Undercover Cop

Group of campaigners marching in Birmingham, holding a large model albatross on sticks above them

The thoughts, opinions and ideas of young people from across the globe were a vital part of COP26. The RSPB sent three exciting youth voices along to listen, discuss, shout and inform on the subjects which really matter to them. Below are their thoughts on their experience of the conference, their highlights and what difficulties and frustrations they faced as young people. Their answers offer an inside peak into what it was like to be part of this global event and how they think future conferences need to change so world leaders become more accountable for halting the climate emergency we are in.

Group of campaigners marching in Birmingham, holding a large model albatross on sticks above them

Name: Amelia Hayward (AH)

Focus: RSPB intern, peat restoration, Cofounder Bog Babes

From: Highlands, Scotland

Instagram: @Bog.Babes

TikTok: @Bog_Babes 


Name: Oluwaseyi Moejoh (OM)

Focus: Cofounder of U-recycle Initiative Africa, promoting environmental education, circular economy and climate action across Africa 

From: Nigeria, Africa

Website: oluwaseyimoejoh.com


Name: Ruairi Brogan (RB)

Focus: policy officer at RSPB NI, organizer in the Systems Change Group at UK Youth Climate Coalition

Country: Belfast, Northern Ireland

Twitter: @ruairi_brogan

Why are you at COP26? 

AH: I’m an intern for the RSPB. I do ground restoration work, especially peatlands. I grew up in the Highlands, so I have a great feeling of protection over them anyway so it’s really amazing I get to do that every day. Through that I got involved with a youth group and we set up a social media channel called the bogbabes where we're trying to connect people to peatlands and how incredible they are.

RB: I work for the RSPB Northern Ireland team and I’m at COP with the youth climate coalition. We are a youth-led activist group from around the UK for ages 18-30. We are here to ask for representation, responsibility and reparations from the UK government and representing those who cannot be at the COP conference themselves. I got into this work through word of mouth from a friend, and applied to work with them for six months, which means I can support all the work they do here at COP, and their Systems Change group, which is focused on changing the economic system that has caused the climate crisis.

OM: I’m 20 and I’m from Nigeria. I am the co-founder of U-recycle Initiative Africa, which is focused on promoting environmental education, a circular economy and climate action across Africa. We work a lot with schools and communities. This year the RSPB helped support me to attend COP as a delegate and it was great to be able to travel over to have my voice heard, learn about the whole climate crisis and be on the ground, to see how the COP conferences are being run. I'm a National Geographic Explorer and I'm just really passionate about solving the issues of plastic pollution and the climate crisis and its impact on vulnerable communities, especially in the global South.


What does it feel like to be there?

AH: There's many different emotions going on. So me and Seyi were in the Blue Zone last week and Ruairi’s there this week. It's been incredible. It’s not something I ever thought I would have the opportunity to experience. But as time goes on, and especially now I’m reflecting on how it was for me, I think maybe I had a lot of confusing but positive experiences last week.

OM: I’ve thought about that, and I understand it’s my first COP conference and I don't want to put that kind of pressure on myself to have been everywhere, because you are just walking around and before you know it, an hour has already gone – the time just flies so fast in there – you have to rush out to get the bus, rush back to get the bus at 11pm, so I couldn’t even imagine having to add more. I’d have loved to have participated in more events, but I had a breakdown yesterday, I went to one event and I just had to go home and rest because I was feeling dizzy. So understanding that as much as I wanted to have more speaking engagements and have more access, I’m not putting that much pressure on myself. Even if I’d had more access, our leaders still haven’t done what they ought to do. And that is what is really painful for me.

When I heard the fact that we had more representation from fossil fuel companies than any other country I was really heart wrenched by that, knowing that this COP was just probably just a waste of time because it’s just the same thing they're coming to do over and over each year - but that's just one perspective.

I was speaking with a professor and he had a different perspective to me, saying COP had made some progress - some countries have actually made commitments, which is something that is good, right? We now hope that they keep to what they have said.

What I am encouraged by is the collaborations and the people that I connected to that were there. Even just attending is a huge deal.

I really hope that COP counts, I hope that all of this is not just a waste. My hope is that we make some progress at least, because the impact of climate change on some communities is not going to get better. It’s like if someone comes to ask if you are hungry and they say: “oh don't worry, come back in 10 years, I'll give you food then...” Do you understand? You can’t just say I’ll give you food then, when the person is hungry now!

The urgency needed in solving this problem still isn’t being felt and our leaders not giving that kind of response is very discouraging. I'm still inspired by the youth, people like myself or Ruairi or Millie, we stretch ourselves very thin, but we are still giving our best in our different fields to amplify the issues and keep pressuring the government.

RB: It’s incredibly overwhelming being here. It felt like an airport, but instead of just looking for the destination you're going to, you're looking at every single destination because you haven’t narrowed down where you’re going yet. You think that it all might be of interest, and it probably is, so you're at COP and you're seeing this list of scheduled events and you have to spend about 20 minutes digesting what you should be going to, but you're already late for the meeting at 9o'clock that you need to be at, so how do you have time to do that?

A lot of my time here has been outside of the pavilions - more than I expected. I ended up working a lot closer with the Youth Climate Coalition and our partners Fridays for Future, Brazil and other global South organizations that we’ve been supporting, and that's meant that we've actually been able to take part in actions inside the space that others have organised. So this morning we were protesting the human rights omissions from the Article 6 negotiations that are going on, so I was able to make and hold up a sign, which says "Delete the brackets, not human rights". This is where we are at the moment, with brackets around everything. And every issue that concerns human rights, they're just removing the brackets, or considering removing things altogether, which is just scary when you think that's what they're arguing over. You’d think human rights would be something we’ve pretty much nailed at this point.

So that’s what makes me feel a little more empowered that I can stand up and shout for that, and that's been a lot more inspiring than perhaps sitting and watching things. I have been to some really inspiring talks though - those that I’ve found on time! But I think the majority of what I've been doing has been in that more action-based response because we're the ones who are needing to do that. The best part has been meeting other young people who are as passionate, who want to get stuck in. Going forward, there's 50 other weeks of the year and we need to move forward from that and work together and make sure that we're included, because the whole process feels like mom and dad are putting the Xbox on for us to play whilst they go and have an argument about our future. So it feels they are excluding us when, in cross-consistency meetings that I have been part of, they’ve really valued our young voices. It’s a lot about getting over your own internalized self-doubt and standing up for yourself and realising you have every right to be here in the space that we are in. They say that they want to listen to us, so when we have something to say, we should tell ourselves that that's okay to speak up, and I’m still learning that.

How do you think that things could be done better?

RB: There needs to be more representation for people from the global South, particularly indigenous voices. Something that utterly shocked me was that we have a ratio of two to one of fossil fuel lobbyists to indigenous voices within the space. And you can see it. The fossil fuel companies were speaking at every platform. A talk I was at yesterday was saying that 3% of the fossil fuels investments are in the green renewable energy projects, but you’d think they were about 300% of it from the way they talk about it. And in the negotiations with the politicians from the global North, indigenous voices are not being heard, so I would say that's opened my eyes, listening to them and that's something that is incredibly powerful, and everyone needs to hear – because they’re the ones who are going to be affected by the net zero targets that others are promising. If they do agree on them, it will that will be their land that’s used to sequester the carbon in places like Brazil and in Tibet and all around the world. And it's places like Fiji where the displacement of people is happening right now and no one is doing anything about that. They haven't given the money over to them and they haven't let them speak about their experiences anywhere.

Why is there this imbalance in representation?

RB: It's indirectly money. I think it all must come from governments, so they are in the pockets of governments around the world who will then give the fossil fuel companies the tickets to be here. I mean, why would a country with massive investments in fossil fuels invite 200 indigenous peoples? They're going to invite the ones who are representing their interests. That's why I believe the fossil fuel companies were there. It's not a matter of paying your way in, but it's about influence within the governmental process around the world to get access to those seats at the table.

OM: We need to help vulnerable countries adapt to the climate issues. Up until now, nothing has been done about it. We need less talk and more action. People come and make very fancy talks that are inspiring and ambitious, but nobody does anything afterwards.

There should be an independent accountability team that keeps government in check throughout the year. Also, while we have long-term goals, can we also set short-term goals? So when we come to the next COP, we are going to show receipts -  this is what we have done, this is what we have achieved. And then we can talk about it. 

I read a lot of commentary and news and views about this COP, and it was mentioned that if we were at a lung-cancer conference, would they invite tobacco-producing companies?  They wouldn't invite such a person, as that person is seen as the villain in the whole game, they are the reason they are having the conference! So that’s the same reason why we shouldn’t have fossil fuel companies in the conversation. They are obviously coming to promote their interest. They are not coming for any other reason.

We need to turn the tables and have more indigenous voices. For every one person coming from fossil fuel industry can we have five indigenous voices coming also? And if they can't do that then those fossil fuel companies shouldn't be at the table. They should be completely banned. Can we have the next COP without them in the picture?

Because what is happening is they’re making very lovely and beautiful, ambitious goals in enclosed rooms that we can’t access that is out of coverage and they're lobbying for their own personal interest and gains. Well, there's literally no time for us to continue with this kind of model! We have had about 26 years of these meetings. We must rethink every single thing that is being done at COP or it will fail. And when something has failed over time, we must go back to the drawing board and restructure how COP is being done. So what is the purpose of COP? Who should be involved in COP? How should we do it? Where? Even where matters because having it in the UK affected how easy it was to get Visas.  How do we do it? What are we doing? Are we distracting the public from the main conversations? Shall we limit the number of pavilions? Every day should be well discussed and well strategised.

We should have an accountability plan for after COP that maybe every month or every three months or every quarter, government is being asked what is being done? Asking the tough questions: Okay what have you done right now? What have you done so far? The next COP is about 10 months away – where are we at? what is happening? It needs to be reimagined, restructured, basically overhauled, and then something new has to be put in place. But it's very hard for that to happen because of the various power structures that we already have that makes it so difficult for change. I just remain hopeful that by continuing to have these conversations, we’ll have change soon.

AH: We need to set out what we're actually going to do, and the targets for each year and if those aren't met, what are the consequences for their parties that haven't met those targets? We need to name and shame them.  Have the countries that agreed they should be financing countries in the global South to help them meet their targets actually done that so far? I don't think so. So we need to make sure that we're naming and shaming the people that aren't doing what they said they're going to do. They can’t just say "Oh well we're behind this year, but next year will be on track" – this is going to keep happening year on year without getting any closer to our goal.

We also need to ask are we having the representation we need in these spaces? We must make COP26 not just for the people high up, but for the general public. So many people don't actually know what COP26 is - they hear about it and know that it's in Glasgow but I think that it's really important that we make it more accessible for the general public especially, for example, the people in Glasgow right now. They are facing so many issues because of COP 26 being there, but they don’t know why it's important that it's here and why it's important that we do have these discussions. So I think that we need to have broad, more inclusive COPs, where the general public who aren't necessarily deeply embedded in conservation and environmental issues, can be involved in the discussions as well.

Sometimes it feels like maybe having youth at COP was a bit of a tick box exercise, and even having the COP itself was a tick box exercise. They come together and say "yep, we talked about this, we made our targets", but then actually nothing is followed through after they have done this and they don't have to worry about it for another year.

What’s been done well?

AH: Having so many young people there. Even if we don’t have that much of a voice, it's amazing to be among other young people who are so inspirational. This is something that we’ll carry through and continue working on - this energy is not going to disappear once COP is over, especially with all the connections I've made. I feel so lucky to have met so many people that have different ideas and have introduced me to new things - I think that's really special.

RB: The people I've met have been working incredibly hard here. We have an amazing team at RSPB and BirdLife and there's an incredible amount of young people within the UN space and then everybody outside that space in the civil society movements and the documents they’ve produced in getting people here, but also drafting responses to everything that's been happening. That work’s getting done – it just needs to be listened to. I think that if we can get people to listen, things will move very quickly. The right conversations are being had, they're just not the most listened to conversations.


What have been COP’s big wins?

RB: There's been an inclusion of fossil fuels in the decisions which they are calling the Glasgow Agreement, which is the first time - fossil fuels weren’t even mentioned in the Paris Agreement, so it's important that stays in. It’s a nod to calling out the polluters and people who cause these problems.

Also there was Nature Day. That’s the first time there's been a full day dedicated to nature, as we all know nature is the most basic important way that we can save this planet. There’s been a lot of talk about nature-based solutions and how we can work together to make that a reality. It needs to be done properly to make sure it's the right place, and the right action to use nature-based solutions. I think that's really encouraging from a process point of view.

What I'd love to see personally is a Food Day – it’s responsible for 50% of global emissions and we don't even talk about food. It’s mad. It makes no sense to me.