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By Lara Robertson
17 December 2023

Climate change is changing childhood, and the planet is becoming less predictable and, in some ways, a more dangerous place to live. Children and young people bear the greatest burden of climate change, but it's not often that they get a seat at the table to voice their concerns.

What's COP?

Every year since 1995, governments, environmentalists, and activists have come together to talk about how to limit the effects of climate change and prepare for a future impacted by it. The Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an important event that marks a critical point in the international fight against the climate crisis where targets are renegotiated, and climate ambitions are set for the coming years.

This year, the United Arab Emirates hosted COP28 in Dubai from 30 November to 12 December. UNICEF worked with 49 child and youth climate activists before and at COP28 - including two of UNICEF Australia’s own Young Ambassadors - to raise their voices and ensure that child rights were considered at every stage of negotiation.

We spoke to UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors Luke and Peta who both attended COP this year, about their experiences at the conference and how young people are getting a bigger seat at the table when it comes to tackling climate change.

UNICEF Australia delegates standing outside COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
UNICEF Australia delegation at COP28.
©UNICEF Australia/2023

The biggest – and youngest – COP ever 

COP is the world’s largest climate change summit, and this year COP28 was the largest to date, with more than 80,000 people from 197 countries, including Australia and other Pacific nations. This year also marked a big step up when it came to the participation of young people in the annual conference, with COP28 President Dr Sultan Al Jaber committing to put youth voices at the centre of climate action. 

UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador Luke said that more than 100 countries brought along young people acting as “shadow negotiators” who could watch proceedings and engage with their countries' negotiators throughout COP. He also noted UNICEF’s key role in pushing for the recognition of children and young people within the UNFCCC. 

"It’s pretty crazy that children have been largely left out of the documents agreed to at COP. UNICEF has pushed really hard to have them included, as children and young people are disproportionately impacted by climate change."

UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador
A panel discussion at the Youth Climate Champion Pavilion at COP28.
A panel discussion at the Youth Climate Champion Pavilion at COP28.
©UNICEF/UNI484052/Ndomba Mbikayi

For the first time, the COP Presidency created a Youth Climate Champion - a new leadership position aimed at improving the meaningful participation and representation of young people in international climate decision-making.  

"We now have a precedent of a Youth Climate Champion, a position where there is someone - who in this case was a young Emirati woman who's also a minister in their government - and to advocate for the rights of young people at COP, which is something to be really hopeful for,” Luke said. 

UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors Peta and Luke participate in a youth panel discussion at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors Peta and Luke participate in a youth panel discussion at COP28.
©UNICEF Australia/2023

Luke and Peta also attended COP’s flagship Youth Day, which brought together young delegates to discuss youth-focused policy proposals for COP28 and continue discussions with Governments based on the 2023 Global Youth Statement – the climate policy demands of children and youth from over 160 countries across the world. 

Peta said it was incredibly inspiring to hear from young, passionate people from around the world. “The next generation truly is so ready to take on the task of being the next people in the big rooms,” she said. 

More work to be done 

While there was a sense of a “growing voice” for young people at COP28, Luke said there is still room for decision-makers to elevate youth perspectives further. “But it is a lot better than it had been in the past. The prevalence of young people and the fact that now we've got this position of Youth Climate Champion... shows that young voices are becoming far more recognised in this process,” he said.  

Emmanuel Jidisa, UNICEF Youth Climate Ambassador, and other young activists on December 4, 2023 at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Emmanuel Jidisa, UNICEF Youth Climate Ambassador, and other young activists at COP28.
©UNICEF/UNI484117/Ndomba Mbikayi

Peta said it was important for young people to be “involved in delegations, in the negotiation rooms, in every situation,” and something she heard from young Indigenous and Pacific Islander delegates during the conference was that the smaller nations - that are most affected by climate change - need to get more of a say on how to tackle the issue.  

“I think that it’s important to make sure that they're always at the forefront of conversations” Peta said. 

Three people speak at a UNICEF panel at COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates©UNICEF Australia/2023

How young people can get involved in the conversation on climate change 

Both Luke and Peta said that their experience at COP28 showed them how there is so much space for young people to talk about issues like climate change. 

“We talked quite a bit about how inaccessible the UN processes can be to young people and how a lot of people feel like they’re unequipped to really be a part of it and have a full impact because there are so many acronyms,” Peta said.

"I think there’s so much room for more people to join, in Australia especially... There is so much diversity in thought and ways to be involved."

UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador
On 8 December 2023 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) at Expo City Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, UNICEF Youth Advocates poses for a photo with their drawings.
UNICEF Youth Advocates pose for a photo with their drawings at COP28.

A child rights crisis 

As climate-related disasters impact a growing number of children around the world, including Australia, UNICEF is working to protect children from the effects of climate change while helping communities build towards a more sustainable future. But only with your support can we continue taking action against climate change and give future generations a sustainable future, no matter who or where they are. 

Climate change is changing childhood. Help us protect it. 

Climate Emergency

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