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Emma Kirke - On the importance of the youth delegation at COP15

"We will not be passive participants in the implementation of the global biodiversity framework at the action level"

· Climate Reality Canada Team

Emma Kirke is a Campus corps member at the University of Waterloo. She believes in the power of storytelling to promote sustainable solutions. She has experience in biodiversity conservation and public policy and is particularly interested in the application of nature-based climate solutions at the municipal level. Emma attended COP 15 last December as a member of the United Nations Association in Canada (UNAC).

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You attended COP15 as part of the UNA-Canada youth delegation. How do you think youth contributes to the discussion and influences the negotiations?  

As a youth delegate with the United Nations Association of Canada, my role was to listen and learn while bearing witness to what many hope will be the defining moment to halt biodiversity loss and spur monumental efforts to restore what has already been lost. Throughout the conference, I enjoyed the company of the other UNAC delegates in learning how to make the most of such an incredible opportunity.

While there were not many youths around the negotiation table, I saw our role as being one to inform the negotiations as speakers for future generations. In recent years, the number of youth delegates at such forums has drastically increased with the rise of the youth climate movement and I believe our presence is important to remind those with a seat at the table of our reliance on them for our future. As representatives of the generation to inherit a future that the agreement seeks to guarantee, we will not be passive participants in the implementation of this agreement at the action level. Increasingly, my generation is choosing jobs that are fulfilling and directly touch the issues we discuss collectively at conferences like COP15. As future ancestors, we have a responsibility to continue to push our decision-makers to honor the commitments they have made and advocate for just implementation.

During the negotiations, what aspects among the 23 targets of the global biodiversity framework were the most interesting for you and why?  

Throughout the conference, the two targets that I followed most closely were targets 8 and 18. Target 8 focuses on minimizing the impact of climate change and ocean acidification, with specific reference to mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk reduction. Aligning with topic of my undergraduate thesis, I enjoyed following the discussion that focus on Nature-based Solutions (NbS) and the ramifications of considering it in this context. Given the importance of eliminating harmful subsidies and scaling up positive incentives for conservation and sustainable use, I also enjoyed following target 18 and hearing from various organizations that approached the microphone to contribute their perspective. Given the reality of the loss of biodiversity that the planet has experienced even now, we cannot afford to be continuing to subsidize harmful activities as we try to fund the restoration. The reality is that finance is hugely important to ensure that we can take the right steps moving forward and we should not be financing activities that continue to bring the future of my generation into question.

I would also add that in the section of consideration for the implementation of the framework, there is an important recognition of the role of formal and informal education in creating the capacity to successfully implement the framework.

What did you see and learn in terms of the application of nature-based climate solutions at the municipal level during your time at COP15?  

Throughout COP15, NbS were everywhere given their potential to deliver many benefits, particularly at the municipal level. I attended several events on the topic as a result. One element of the discussions that encouraged me was the recognition of a need for standard for NbS and the importance of the involvement of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) in such endeavors. However, the misuse of the term NbS often came up with frustrating examples of non-native species planted by migrant workers over partnering with local groups to replace lost biodiversity. In the final agreement, NbS are explicitly mentioned in target 12 for their potential to deliver benefits for both human wellbeing and biodiversity by building resilience to climate impacts at the municipal level.

During a session I attended with both Deloitte Canada and Nature United, it was good to hear about the extent to which the corporate sector is seeking to invest in creating partnerships with Indigenous groups in the realm of Nbs. I look forward to seeing more examples of fruitful collaboration in Canada that might allow us to lead in this area on the world stage.  

How your experience at the COP15 can translate into local advocacy? Are there some ideas coming from what you saw at COP 15 that you will use for Campus Corps at Waterloo university?  

In attending the COP15, I was surprised by the number of corporations who sent representatives to attend the conference. While Indigenous nations, governments and civil society currently play a leading role in biodiversity conservation, the private sector would ideally play a role in the solution rather than the problem. In order to be able to contribute to solutions, the private sector needs to be able to hire graduates who have that base of knowledge about sustainability to contribute positively.

I am translating this perspective into a panel we are hosting for Sustainable Development Goals Action week in March on the importance of post-secondary sustainability education in creating a resilient workforce. We have invited both industry leaders and sustainability education advocates to come together to help make the case for greater sustainability education integration at the post-secondary level.

As a youth delegate, what were the biggest difficulties, but also the greatest successes of COP15?  

I left the conference with mixed emotions. On the one hand, there was landmark recognition of Indigenous peoples' rights and their critical role in protecting biodiversity. Despite accounting for only 5% of the world's population, Indigenous people steward 80% of the world's biodiversity.  An important part of conservation work in many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots includes recognizing customary land tenure and granting Indigenous and local communities the right to continue to steward these places. Recognition of such rights in an international agreement that is inevitably the product of a system based on euro-centric norms is a landmark achievement. Canada also announced unprecedented funding for Indigenous-led conservation.

I felt the conference came short regarding the importance of ocean conservation. It is a challenging area to address, given that most of the ocean is outside exclusive economic zones where nations' states have clear jurisdiction. While oceans are estimated to contain 80% of the world's biodiversity, it is only mentioned twice in the final agreement. I am looking forward to attending the International Marine Protected Areas Conference in February as a youth delegate with the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, where these issues will be further discussed.

Finally, throughout the conference, I gained a new appreciation for the degree of freedom I have in Canada as an advocate in the biodiversity sphere. Participating in civil society events and sessions with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David Boyd, I heard from activists from the global south who face risks to their personal security by simply protecting their basic rights to drink safe water or breathe clean air. In particular, the Amazon has become one of the most dangerous places for environmental and land activists with perpetrators often escaping justice as governments have turned a blind eye to abuses. During a discussion session, one activist shared “by protecting one voice, you empower a thousand.”