12 Dec 2015

NZ youth delegates report from COP21

1:59 pm on 12 December 2015

The UN climate talks in Paris have ended with an agreement to tackle climate change. It has been hailed as a historic turning point – albeit only a first step on a long road ahead.

The New Zealand Youth Delegation says the two-week summit was a chance for governments to accelerate the transition to a safe, clean energy future, but the agreement “failed to match the ambition being demonstrated by communities and businesses around the world and left observers asking for more”.

Spokesperson Ben Abraham says the text is “heavy with the illusion of ambition without the reality of action”. 

“As young New Zealanders we are disappointed that in this historic moment, our government has failed to adequately future proof New Zealand. The transition to a sustainable world powered by 100% renewable energy is already underway and inevitable; we are calling on young people in Aotearoa to rise up.”

You can follow daily posts from member of the youth delegation below.

DAY 11

Reporting back today from COP21 is Renée Annan, one of the New Zealand Youth Delegation’s “action ninjas”.

New Zealand youth delegates protest as part of the Rise Up campaign at COP21 in Paris.

New Zealand youth delegates protest as part of the Rise Up campaign at COP21 in Paris. Photo: Supplied

Over the last 24 hours, negotiators have pored over the draft COP21 agreement in a final push to work through the remaining points of contention. The final text is expected to be released on tonight (New Zealand time), followed by an approval session which could take up the rest of the weekend.

Renée says civil society groups had no access to the negotiations and the youth delegation focused on their Rise Up New Zealand campaign.

Renée Annan

Renée Annan Photo: Supplied

“In light of the deal in Paris not being a silver bullet, we are asking people in New Zealand to get involved with campaigns and organisations within their community to join the movement that is working towards a decarbonised world.”

She says she is encouraged by the increase in grassroots action.

“It’s becoming clearer that climate change is not just an environmental issue. It impacts the environment, but also human health, societal issues and justice, and that makes it a strong drive for people.”

One of her most powerful experiences came during the Red Lines campaign, when people were holding long stretches of red fabric along the corridors, symbolising impassable thresholds, and made the sound of a collective heartbeat.

Youth groups also joined forces for a protest, below the mini Eiffel Tower, to call for commitments to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

“The Paris agreement is an ambition in words but not in action, and it’ll be interesting to see how that translates next year. Unless we commit to keeping most of the fossil fuels in the ground we’re not going to achieve it,” Renée says.

DAY 10

Today, New Zealand Youth Delegation member Ben Abraham is back with an update from COP21, just as a new draft of the agreement has been released.

The latest development at the Paris summit is that New Zealand has decided to fall in line with more than 100 other countries behind the so-called “high ambition” target to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But Ben says it’s too little too late.

“It’s a moment of convenience for New Zealand, which has not been backing this goal while many other countries have been coming out strongly over the last week. New Zealand has held off until now, and that’s clearly too late. It’s come out now but in the most recent edition of the text the strong ambition for 1.5 degrees has been lost and we’re down to a weak reference.”

He says the new draft has a 2 degree warming as the goal and encourages efforts towards 1.5 degrees, whereas “yesterday’s text firmly established 1.5 degrees as the focus”.

Ben Abraham.

Ben Abraham. Photo: Supplied

“Now that it’s no longer a real commitment, New Zealand appears to be happy to back it.”

Overall, Ben says there has been some progress towards confirming the commitment for a climate fund, with rich countries providing $100 billion each year from 2020 onwards, and scheduled review periods to ratchet up each nation’s pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But the latter doesn’t kick in until 2020, with the first review set for 2024, which Ben says is later than what’s needed to achieve the warming limit.

“It hasn’t fallen apart but what we have falls short of the ambition that is required to reach the goals the Heads of State were talking about at the opening of the conference.”

Ben says the call for a stand-alone clause for “loss and damage” has also been watered down.

“It appears that climate-vulnerable countries are, to some degree, being held to ransom by the largest emitters. There are two options in the new draft. One is to have a short article, two and half lines, and essentially say nothing. The other is to have what is generally quite a good loss and damage section that convers a number of areas, but with language that specifically prohibits any kind of thinking around ideas of liability or compensation directly.  Which is saying absolutely no to any notion of historical responsibility.”

Following the news that New Zealand’s government has adopted the 1.5 degree temperature limit, the youth delegation is calling for an immediate ban on further exploration for oil, gas and coal reserves in New Zealand.


Today’s update from COP21 comes from Zoe Lenzie-Smith, one of the “action ninjas’ and at 23, the youngest member of the New Zealand Youth Delegation.

Zoe Lenzie-Smith receiving Fossil of the Day award for NZ .

Zoe Lenzie-Smith receiving Fossil of the Day award for NZ . Photo: David Tong

It’s crunch time for the COP21 meeting in Paris. Overnight a new draft agreement was released, which had about three quarters of the flagged points of disagreement removed from it.

But Zoe says New Zealand is back in the limelight for receiving a second Fossil of the Day award.

“New Zealand, Australia and the US have made a joint effort to block the loss and damage clause in the text. That means that vulnerable countries, especially people from Pacific Islands, will have a very difficult time to get any compensation when there are damages related to climate change.”

In response, youth and environmental groups organised a sit-in in the area where the plenary sessions are held, to demonstrate “that we will not stand by and watch these decisions being made without any input or influence from civil society”.

Zoe says her first experience of a UN climate summit has been disillusioning as she witnesses a disconnection between the reality of climate change impacts and the decisions being made.

With Beijing at standstill because of air pollution, flooding in the UK, and ongoing drought in California, she wonders “how much is it going to take for the negotiators to actually feel it and act accordingly”.

But despite the frustration, Zoe says she is optimistic that there will be a deal at the end of this week.

“I do have hope in an agreement being made.  I don’t have hope in it being legally binding. I do see COP as the place where the conversation can be started. There were so many leaders coming together for this COP and the enormity of commitment is something that should be acknowledged. But we’re running out of time. It’s taken to 2015 to just get someone turning up, but turning up is only half the fight, the rest of it is back home.”


Today’s update from COP21 comes from Ben Abraham, who is part of the youth delegation’s policy team. Ben loves Dunedin, where he finished his undergraduate degree, but he is now living in the UK, doing a PhD in public policy, with a focus on climate change governance, at Oxford University.

COP21 has now shifted gear. Ministers have taken over negotiations of the draft text, and the goal is to deal with any outstanding major compromises over the next two days.

Ben says the biggest issue yet to be resolved is finance. The Paris agreement will come into effect in 2020 and, back in 2009 at the Copenhagen COP meeting, rich countries have already pledged to deliver $100 billion per year in financial support for poor countries to develop technology and build infrastructure to cut emissions.

“That money is yet to materialise, so there is the issue of making that happen and ramping up the short-term ambition to what has already been agreed.”

After 2020, the plan is to include emerging economies such as China and India in this pool of donors, but Ben says “those countries are reluctant to do so especially in light of the fact that the pre-2020 money hasn’t materialised”.

Ben Abraham.

Ben Abraham. Photo: Supplied

“They are finding it difficult to agree to be part of a broadened donor base when they haven’t seen the traditional donor countries follow through on their existing pledges.”

Another sticking point in the finance discussions is how to make sure that money goes towards both mitigation (the reduction of emissions) and adaptation (efforts to live with impacts of climate change that have now become unavoidable).

“There’s a very large bias among donor countries to want to give towards mitigation because that’s where the business opportunities are, for example for energy companies, whereas there’s a lot less potential for returns from adaptation measures.”

Another aspect of this discussion is how private funds could be mobilised post 2020, “so it is not just public funds, like a government transfer from one country to another, but private capital from businesses”.

Since there is less potential for investment returns in adaptation, Ben says there should be “an extra impetus to make sure that what public finance we do find, that a good amount of that goes into adaptation”.

Countries most at risk of suffering from climate change impacts such as rising seas have been calling for a “loss and damage” clause to be included in the final agreement. “This is for damage that is irreversible and beyond adaptation. If an island goes under water you cannot adapt to that, and some countries want a separate financial mechanism to deal with those impacts”.

“They want it enshrined as a stand-alone issue in the final agreement, while others have been pushing to merge loss and damage into adaptation.”

Meanwhile, Ben says mayors of cities throughout the world have gathered in Paris and made much stronger commitments to cut emissions than their own nations. “By 2050 there’s probably going to be 80 per cent of the world’s population living in cities … and it’s beginning to be acknowledged that that’s a real source of power. You don’t have that same geo-political concerns and people are making the changes for themselves.”


Reporting back from COP21 today is Sudhvir Singh, a medical doctor who’s currently working in public health and sustainability in Scandinavia as the policy director for the EAT Initiative.

An electricity generating station in Sun Valley, California.

An electricity generating station in Sun Valley, California. Photo: AFP

COP21 is in a holding pattern at the moment. A draft agreement has been submitted to the French hosts, but negotiations will only start up again once ministerial parties arrive today.

Sudhvir says there are a number of contentious issues to be sorted out this coming week.

Sudhvir Singh

Sudhvir Singh Photo: Supplied

“It’s the same sort of issues that have come up before. It’s finance, it’s the long-term goal, the frequency of the review of different countries’ contributions, and some of the principles of common but differentiated responsibility, so who needs to do more, essentially.”

He says one of the positive developments has been that more countries have come out in support of the goal to keep warming at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, rather than 2 degrees.

“A lot of countries are coalescing around 1.5 degrees, most recently Germany, France and Australia, in addition to the G77, and some of the language in the latest text acknowledges that, albeit in brackets. 1.5 degrees is crucial in terms of the science telling us that even at 2 degrees warming there will be some catastrophic changes in climate, particularly for the most vulnerable nations, including some of our neighbours in the Pacific.”

As a medical doctor, specialising in internal medicine, Sudhvir is particularly interested in climate change impacts on health, and over the weekend, a summit was held to focus on exactly that.



The World Health Organisation describes climate change as one of the biggest threats to global health in the 21st century, but also as a great opportunity. During the summit, a declaration representing 13 million health professionals from around the world, including New Zealand, was presented to highlight that “we need a strong outcome in Paris for the sake of the climate and of health”.

“The things we need to do to reduce our carbon pollution are exactly the things we need to do to confront the major public health problems we’re facing all around the world. Obviously reducing pollution improves air quality, getting people out of their cars and getting them biking and walking is a fantastic physical activity, and getting them to eat more nutritious food … and less industrially fed red meat, for example, has both climate change and public health benefits.”

Despite the sticking points, Sudhvir is optimistic that the Paris talks will result in an agreement. “It is highly unlikely they’ll let the process fail again, but we need to push for a quality agreement which encourages countries to reduce their emissions in a way that the science dictates they have to.”


Reporting from COP21 today is Anna Sturman, a self-described “policy wonk” for the youth delegation who hopes to go overseas to do a PhD in Political Economy in the next year or two.

The black zero circle is a youth symbol from COP21 to promote a long-term goal of zero emissions by 2050.

The black zero circle is a youth symbol from COP21 to promote a long-term goal of zero emissions by 2050. Photo: Supplied

The UN climate summit has reached a pivotal point today, and as negotiators race against time to deliver a draft agreement to the French hosts, Anna says frustration is growing about the lack of access to information for civil society groups.

Thousands of people are attending the COP21 meeting as civil society observers, representing NGOs, youth groups and other interested parties, and Anna says they are being “shut out of everything that is going on”.

COP21 is Anna’s first experience – she’s only “slightly older than the COP meetings” – and she says it’s frustrating, even heartbreaking, to see civil society groups excluded. “People are in overflow rooms, following online streams which miss a lot of nuance, and are left having to triangulate what is going on.”

Even though the youth delegation has a daily meeting with the New Zealand negotiating team, information isn’t forthcoming. “Everyone is digging their heels in and not saying very much. There’s a reticence to discuss strategy or to give away any pointers to things that are vital to the negotiations.

Anna Sturman.

Anna Sturman. Photo: Supplied

“We still don’t know where New Zealand stands on finance and whether the negotiations team will go into the direction of France and Germany which are backing 1.5 degrees to go into the text, or if we’re going to be backing carbon neutrality, zero carbon, decarbonisation.”

She says earlier this week, a civil society ambassador was appointed as an acknowledgement of this deficit of engagement, but that does not address the disparity of power.

“People with lots of money get a lot of access and the civil society groups, who genuinely want to engage … are being shut out.”

She says this creates a sense of disenfranchisement and disempowerment when it should be the opposite.

“An opportunity to genuinely have rapport between the different segments in attendance and to build constructive relationships for both support and critique and to have open channels of communication - these are all vital for getting the good will all of the leaders spoke about on the first day.”

Negotiating teams need to deliver a draft agreement by midnight to make sure it is ready for ministers when they arrive on Monday.


Reporting from COP21 today are Kya Raina Lal and Mattea Mrkusic.

Mattea is a 20-year-old climate change and forced displacement advocate. She grew up in Auckland, but now lives in Boston, where she studies human rights and environmental studies at Harvard University. 

Kya, 23, is a Pacific climate advocate. Originally from Fiji, she now lives in Auckland, specialising in environmental law and the legal impacts and implications of climate change on the Pacific region.

Kiribati President Anote Tong at COP21, speaking about his country's 'Migration with Dignity' policy.

Kiribati President Anote Tong at COP21, speaking about his country's 'Migration with Dignity' policy. Photo: Mattea Mrkusic

Leaders from 11 Pacific nations are at the UN climate summit, including Kiribati president Anote Tong and Tuvalu's prime minister Enele Sopoaga. Kya says the Pacific nations are united in their call for a legal binding Paris agreement, not just a declaration of intent, a goal to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, and the need for a strong loss and damages mechanism. “The Pacific is all on the same page in that respect, but even with 1.5 degrees it’s too late for some of them.”

Kya says Kiribati president Anote Tong has reiterated his plan for “migration with dignity”.

“Kiribati is already thinking about ways of dealing with the potential displacement of some or all of their people. They are putting in place measures that will equip their people with skills so they can relocate through international migration policies on the basis of skills, and thereby be able to move to other countries and be able to contribute meaningfully to their new country.”

Having grown up in Fiji, the issue of climate displacement is not a remote possibility for Kya.

“We are one of the larger islands, our impacts are not going to be as severe as Tokelau, Kiribati or Tuvalu. We’re not going to see complete inundation or our islands being rendered completely uninhabitable, however, even then, we have already had to move 45 communities due to sea level rise and there are another 830 communities that are set to be moved because climate impacts will displace them otherwise.“

Mattea says New Zealand should start thinking about climate immigration now. “We can start by opening up humanitarian access categories for those who will be affected by climate displacement, because it’s the right thing to do, we have such a rich Pacifica culture in New Zealand and we have a duty because we are contributing to this.”

She says people who are at risk of displacement by climate change do not want to be considered refugees. She would like to see countries like New Zealand to enter into regional and bilateral agreements that would give climate migrants access to stream-lined processes which allowed them to enter a country, upskill, and rebuild their lives.


Reporting from COP21 today is James Young-Drew, a law graduate of Victoria University who now works at a commercial law firm in Wellington. He spent two years abroad, including a stint of studying in Copenhagen and traversing Italy in a travelling theatre troupe.

Young people “will be disproportionately affected by climate change”, says James Young-Drew.

Young people “will be disproportionately affected by climate change”, says James Young-Drew. Photo: Supplied

James says COP21 has now reached a point where negotiations are beginning in earnest, with a number of key issues confronting the New Zealand negotiators, “namely, the long-term goal that they are willing to support and whether or not they will commit to a binding mechanism, which will mean that New Zealand’s commitments can be reviewed and accelerated on five-year cycles”.

Any aspects of the agreement that are legally binding would have to be ratified by countries, and there is usually a threshold at which they come into force.

The Kyoto Protocol, for example, needed to be ratified by a certain number of countries but they also collectively had to account for a proportion of the world’s emissions. “The fact that the United States under the Bush administration was unwilling to ratify meant that the Kyoto Protocol didn’t come into effect for many years. “

James Young-Drew.

James Young-Drew. Photo: Supplied

James says Prime Minister John Key has so far argued that New Zealand needed to take a pragmatic approach to the Paris agreement and that it simply wasn’t feasible to make it legally binding because the United States in particular would be unwilling to ratify such an deal.

But President Obama suggested that there is more scope than previously believed to make more elements of the agreement legally binding.

“At this stage it still looks unlikely that the emissions reductions targets themselves could become legally binding … but it is possible that other aspects of the agreement, such as the ratcheting-up and review mechanisms could be legally binding.”

From the perspective of young people, he says these aspects are hugely important “because we will be disproportionately affected by climate change”.

December 3 is Youth and Future Generations Day at COP21, with events “designed to ensure that the negotiators for at least one day have the interests of young and future generations front and centre on their minds as they proceed”.

One goal will be to get a clause relating to inter-generational equity into the final Paris text.

“At this stage it is mentioned twice, in the preamble and in article 2, but both of those references are square bracketed, which means they are up for discussion by the parties. From a youth perspective, as far as we are concerned, if this action to combat climate change is not for young and future generations, then who is it for?” 


Reporting from COP21 today is Francisco Hernandez, whose childhood in the Philippines has shaped his concerns about climate change.

China is often painted as a climate villain, but the reality is “quite the opposite”, says New Zealand youth delegate Francisco Hernandez.

China is often painted as a climate villain, but the reality is “quite the opposite”, says New Zealand youth delegate Francisco Hernandez. Photo: Supplied

Francisco grew up in a small village, in one of very few houses that had a second storey, and he still remembers his family sheltering villagers during the rainy season, when flooding was becoming increasingly worse.

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in 2013, he was already living in New Zealand, but says it was a powerful reminder of the impact climate change can have on vulnerable communities.

Not long after Typhoon Haiyan, during the COP negotiations two years ago, several youth delegates fasted in solidarity with the people affected by it, and yesterday, some members of the New Zealand youth delegation went on a “fast for the climate”.

Francisco says his main focus on day two was an event held at the China pavilion, where he spoke about the youth climate movement and forged links with young people from China.

China is often painted as a climate villain, but the reality is “quite the opposite”, he says.

“China is aggressively investing in renewable energy and in future-proofing their economy and most climate analysts predict that their emissions will plateau and level off even earlier than 2030, which is what China has committed to.”

He says on a per-capita basis, New Zealanders are much bigger climate polluters that the Chinese, and if “we keep going the way we are, we’re expected to surpass the US by 2025”.

The big development of the day was that New Zealand announced it would ratify the Kyoto Protocol's Doha Amendment, which would create a second commitment period up to the end of 2020.

The amendment has to be ratified by three quarters of the 144 countries signed up to the Kyoto Protocol before it can take effect, and New Zealand is the 55th country to sign up to it.

But Francisco says it shows that New Zealand is more interested in having access to international carbon markets than reducing emissions.


First up to report from COP21 is Natalie Jones, a law graduate from the University of Canterbury who is now studying towards a Masters in international law at Cambridge University.

Natalie Jones,

Natalie Jones, Photo: Supplied

The New Zealand youth delegation kicked off the first day of the UN climate summit with a bit of satire as they launched their Pull the Wool campaign outside the main railway station in Paris.  

During the first day, heads of state from 147 nations addressed the conference, and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key argued for a push to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

Natalie says a reform of fossil fuel subsidies would be a welcome and necessary first step but she challenges the PM to “live up to his rhetoric”.

“New Zealand’s fossil fuel subsidies have increased seven-fold since John Key was leader and this is at great odds to his stance here. It’s very inconsistent and hypocritical.”

While New Zealand has eliminated subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels, it is still supporting exploration and extraction, and the PM’s speech in the plenary was “quite at odds with domestic policy,” she says.

“John Key is pulling the wool in the international arena and those statements here aren’t matching what we’re doing back home. We don’t even have a plan, our target is quite inadequate, and it doesn’t quite square with what he’s trying to front up here.”

Her highlight of the day was that New Zealand was declared the Fossil of the Day, awarded by Climate Action Network International, for the lack of domestic policy to support a transition away from fossil fuels.

Veronika Meduna is a producer for RNZ's Our Changing World science show and author of the book Towards A Warmer World: What Climate Change Will Mean For New Zealand's Future.