Looking Back at COP23

This November, a group of six young leaders passionate about working for climate change solutions traveled from six different countries on three continents to Bonn, Germany for COP23, the United Nations Climate Change Conference. During our two weeks at the conference, we observed negotiations and plenaries, attended side events and talks, and even hosted an event of our own — a first for the YEL delegation to a COP! Now COP23 has ended, and the world is already looking towards COP24. The delegates are using this time to reflect on their experience in Bonn and answer two questions: what will they take away from this conference, and what are their next steps?

Casey Miller

As I look back on my two weeks at COP23, I feel two things — disappointment and hope. During the conference, the idea that nothing was moving fast enough was prevalent. There was a frustrating distance between side events with experts discussing the urgent need to ramp up ambition and the slow-moving negotiations. As our delegation spent every morning going over the previous day’s negotiations, the idea that some developed country was dragging its feet, slowing down progress in areas such as pre-2020 action and loss and damage happened so often that discussing it felt somewhat redundant. Looking at the results of this year’s conference, I wonder what else could have been achieved if all countries took scientists’ warnings to heart and negotiated towards stronger climate action like our lives depend on it — because they do.

Luckily, I didn’t leave the conference filled only with thoughts of disappointment and hopelessness. The people I’ve met during the conference, both in this delegation and as part of other organizations, have left me with one very hopeful thought — with so many passionate, intelligent and innovative people working towards solving some of the world’s greatest problems, I’m sure there’s still hope to reach the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. Even if you look solely within the YEL delegation to COP23, you’ll find many different types of people — entrepreneurs, activists, academics, development experts, and inventors — all working towards one common goal while utilizing their personal and unique expertise.

Now that I’m back home in Vienna, I’m taking some time to find ways to keep the passion and drive I feel with at the COP alive all year long. I’ve been inspired by the rest of my delegation to find out what the most pressing climate change issues we’re facing are and then work on innovative ways to fix them. Most importantly, I’m actively looking into events where young professionals get together to discuss inventive ways to solve these issues. Fellow delegate Shrina and I spent a lot of time during COP23 discussing what positive results could come out of groups of young professionals coming together to work towards a common goal. I’m looking forward to put those ideas into action.

Sian Evans

This was my first COP, and given my background in environmental management and current work on sustainable development, it was a real privilege for me to attend an event I’ve heard so much about. The volume of people and sheer energy at the event struck me – it really felt like a place where things were happening, and progress could be made. The presence of the US Climate Action Center, representing the many American leaders committed to upholding the Paris Agreement, demonstrated that while Trump may be u-turning on climate action, the rest of the world is moving ahead – with or without him. Although there is still so much to be done, with developing countries dragging their feet, and many key issues being kicked down the road to COP24, I still left Bonn feeling hopeful.

YEL delegates at COP23

When I returned to Jerusalem and got back to work and my daily life, COP23 suddenly felt very distant. Many of my friends and colleagues didn’t know what COP 23 was, let alone the issues being discussed there. Climate change is such a difficult issue to communicate, and it’s hard to engage people (including decision makers) with something that feels so distant, particularly in regions fraught with their own challenges. The UNFCCC process – with its acronyms, articles and terminology – does not make this any easier! One of my key takeaways is that more needs to be done to ensure that the energy I experienced at COP 23 translates to action on the ground, by engaging the communities, businesses and decision makers that aren’t at these events or a part of this process. I think that youth have a big role to play here, so I’m looking forward to continue to work on these issues and hopefully be in Poland in December 2018 for COP 24!

Katja Garson
COP23 was full-on, contradictory, baffling, inspiring. My six days inside the Bonn and Bula Zones were characterized by a consistent inconsistency: a buzz of activity; of interviews and listening; of moving from meeting to press conference to civil society action. This was the ‘technical COP’ of working out the details relating to the implementation of the Paris Agreement, as well as the Fijian COP of openness and welcome. I bring away some thoughts on access and voices. Most people do not have the privilege of entering the COP space, many groups are underrepresented once there, and many were denied visas to attend. I took part in ‘Pass the Mic’, an action which provided a space for indigenous peoples to speak out. This should not have been necessary — all voices must have the same space and stage, always. COP is not only an international conference. It is an event which demonstrates the many inequalities and injustices of everyday life on Earth. It is a model, small-scale, of tensions, divisions, and, thankfully, of collaborations and celebrations.

Going forward, I will draw on the great energy which I gained from being surrounded by people working for environmental justice and sustainability around the world, especially the younger generation who will continue to be impacted by climate change. Although the policy outcomes of COP23 were less than impressive, with many of the details of the Paris rulebook still undecided, it is the raw determination and creativity of NGO and grassroots campaigners, researchers and activists which inspires me. The walkout from a White House press conference on ‘cleaner’ fossil fuels was a key moment of action which stated that ‘we, the people, reject your false claims.’ As the UK government prepares to leave the EU, I will work alongside friends at the UK Youth Climate Coalition to make people aware of the environmental implications of the government’s decisions. We will call for appropriate and binding legislation, and will support allies across borders. And I will continue to value connection, organizing and communication as tools for resistance and rebuilding.

Shrina Kurani
Take aways:
This year, COP23 took me on a ride. While updating my climate science, I simultaneously recognized the climate elite for the first time, which fed my continued frustration with the process, and led to me to my final takeaway: that I need to be brave. Last year I still held the perspective of a naive student and budding entrepreneur, in awe of meeting my climate heroes in the flesh. It took a year, and evolving into the critically optimistic perspective of an investor, to identify the inefficiencies and have my wonder fade into frustration. And I realized that the best thing I could do was to play to my strengths and be opportunistic. Landing YEL a press conference just took sending an email – and now thousands of people have heard our message. I’m so excited about that!

Next steps:
So now that COP is over and the excitement is approaching a normal state, I need to take my own advice. I need to have the courage to stand up for what I believe in, and then be open to convinced otherwise. Just as we need to emphasize adaptive climate policy, we also need to be adaptive in looking for best practices and working together as a community to move forward as a united front. There is strength in diverse perspectives, and strength in community – and that’s what I’m looking forward to continue building. My climate community!

Alexander Pfeiffer

My main take-away is that hope is not lost yet. Attending COP 22 in Marrakech last year and witnessing the Trump election was a pretty discouraging experience and following his climate policies since then did not improve my mood and attitude. Being at COP 23, however, proved that there are still many Americans and, perhaps more importantly, American leaders out there that will uphold the U.S.’ contribution to the Paris Agreement. Trump clearly does not speak for the majority of mankind — in fact, not even the majority of U.S. citizens — and will therefore fail to block climate progress. This COP has clearly showed this!

Going forward I think much more needs to be done. While the parties are fleshing out the rule book to figure out how the Paris Agreement can be implemented global emissions have risen again by 2-3% in 2017 and are expected to continue to rise. At the same time coral reefs die, wildfires destroy California, Africa still suffers from a multi-year drought and extreme weather events wreck havoc in many parts of the world. Overall our planet sends us clear signals that we are running out of time. I think over the next 2 years it will be important to push for a lot of pre-2020 action and especially avoid further lock-in by building even more dirty infrastructure.

As a German I will do my best to push for a clear statement of the German government by which year they will have exited the dirty coal-fired power generation (#exitCoal). I believe such a statement must be communicated before the next COP in Poland in 2018 if Germany wants to continue to be a leader in the climate effort. Being the organisational host of this COP it was cringeworthy to witness the disgraceful failure of Germany, represented by Steinmeier and Merkel, to showcase good climate leadership.

Lastly it was great to meet so many old friends again. I didn’t realise it but after now three COPs I already know many people in this realm and it was great to see many of them again (including three quarter of my delegation). I hope to be able to stay part of this delegation and effort.