My school attendance is a little dismal. So, in the spirit of maintaining my streak, in December 2019, I started my winter holidays a week early by travelling to Madrid. Nope, not for a holiday in the sun: I was attending the 25th sitting of the Conference of the Parties, or COP25, the annual United Nations climate conference as an NGO observer. It was, to say the least, a wild ride so I thought I’d share some of my highlights and lowlights of my two weeks. Enjoy!

Although originally scheduled to be held in Santiago de Chile, the location of the conference was moved to Madrid just a month before the negotiations were due to start, due to huge protests all over Chile. This marked the start of a set of negotiations that would throw so-called “developing” nations under the bus and disregard those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change in a complete lack of connection between climate change and social justice.

I had an NGO observer badge, which meant I had access to the main venue containing country pavilions, country delegation offices, official side events, some of the negotiations and (most importantly!) protest actions.

Having missed my bus to Madrid due to a delayed train, I stayed with a friend overnight in London before taking the 27 hour bus journey. Despite arriving a day late, I registered easily and then headed into the fray completely clueless. The huge venue had no windows, numerous plants in pots and a whole host of greenwashing. I spent the day trying to find people I almost knew in order to get some idea of what I should be doing. The first few days involved some protest actions – for the anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, to make big polluters pay for climate reparations, to end fossil fuel subsidies at COP, to end carbon markets – as well as press conferences, side events and dinner with other FridaysForFuture activists.

On Friday 6th December, FridaysForFuture at COP25 – an international group of school strikers – staged a silent sit-in in the entrance hall. In other news, Greta Thunberg joined in as she arrived for her first day at COP. As we got up to leave, the media acted like immature children, forcing past the barriers that had separated us and pushing many school strikers out of the way. Instead of reporting on the inefficacy of these talks due to the blind disregard for solutions centred in climate justice, the cameras swarmed her as she left the building. Fixing the climate crisis is not the responsibility of a 16-year-old schoolchild, albeit an inspiring one; it is the responsibility of our leaders to step up and stop acting like irresponsible children.

The ordeal left many strikers a little shaken, and we generally dispersed to find some time to take a breather. I participated in an interview for Time magazine, only later finding out that it was for the Time Person of the Year article on Greta Thunberg.

After a full day at COP, much of civil society headed out onto the streets of Madrid to join the 500,000 (this number was debated, the police said it was lower) marching to demand climate justice. It was an incredible feeling to be surrounded by thousands of passionate people and to know that, despite the horrible helplessness that was contained inside the halls of COP25, there was so much power out on the streets.

The weekend passed quickly as I took the opportunity to catch up on sleep and attend events at the social summit, a space for a COP25 that centred the right voices and had the right conversations; it was also run entirely by local activists and has absolutely no input on the UN negotiations.

On Monday 9th December, I watched the queues outside the press conference room where Greta Thunberg was due to speak; I then watched, via livestream, her (to put it politely) eloquently shut up in order to give space to the voices of indigenous, frontline and marginalised youth. That day I, alongside around 20 others, painted eyes on my hands and “harassed” (according to UNFCCC security staff) the vice-president of Shell as he emerged from the business hub pavilion.

The Wednesday of the final week was by far the most memorable day I had. In the morning, we attended a “special event on the climate emergency” which featured, among others, Greta Thunberg, head of GreenPeace international and Hilda Flavia Nakabuye – a Ugandan school striker who brought most of FFF to tears. In an unauthorised action, FFF took the stage after the speakers had finished: Angela (Chilean activist) and I were first on stage, holding our hands in the air with eyes painted on them. After a number of threats to get debadged, we cleared the stage. High on adrenaline, I couldn’t stop thinking about the next action that was planned, and the clanking metal cups in my bag.

As the negotiators filed back into the negotiating room after lunch break, the hall outside filled with people. In a chaotic mess, the sounds of pots and pans began in the spirit of cacerolazo, a Latin American protest symbol; banners were taken out of bags, too many different chants were started all at once, and we got shouted at (again…) by the UNFCCC security staff. As the chaos grew, we were not-so-gently herded through an ominously opened door and outside the building. Here, we heard speeches and used our anger to channel powerful singing and chanting. Eventually, we got guided around the outside of the building, and then told to disperse – we were debadged until further notice and wouldn’t be allowed back into the venue.

The events of this day taught me a very stark lesson on privilege. Watching the UNFCCC’s instagram, they posted a picture on their story of us on stage at the morning plenary, with arms raised and hands joined. The caption? Simply that this was the “special event on the climate emergency”. There was no reference to the fact that this was unauthorised, that we were threatened with being debadged, that we were in tears of frustration as we sang. To me, the message was evident: in an act of protest led by young – white, western, privileged – people, we were being used as tokens of inclusion and regarded with trivial significance. Although there were indigenous people, people of colour and those from the global south standing on that stage, they remained in a minority.

That afternoon, in a protest visually fronted by people of colour and indigenous peoples, we were violently pushed out and left standing in the cold for over an hour. Throughout the course of the conference, FridaysForFuture were given a huge platform, and yet those most marginalised and most affected by the climate crisis were silenced and excluded. Tokenism isn’t cool. White supremacy isn’t cool. Ignoring climate justice and equity definitely isn’t cool.

The next day was a little hazy; after a long night of negotiations, most of us (excluding the visible “leaders”) were reunited with our badged status and could re-enter the building. I spent the day getting angry at some terrible communications and piecing together some plans for the final action on Friday. While everyone I knew in the UK was waiting on tenterhooks for the results of the election, I stayed up until 1am painting banners and stenciling out eye prints. The eye was a symbol that we used throughout the conference to symbolise that “we are watching” the negotiations; however, it was also recognition that COP should have been Chile, where protestors are losing eyes from police brutality while out on the streets in a national uprising. In the morning, I checked out of my hostel and headed, for the final time, into the windowless venue. At 12pm, we gathered in the entrance hall for a sit-in, FridaysForFuture style. I witnessed speeches from some incredible people, watched as someone from FFF tokenistically asked an indigenous woman to hold the megaphone while he interrupted the program to sing his own song, and listened as the indigenous delegation got drowned out by FFF chanting at the end. These were examples of how we must continually check our privilege, and how “standing together” is not enough; we must act together, but amplify the right voices. The large majority of the activists stood up and walked out, joining an action that was being held outside the venue.

Digging into my last supply of free chocolate, I chatted to a few people about my plans for next year, before catching the metro to the bus station. My journey home was just as long and sweaty as the journey to Madrid, but my brain would not let me sleep. Slowly processing the packed two weeks that I had had, I came to realise that the experience had been exhausting and frustrating, angering and aimless, but that it was most definitely worth it. The rush that I got when climbing onto a stage in front of most of the world’s media, the people that I was privileged enough to meet and hear just some of their stories, and the huge leaps in people power over the past year that I was able to contribute to. The talks were diabolical and inadequate – perhaps not quite a complete failure – but the lessons I learnt were completely invaluable. I am not yet disheartened, and genuinely believe there is still hope in fighting on, while looking after ourselves and each other; in the words of a friend that I met there, I think everyone needs to remember that “this will be a long-term struggle and we can’t afford to lose the joy of being alive.”

Jargon buster

Greenwashing – marketing technique that focused on how “eco-friendly” a company, while disregarding a lot of other factors. For example, BP’s efficient ships advertising.

UNFCCC – United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty responsible for dealing with and fixing the climate crisis.

Climate justice – the idea that the worst effects of climate change will be felt by those most vulnerable and least responsible. Climate justice is about turning these table as best as possible so that the climate crisis is not framed as simply an environmental issue, but also a political and economic one.

Debadged – a consequence of doing something wrong, e.g. an unauthorised action, at COP. You cannot enter the venue past security without a badge. For severe violations, the badges of the whole organisation are removed and increased severity could lead to the badges of an individual/whole organisation being banned forever from all future COPs.

Climate equity – where measures against climate changes are distributed fairly in terms of who is responsible, including historically.

FFF/Fridays For Future – used in this article to describe the international school strike movement.

The talks

There were two main items on the agenda: loss and damage, and carbon markets. Both of these have probably been crafted exquisitely so that these terms mean nothing to most people.

Carbon markets are widely regarded as a Very Bad Idea by most environmental and climate justice advocates. In the Paris agreement, article 6, which outlines the mechanisms of carbon markets, is one of the last articles to be resolved due to its huge controversy. In essence, carbon markets can work in two forms: cap and trade, and carbon offsetting. Cap and trade is a way that polluters (countries, companies etc) are set a limit of carbon that they can emit; if they keep below that limit and have excess “carbon credits”, they can then sell these to other polluters as long as, theoretically, the combined emissions of all the polluters in the scheme remains below a certain limit. However, schemes such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme have tried these sorts of mechanisms before and emissions have actually risen. The other form is carbon offsetting, which is based on tradable credits that are gained from emission reductions. These credits can then be bought by other emitters. In essence, carbon markets are a way that polluters and emitters (companies and countries) can buy and sell carbon credits.

Various carbon markets schemes have been set up in the past, including in the Kyoto agreement, and it has been established that they don’t really work. This is due to the generous budgets, and the way that it increases the role of companies in climate solutions. There have also been objections based on their commodification of nature, the habit of offset schemes to “buy” indigenous land from governments and the lack of regard for biodiversity.

This year’s talks on carbon markets were under pressure to produce agreement after being pushed over from COP24. Due to this time pressure and the inability to previously have reached consensus, there were a number of very dodgy proposals that remained on the table and risked being pushed through behind closed doors. For example: dodgy accounting that would allow double counting of emission reductions; the inclusion of a huge number of carbon credits from a previous carbon trading scheme that would allow polluters to keep on polluting as well as the removal of human rights safeguards. Many civil society groups were opposed to the existence of carbon markets at all. In the end, no agreement was reached and all the proposals (including the risky ones!) will be carried over to COP26.

Loss and damage – centred around the finance for the effects of climate change that can no longer be avoided – was another discussion point. Already a guaranteed part of the Paris agreement, the talks were focused on the mechanisms of climate finance: that is, the way in which money is gathered and distributed where it is needed. The discussion did not meet the ambition that was required, although small gains were made. No resolution was reached on the governance of the Warsaw international mechanism, and conversations on liability and compensations from developed countries have also been pushed to next year.

By Beth Irving, 18, Youth Strike 4 Climate Cardiff