While much of the focus of COP28 has been on decisions being made by the world’s most powerful and experienced politicians, there has also been an unprecedented influx of young people to the annual UN climate conference. In its role as COP28 host, the UAE has been determined to integrate youth delegates into the event like never before.
In the COP28 Green Zone, the Youth Hub has provided a space for young people to meet with negotiators, governments and the COP presidency, ensuring their voices and aspirations are heard. Even more valuable has been the presence of young people ‘behind the curtain’ in COP28’s Blue Zone.
The Youth Climate Champions initiative had existed before, but the UAE further integrated it for COP28 in a bid to better engage young people in climate discussions. There has been a strong push to formalize its presence at the event long-term too.
One hundred young people from countries on the list of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDS), Indigenous Peoples and other minority groups were prioritized, with a further 10 champions added from the UAE.
Emirati Lateefa Almansoori was selected to represent the COP28 hosts because of her impressive environmental credentials. The 25-year-old recently graduated from Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi with a Master’s degree in Environment: Dynamics of Territories and Societies, with her final thesis focusing on climatic stressors on Hawksbill turtles in the Arabian Gulf.
“I grew up in Madinat Zayed feeling very connected to nature, and have just become more and more in love with the space,” Lateefa tells Livehealthy at COP28. “I have been a researcher and while that is extremely valuable, I feel like advocacy is the most important — that’s how we can make a change in this world.
“When I saw that the Youth Climate Champions programme was looking for people from the UAE, I spent about four days writing my application; I really wanted to get in and it is truly the opportunity of a lifetime to be involved in international discussions about the environment.
“It has been an amazing, supportive space to engage, find solutions and connect. I’ve never seen so many young people come together so passionately for one cause. It has been an eye-opener, a door-opener and a life changing experience.”
In conjunction with Harvard University and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the organisation behind COP28), Youth Climate Champions were given six months of ‘capacity building’, helping develop new skills and build confidence.
“We wanted to do more in terms of integrating young people into the process than previous years and previous COPs,” says Mariam Solika, senior communications specialist for the Youth Climate Champions initiative.
“The focus is on those people who are most affected by climate change — they should be the ones who are actually represented. Young people should be part of the negotiations, not just observers.”
UAE Youth Climate Champion Lateefa has certainly not been an observer at COP28; she has supported the UAE’s negotiations team, with 75 percent of its delegates under 35, and 68 percent female.
“This is us as Emiratis showing the world that you should trust your youth and let them drive the change,” Lateefa says. “We hear a lot of decision makers speaking and talking about the importance of us as youth driving this change and finding the solutions for the climate crisis.
“It’s a huge pressure on us but I truly believe that we are up to this challenge. The people I have met, spoken with and learned from, are inspirational. This is just the start of a new era of youth being included in climate, international climate, decision and policymaking spaces.”
For long-time climate activist Kehkashan Basu, COP28 represents significant progress in the integration of young people into proceedings. Kehkashan was born and raised in Dubai where she launched her charitable organization the Green Hope Foundation when she was just 12 years old.
Although she is now based in Canada, COP28 has offered her a poignant chance to return to the country and city where her passion for the environment was forged. She has 22 speaking engagements planned during the entirety of the event.
“It’s really special, because I founded Green Hope here and it was here in Dubai that I realized it is possible to see climate solutions implemented,” Kehkashan tells Livehealthy.
“I’ve always considered myself very fortunate to have grown up in a place where I was able to have the safe space to continue my work; that safe space is something I have tried to create in other communities and parts of the world that we work in too.”
An International Children’s Peace Prize winner in 2016, Kehkashan also appeared on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in 2021. But despite a host of individual accolades, she retains a laser focus on the issue of youth empowerment.
“As young people, we’re often very tokenized — as those who are just blaming others and not really doing anything ourselves,” she says. “That’s just simply not true. We’re not a homogenous entity and there are young people around the world who’ve been taking action for so many years that doesn’t get reported.
“It’s not flashy work. It is everyday hard work. I think that having young professionals, young negotiators, young advocates at the ground level, at the decision-making table is absolutely crucial. I hope that it’s reflected in other COPs as well.”
Majid Al-Suwaidi, director general of the UAE Presidency of COP 28 and Lead negotiator on climate change, energy and sustainability, visited the Youth Pavilion on Thursday and publicly expressed his thanks to the young people present for engaging in climate dialogue.
“We want to take your participation and your presence and turn it into action that makes a difference in the process,” said Al-Suwaidi, who was part of the team that negotiated and adopted the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“You do that by talking to your delegations, talking to your representatives, talking to your communities about how important it is that COP28 delivers. I’m here to let you know that you’re part of our team and we want you to help us in delivering as ambitious an outcome as possible for COP28. We can only do that if you help us.”
Lateefa and her fellow Climate Change Champions are doing their best to offer that assistance, and the young Emirati delegate insists the UAE should feel buoyed by the role it has played in driving the COP28 agenda.
“I feel proud that the UAE are hosts and it has been wonderful seeing how fast negotiations are going and how fast nations are coming together to actually work together for one cause and find solutions. We are a small nation but we have a huge potential to change the world.”