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COP27: Does the solution to climate change lie with young people?

Professor Douglas Halliday has written this blog post as part of our COP27 campaign. Visit our COP27 webpages to find out how other colleagues are supporting our work towards a more sustainable future.

Image of Professor Douglas Halliday standing on a staircase.
Professor Douglas Halliday: Department of Physics, Durham Energy Institute

As COP27 gets underway, news stories about the challenge of climate change are reaching fever pitch. It would be easy to reach the conclusion that the earth is in terminal decline, however the reality is more complex than brief apocalyptic headlines. Life on earth will survive if action is taken now; humanity needs to make decisions that will determine what our collective future looks like.
The COP process brings world leaders and representatives together to agree what positive actions they can take to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The scientific consensus is that significantly more action is urgently required.

Emissions Gap 2022 Report

The UN environment programme (UNEP) Emissions Gap 2022 Report sets out an analysis of where GHG emissions are likely to be based on existing commitments from COP meetings, and where they need to be to achieve the ambition of the landmark 2015 Paris Accord to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. The conclusion by the UNEP is that “the international community is falling far short of the Paris goals, with no credible pathway to 1.5°C in place.” In other words, the world’s leaders have not yet committed to actions to meet the goal agreed in 2015 of limiting the global temperature rise to +1.5 °C.

The report asserts that an urgent systemic transformation is required to limit warming and avoid a climate disaster. The COP27 meeting will be about holding leaders to account and ensuring that they step up to meet previous promises and fulfil their legal obligations from previous COP meetings.

COP27 ECO2 Smart Schools Climate Change Conference

Recently I was involved with the COP27 ECO2 Smart Schools Climate Conference, an innovative program of education, outreach and motivation organised by OASES (the Outdoor and Sustainability Education Specialists), Durham County Council and Durham University. OASES provides global sustainability education opportunities for schools, children and young people in the North East of England.

The conference was aimed at young people aged 7-14 to enable them to learn more about why climate change was happening, how this can be addressed, and to share their own ideas, thoughts and feelings about this. The online event involved 100 schools with 55 in County Durham and 45 overseas (Costa Rica, Egypt, France, Hungary, India, Italy, Romania, Spain).

The conference was structured around three key issues: 1) Climate losses, 2) Climate solutions and 3) Climate hopes. Schools were sent resource packs in advance to work through which included videos prepared by Durham University researchers. Slides and other resources were translated into Arabic by Durham University staff.

A portion of the online conference was dedicated to a panel of “experts” answering questions live posed by children. I found the children to be highly engaged, very keen to learn, and very challenging. For example: “Why do we still burn coal when we know it destroys the planet?”. Not an easy question to answer for children. Normally, teachers mark the work of children. I think if we asked children to mark our work, described by the UN as having no credible pathway, it would be at best “C – could try harder”. That is certainly the impression given as evinced by the frustration in some of the children’s questions posed to the panel.

Durham Energy Institute

Durham Energy Institute (DEI) was set up in 2009. It’s key aim remains the production of world-class research for understanding energy decarbonisation to deliver integrated solutions for the climate emergency incorporating social, policy and technical insights. DEI’s unique approach integrates robust social science constructs from colleagues in Anthropology, Business, Geography, Law, and Philosophy to consider how the scientific and technical aspects of the energy system integrate effectively with the societal aspects of the energy system.

Energy is so deeply embedded into today’s society that it is impossible to achieve effective long-term solutions without this critical societal perspective. DEI is at the forefront of many energy innovations including hydrogen, geothermal, offshore wind, smart grids, new photovoltaic devices, and many more.

With such progress in research, alongside scientific work setting out plausible pathways to 100% renewable energy, we need to ask why progress has been so slow and not currently on target. Collectively humanity needs to get a move on.

Mobilising young people as agents of change

Why, then, are events such as the COP27 ECO2 Smart Schools Climate Conference so important?

As experts with knowledge, understanding and insights about our complex energy system, we have a duty to communicate this to all members of society, not just those that can read and follow our research papers. Young peoples’ futures depend on decisions made now; they have a right to be as informed as possible about energy and climate challenge, and what possible solutions are available.

Furthermore, events such as these can motivate and inspire children to get involved, play their part and develop their dreams and ambitions for what they can do to make a difference when grown up. The Skolstrejk för klimatet movement has grown from one person to a global movement with significant influence in a few years.

Leaders can no longer ignore these urgent voices. Events such as this conference play an important role in informing, motivating, giving hope, empowering and mobilising young people as agents of change. My overriding impression from having participated in this conference is that the world is full of young people who want to know what is going on and what is being done about it. They will not wait patiently for further COP negotiations which don’t deliver what is needed. They expect our leaders to take meaningful decisions now. World leaders and negotiators at COP in Egypt will do well to take heed of their concerns.

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