Environment & Human Rights Researcher Global Human Rights Defence

Last month, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) officially came to an end. Political leaders made grand statements about the current state of the planet and made sweeping

commitments on topics from fossil fuels to finance. But what is it actually like to attend COP26? And what role do NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) play in shaping the

final outcome? To answer these questions, I sat down with Clara Winkler (23), a member of the executive committee of the Federation of Young European Greens, before and after the conference to get her insight and to ask about what she views as the most pressing issues on

the table at the negotiations. Below, you can read the first part, recorded 21st October, in which she outlines her hopes and expectations.

Could you please briefly introduce yourself, your name, your academic background, the organisation you’re working for and your role within the organisation?

My name is Clara and I’m from Germany. I studied a bachelor’s in International Relations

and Law and I’m now pursuing a master’s in Law and Politics of International Security at VU Amsterdam. Alongside this, I am an executive committee member of the Federation of Young European Greens. I am currently working on topics related to climate justice, environmental protection, and intersectional feminism.

What are the goals of your organisation?

The Federation of Young European Greens is an umbrella organisation for young green organisations all over the European continent. So from Georgia to Ireland, from Cyprus to Norway, we have at least 36 member organisations.

Our main goal is to advocate for green values all over Europe, we bring together climate

activists, but also activists for intersecting topics, such as LGBTQ + rights. We give them a platform to meet each other through events and working groups where they can discuss and coordinate. We want to connect the European green movement internally and also facilitate greater connection to political institutions, including through our office in Brussels.

When did you first become involved in climate activism and why?

My interest in politics started at school. After finishing high school, I did a political voluntary gap year and I worked at an NGO focusing on education for sustainable development. They organised workshops for a very diverse audience about the climate crisis and climate justice but also about fair trade and the impact of climate change on the Global South. Through this, I realised that the climate crisis is a really important topic that could affect my future tremendously. I wanted to get more involved and push politicians to do something about it.

So I joined my local group of young greens, became their spokesperson and then became more active within the federation.

Is this the organisation’s first time attending COP?

No, we’ve been an observer at the negotiations for 15 years now but this is my first time attending.

For many people, COP appears to be primarily an interstate event. How exactly does NGO participation work and what will you be doing when you get to Glasgow?

In the past, there were not a lot of platforms where politicians and NGOs could meet and talk about the climate crisis. In fact, COP was one of the only places where they could meet,

exchange views and strategise together while also pushing for more ambitious outcomes of the negotiations.

I think it’s very important for NGOs to be there. They have some formal roles in the negotiations themselves by being part of constituencies. The constituencies are the official, umbrella institutions within the COP which represent the NGOs [a full list of constituencies can be found h ere]. They get intervention rights so are able to talk during the negotiations. My organisation is part of YOUNGO, the constituency of children and young people. In the run up to the conference, we’ve been having monthly calls with activists from other youth organisations in the constituency to work together and prepare interventions. I think it’s

already important that we can give input on what is being said. We can also meet the country delegations and pressure them to advocate for issues.

NGOs can have a real impact on the outcome of the negotiations. In 2015 for example, in Paris, the original goal was going to be keeping global warming to 2 degrees. But scientists and civil society put a lot of pressure on delegations and eventually the final agreement included the 1.5 degrees goal.

What are your organisation’s goals during COP26?

First and foremost our goal is to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. The time is now or never to do this, it’s the last chance to turn this around. However, some countries are pushing against this or not even showing up to the conference at all.

We want to bring in the voices of movements, such as Fridays for Future, which could not be registered as official observers. We want to bring in the voices of as many people as possible and make sure that the perspective of the young people cannot be ignored.

We have also just launched a campaign on kicking fossil fuel companies out of the COP negotiations. The first successful step is that the UK presidency has said they won’t have any sponsorship role at COP26 – this is a direct outcome of pressure from civil society groups.

However, there are a lot of fossil fuel industry representatives that are coming in delegations of NGOs. But even more serious is when they come in country delegations because they have the power to block important decisions. It’s also problematic in terms of transparency and we want to try and expose this issue. We think that they should have some involvement but that they shouldn’t have a say in decision making.

More generally, we want to raise awareness about COP and try to broadcast what is happening. At the negotiations, we actually have the chance to see what governments do and call them out. We can share this with our member organisations and point out how they can lobby or criticise their governments because not all of them have access to the negotiation space.

As this is your first time going to COP, what are you most looking forward to personally?

I am most looking forward to experiencing the dynamics of the negotiations between

countries and learning which countries are blocking progress because I don’t know how public this is. I’m also interested in what the German government does, as that’s where I’m

from. Internationally, they are seen as very progressive but this is not the case, in my opinion.

I’m also very excited to connect with other environmental activists, especially from the most affected areas. For example, The Global Young Greens, which have a delegation made up mainly of people from the Global South. I think it is very important for us to join forces and to fight for climate justice together.

What are your hopes for the final agreement and outcomes of this conference?

I think one of the most important aspects is the presentation of NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions – what each state is doing to counteract climate change]. Countries shouldn’t just present ambitious goals but they should show exactly how they will live up to their

commitments. I heard for example that the NDC from the European Union is only two pages long. They need to give concrete answers on how they will achieve the cap on emissions because so far their actions do not match their promises

I also hope that the financial commitments to countries in the Global South will be stepped up by the richer countries because so far, they are lagging behind.

I really hope that the role of companies gets investigated more and that fossil fuel industries don’t have too much of an impact on the outcome.

In the end, I hope that we can solve the climate crisis.

We’ve discussed how the conference will work in practice and which actors are involved. Do you think that this way of conducting negotiations is a good way to deal with climate change and its consequences? Would you like to see it changed?

I think it is a good basis to give countries a platform to coordinate their actions because we do need global cooperation. It’s also a good way to put pressure on certain countries because they don’t want to look bad in front of other states, their citizens and the media. This makes them more likely to present progressive NDCs.

However, especially under the circumstances of the pandemic, the negotiations are highly unjust. The UK requires people from certain countries to isolate in hotels for 14 days which means that delegations from certain countries will be much smaller than usual, even if the UK covers the financial costs. This means that the Global South will be underrepresented and unable to participate as effectively. This really creates an imbalance in favour of the Global

North and silences the voices of the people most affected by the crisis. I still think that

in-person negotiations are better than an online event as in these events it is often even easier to ignore certain voices and aspects, partly because of unequal access to the internet.

You mentioned that you’ve been working on issues of climate justice. Do you think that the current negotiation set-up is inclusive enough?

As of now, with the situation of the pandemic, I don’t think so.

I also think that civil society and the constituencies need a more powerful role in negotiations. For example, there’s a constituency which represents indigenous communities, and I don’t see why they only should have the role of constituency, they should be able to more actively participate in negotiations. Their voices shouldn’t be ignored just because they don’t fit into the traditional state system.

In general, the negotiations lack diversity, it’s a lot of older, white, men.

Do you think they’re inclusive enough of women’s concerns and experiences?

No, I don’t think so.

There are some countries like Saudi Arabia which are actively pushing against the role of women even being acknowledged. There are also issues within the WGC [Women and

Gender Constituency] and unequal power relations between the Global North and South. This is highly problematic and needs to be targeted.

Are you optimistic about the outcomes of the conference? Do you think it does have the potential to change our current course?

If everyone was committed to solving the crisis, the emissions would decrease but they are still increasing despite the 2015 Paris Agreement which placed strict limits on this. Most

countries, particularly those which have contributed the most to this crisis, are not even close to doing what they need to to keep global warming to below 1.5 degrees.

I think the negotiations are useful for countries to coordinate but we really need strong pressure from civil society to hold the most polluting states and companies accountable. We must also stop these states and companies from blocking progressive agreements.

You mention accountability, how can governments and corporations be held accountable? How can readers of this article contribute to this effort? 

As a law student, I see great potential in using the law to hold them accountable. There have been a lot of lawsuits from climate activists against companies, but also against countries for their lack of climate action.

In terms of what readers can do, get informed. Just raising awareness about what certain

companies or countries are doing is important. As long as the public doesn’t know about their broken promises and lack of action, they won’t change. There needs to be far more awareness about how much fossil fuel companies have contributed to the current crisis. It’s also very important to listen to voices from the Global South, to those who are already experiencing the consequences of climate change.

Are you optimistic about the future of this planet in general?

I had to think hard about this question because climate anxiety is something a lot of young people also in our organisation are struggling with, including me. I think that it is worth it to fight for the health of this earth and of our and future generations. It’s worth it for every

action that tackles the root causes of the climate crisis, that raises awareness and pressures polluters to stop the destruction of the earth. Every fight for climate justice can make a difference.

But, if I want to be realistic, and look at the actions right now, I think there’s little room for optimism, which is really hard to process. Still, I haven’t lost faith yet that we can do this. I wouldn’t still be doing this if I didn’t have at least some hope.

Find out about Clara’s COP26 experience in Part 2.

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