COP26 reflections # 1- Young people did everything they could

Date: 22 November 2021

Carlos Sanvee is Secretary-General of the World Alliance of YMCAs

It’s a week since the end of COP26, which I attended along with 18 young YMCA climate ambassadors from every continent. How am I feeling? How are they feeling?

It’s genuinely hard to say. Elation and deflation feature large – and all points in between.

I felt elation because we were there, and because positive things happened, like commitments to limit deforestation and methane production, and at least take steps towards reducing the use of fossil fuels. For all the deep dismay amongst our group and across the global YMCA Movement about the 11th hour way in which the ‘phasing out’ of coal became ‘phasing down’, it is still a form of progress that the end of coal is in sight.

Our elation also came from our being active players at COP, not passive observers. It was a busy fortnight. We took part in debates in the Green Zone; we fed into the work of the Youth Climate Movement and the official youth statement developed at the Youth Conference in Milan immediately before COP. We fed into the Glasgow Climate Pact statement itself, with an article ensuring ‘meaningful youth participation and representation in multilateral, national and local decision-making processes’. We exerted influence not least by talking to other influencers, like US climate envoy John Kerry, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and former Irish President Mary Robinson. We announced extra funding for our own programme of YMCA Youth Led Solutions.

We played a full part in a massive moment in which the world at the Glasgow Summit and in every corner of the earth said: ‘enough is enough – we are doing ourselves irreparable damage – we must act’.

It was clearly ‘a moment’ for others too, and I was impressed by the way that the private sector is stepping up to its own responsibility. I echo the call for a new Corporate Determined Contributions mechanism to measure the businesses’ contribution to global climate recovery, which sits alongside the requirement for countries to update their Nationally Determined Contributions.

But I also felt deflation and extreme disappointment, because by anyone’s estimate the Glasgow Climate Pact will not keep global temperatures where they need to be. They will continue rising dangerously. Lives and livelihoods are under serious threat.

The pain felt by our young climate ambassadors, and evidently by millions of young people worldwide, was palpable. They feel badly let down by their elders.

Young people would and should never claim to have all the answers, and to make all the right decisions. They themselves might even say that sometimes their voice is too loud or shrill, and not sufficiently informed. But most of the time, it isn’t. It sees and says things clearly. The voice of young people is screaming for climate justice and sustainability simply because young people see their future disintegrating and disappearing before their very eyes.


Where do we go from here?

The YMCA, at least, will do three things.

First, we will continue to give voice to young people and what they want to say about climate change. ‘The earth itself has no voice’ one of our YMCA ambassadors at Glasgow said. ‘We are its voice.’

Second, we will take the small, practical steps that we can. For instance we will continue to launch microprojects in which young people in our YMCAs launch their own initiatives to develop youth-led solutions to combat climate change. The six YMCA projects which featured in a global film premiere in Glasgow – from Kosovo, Palestine, Peru, the Philippines, the US and Zambia – are testimony to the fact that everyone everywhere must do something, however small. That’s what we are doing, and that’s why we added what extra funds we could to the pot.

Third, we will commit to doing better as a global YMCA Movement – in all our practices, in all our programmes. A sustainable planet is the third pillar of our YMCA Vision 2030 – our roadmap for the decade.

I told an audience in Glasgow that ‘climate justice starts with me, it starts with you, it starts with us. A journey of 1000 miles starts with just one step’.

YMCA is absolutely serious about climate change. Its young people are absolutely serious. It stands by what it’s doing, and it commits to doing more.

If everyone did the same, and did all that they reasonably could, would that be enough to avert catastrophe?  Is it the naivety of the young people I’m proud to represent which makes me say that – or is it, in fact, the voice of humanity, responsibility and clear-sightedness?

These are some of the thoughts turning in my head as I look back on the elation and deflation of Glasgow.

Young people did everything they could at COP 26 in Glasgow. I’m afraid it’s still the older folks – people of my age – who obstruct progress.  Young people are our greatest hope in reversing the damage of climate change: listen to them.


Read the full story of YMCA’s fortnight at COP 26.