YMCA’s 10 days at COP26: looking back

As a global youth movement, YMCA saw COP26 as a prime opportunity to propel young people’s voices into vital conversations about their future and the fate of our planet, and showcase amazing youth-led solutions that are helping tackle climate change right now.

YMCA secured access for more than 20 delegates from across the world. Not only did these young people represent their countries and communities with passion and grace, but they also spoke up for those not represented at COP26: the marginalized and those most affected by this crisis, many of whom were unable to speak for themselves.

Carlos Sanvee, Secretary General of World YMCA, said: “This drive was behind the entire YMCA team at COP26 – a drive for moral justice fed by the power of community, of hard work and of hope that so commonly emerges when YMCAs come together. That mentality helped us to convey a strong message at this global event: climate justice starts with me, it starts with you, it starts with us.”

As well as having access to the official negotiations in the Blue Zone at COP26, YMCA Ambassadors engaged with peers in workshops and panel discussions that took place throughout Glasgow, beginning with Vital Signs of the Planet: a concert for Climate on Tuesday November 2. As part of the evening at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, YMCA Ambassador Cedric Dzelu from Ghana, delivered an inspiring message on behalf of young people from across Africa and young leaders everywhere.

Next on the agenda was the Bright Lights: Scottish Youth Climate Initiatives talk as part of the New York Times Climate Hub. This event looked at what the young Scottish generation is doing for climate action, and what world leaders at COP26 might be overlooking, set within the backdrop of a living forest installed by world-renowned set designer Es Devlin. As part of that panel Rachel Nixseaman, an Ambassador from YMCA Bellshill & Mossend, Scotland, spoke passionately about the importance of youth engagement and the power of co-design, pointing out that “listening to young people is not a tick-box exercise”.

YMCA Ambassadors also played a key role a collaboration with One Young World for the Extreme Hangout events being held at The Ferry, Glasgow, an exclusive venue for youth voices and discussion. Three panels were held between November 6 and 9, the first of which addressed the need for indigenous voices at COP26 and included vital input from Ambassador Diana Lopera from YMCA Honolulu, in collaboration with the British Museum and the Republic of Palau. The next two panels covered climate justice and human rights with Kumi Naidoo, former secretary general of Amnesty International and Greenpeace, and spoke at YMCA175, in London 2019. He was joined by YMCA Ambassadors Mair Kelly (Ireland), Ylli Alija (Kosovo), Diana Lopera (Hawaii) and the power of investing in youth-led solutions with YMCA’s Rebecca Nkunde (Zambia), Shakil Karim (San Francisco), Rodrigo Puntriano Mendoza (Peru) and moderated by Mike Bromfield, one of the producers of ‘YMCA’s Creating Youth-Led Solutions’.

This last of these panels was followed by a special preview screening of YMCA’s ‘Creating Youth-Led Solutions’ documentary film, commissioned exclusively for COP26. Originally intended to be released as a global premiere and livestream on Friday November 12, the screening promptly sold out and so an in-person only viewing was arranged at The Ferry, followed by a panel discussion between YMCA Ambassadors and singer-songwriter Rhys Lewis, who then gave a special live performance.

On his involvement at COP26 and with YMCA, Rhys Lewis said: “I’ve long been passionate about climate action and believe we can do more to engage people in the crisis we are facing. The pandemic has shown us just how adaptive and creative we can be in adversity; we should see this emergency as a similar opportunity to inspire positive change for the sake of our planet”.

The final item on the official YMCA agenda for COP26 was the film’s global premier itself, held and streamed live from the Glasgow IMAX in the Green Zone, and hosted by YMCA Scotland. The documentary-style film tells the story of how young leaders on each continent are innovating local solutions to the climate crisis. It was followed by an impassioned panel discussion with YMCA Young Ambassadors featured in the film including Rodrigo Puntriano Mendoza (Peru), Rebecca Nkunde (Zambia), Diana Lopera (Hawaii, USA) and Ylli Alija (Kosovo). As part of the discussion, Rebecca addressed world leaders direct with a sentiment echoed by her peers, stating: “You are not here to negotiate for your own benefit, you are here for the entire world”.

Carlos Sanvee then announced a further $150,000 USD investment in the YMCA Youth-Led Solutions Initiative, which has so far impacted more than 38,000 people across the world. On the funding, which adds to an existing investment of $250,000, the World YMCA Secretary General said: “This funding is a chance to reaffirm our commitment to young people today and in the years to come, and we welcome delegates from the public and private sector and academia to join us on our journey to advance youth-led action”.  He said it forms part of an ambition to raise a further $1 million USD by the end of 2022, with an open invitation for organisations to join YMCA to reach this goal.

This promise to continue investing in the future of youth-led solutions, at the premiere of a global film documenting the amazing work being done by young leaders around the world, acted as a perfect crescendo to YMCA’s experience at COP26.

Kerry Reilly, CEO of YMCA Scotland, said: “This is just one example of how YMCA as a global movement is deepening its commitment to youth-led change, and how it enables young people to achieve their goals every single day”.

Rebecca Nkunde (YMCA Ambassador, Zambia) made a poignant point at one of our COP26 events said: “It’s the minority we need to listen to right now, not the majority. Before the majority even speak, they will be heard”.

“That’s exactly why YMCA’s work in this arena is so important. We help give a voice to that minority – the young, the marginalized – to empower them to speak up and over the booming voice of the majority, and prove that they will not be silenced, now or in the future.”

This sentiment has rippled through COP26, with Young Ambassadors calling for urgent action, offering valuable solutions and continuing to support each other in the fight for climate action. The argument was reiterated in national news appearances, and meetings which YMCA’s delegation held with the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, former Irish Prime Minister and architect of the Paris Agreement Mary Robinson, and former US Secretary of State and current Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry.

As Rodrigo from YMCA Peru stated in his blog from the last official day at the event: “This is not the final day of anything, it’s just day one. And we are ready for the journey ahead”.

For a full list of YMCA Ambassadors at COP26, including personal blog submissions on their experiences, please visit the World YMCA News and YMCA at COP26 webpages. To relive all YMCA’s events, panel discussions ,interviews, webinars and selected media highlights, please visit World YMCA’s YouTube channel.