Laura and other youth participants in front of COP27 sign

Reflections on COP27 by Laura Lock

As COP15 draws to a close with a deal we invited Cambridge Climate Society President, Laura Lock, to reflect on her experiences at COP27.

Laura at COP27

COP27 was a week of emotional whiplash. From the vibrant and contagious energy radiating from youth activists to the subtle, insidious narrative change marking the death of 1.5°C. From the apathetic men in suits negotiating with nature in clinically air conditioned rooms to the frontline communities demanding justice, land rights and recognition in a chorus of languages and chants. The immediate distinction between those attending because their job required it and those attending to defend the lives of their communities, their parents and their children. The 636 delegates representing fossil fuel lobbies outnumbering the 502 representing 14 Pacific Island States. It was a week of constant, uncomfortable and seemingly irreconcilable paradoxes.

It was this duality that underlined my experience of COP27. On the one hand, I was blown away by the sheer quantity of passionate, resilient, capable and aggressively determined people I met. In planning, preparing and participating in actions I was deeply struck by the emotional charge of the week. Each crisis was political, each crisis was personal and every action served to connect global injustices to one another. This is the crucial lens. Climate change is a shared but differentiated struggle. Activists in Cambridge face wholly different challenges and obstacles to activists in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Brazil and across the ‘Global South.’ This is not to invalidate either experience but rather to highlight and centre the global inequities, injustices and colonial legacies of the climate crisis as central to any political, social or economic response.

My impression of COP27 was that many of these people were seen but not heard. Photos of Indigenous delegates, young people, Pacific Islanders and frontline communities were plastered on the front of global newspapers yet the coverage was largely tokenistic. Observer badge engagement in key negotiations was limited, and issues of seating, translation, and accessibility meant that marginalised communities were often excluded from negotiation spaces. This systemically externalises key voices and curtails opportunities for meaningful engagement. Everybody wants to take photos with young people, everyone is keen to praise the action, bask in the hope and commend the work of marginalised communities but far fewer are willing to commit significant funding to assist those in greatest need, vote in favour of youth engagement clauses or substantively support the Most Affected Peoples and Areas (MAPA).

Undeniably, there are growing changes to COP mechanisms, participation and operation. I had the chance to directly engage with negotiations whilst working with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Youth Constituency (YOUNGO) to follow the Action on Climate Empowerment (ACE) Negotiations. ACE ultimately aims to facilitate the engagement of all members of society with climate advocacy. From education, to public awareness training and international cooperation, it is a wide reaching and crucial programme to build capacities and generate collaboration between the state and civil society and engage the most marginalised groups in climate action. The YOUNGO chapter of ACE highlights the crucial involvement of young people in not only the implementation of Actions Programmes but the co-design of these very plans. COP27 saw the agreement of the first ACE action plan, an item on the agenda since the first COP held back in 1995. The realisation of this Action Plan after 20 hours of negotiations, countless bilaterals, bloc meetings and informal consultations brought several negotiators to tears, highlighting the sheer emotional scale of what each policy decision symbolises.

Laura at COP27

While it is brilliant that YOUNGO has a direct involvement with these negotiations it is incomprehensible that, in an hour long negotiation session, only two minutes are devoted for the contributions of young people, young people that make up 25% of the global population and two minutes that often end up being used for other matters. Getting young people into a negotiation room is less than half the battle. The real struggle is making sure that the right young people are in the room and that they are equipped with the tools, skills and capabilities to engage with the negotiations critically, represent themselves and fight for their franchisement in climate discourse. We are demanding a seat at the table, but the table itself is missing two legs and nobody knows how to fix it.

Measuring the success of COP will always be a question of framing. COP27 was intended to be the implementation COP, a substantive shift from making ambitious commitments to robust policy implementation. If you look at the Loss and Damage agreement you see a historic success that recognises the legacies of colonialism and the multilateral injustices falling on the Global South. Yet, if you integrate the lack of a robust financing mechanism with the failure of countries to pay their existing debts and keep on track with Nationally Determined Contributions, you see yet another iteration of successive diplomatic failures and shortcomings. In addition, as the world remains on track for 2.7° of warming, a shift in narrative has let 2° or even 2.8° slip into the discussion. This change demonstrates the lack of political will necessary from world leaders. This is, in no complex terms, a death sentence for millions.

I think there is a common conception of climate activism as advocacy rooted in the natural world; a narrative of polar bears and melting ice caps, of endangered butterflies and deforestation. In reality, I’d say the climate crisis is one of humanity. A crisis of human lives endangered and lost, cultures eradicated and homes destroyed. The environmental and biodiversity crisis is undeniably a very important facet of this, but ultimately climate advocacy, or at least mine, is rooted in a love of humanity. It was this love that I found so prevalent at COP27. The frustration and anger at the highly technical and inaccessible negotiations was matched only by the radical hope and joy in celebrating the strength and resilience of cultures, solutions and globally linked fights for justice.

Laura at COP27

My experience and my story is just one of thousands. To that end I’d strongly recommend engaging with the perspectives and ideas of MAPA activists, frontline communities, and leaders from the Global South (in particular Barbadian Prime Minister, Mia Mottley’s speech at the opening of COP27.) The weeks, months and years to come will require decisive, significant change at every scale. I can only urge you to get involved; whether it's through activism, research, policy, business or gardening, there is nothing that will remained untouched by the climate crisis and the most we can do is build the tools to respond to it, connect with one another and continuing to fight.