From November 30 to December 13, world leaders, climate advocates, and business representatives from around the globe came together in Dubai to attend the 28th annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—more commonly known as COP28.
The goal? Advance progress and negotiate agreements to address the global challenges of climate change.
Throughout COP28, more than 50 representatives from SOA’s community were on the ground in Dubai to incite climate action, ensure the ocean is valued in critical discussions, and bring youth perspectives to the table.
Read on as SOA interviews seven young ocean leaders from our community on what it was like to be at COP28 firsthand, the challenges they experienced, and what left them feeling hopeful for their future.
Mark Haver (He/Him), SOA Regional Representative for North America (U.S.)
It was an honor to coordinate SOA’s delegation at COP28. This is my third year at COP and every year I feel more and more impressed by the incredible work that I see the SOA community bringing to and sharing at these conferences.
While I work mostly with our Hubs in North America, I cannot understate how motivating it is to bond with fellow Young Ocean Leaders from all over the world and to be inspired by the passion and hard work they bring to their unique projects. Whether it is coral restoration projects in Sri Lanka, a children’s book about deep-sea mining from Peru, or a new community developing in Turkiye, each of these projects and their leaders gives me so much hope and builds faith in my generation’s future.
My biggest achievement at COP28 was hosting the first fully autistic delegation with my organization, EcoSpectrum. We also hosted a side event, Revolutionizing Ocean Education; Initiating Ocean Literacy for Autistic Youth. Seeing the young EcoSpectrum delegates and ambassadors, Philo Geries and Obaid Al Hameli, on stage was truly a blessing.
I wish I could relive this moment, as it is that day when I realized how the autistic community gives us a helpline to save our ocean and planet. Although Philo and Obaid had both seen the horrors of the climate crisis, experienced it first-hand where it threatened their health, their homes, and their lives… Their innocence, love, purity, and grace remained. They have the clarity that world leaders don’t—but imagine a world where policymakers had a branch of that clarity or bluntness in their decision-making processes?
Bodhi Patil (He/Him), Young Ocean Leader and SOA Grantee (Canada)
My journey at COP28 and with the Wisdom Keepers Delegation was quite transformative.
Before and throughout COP28, the Indigenous Peoples Caucus (IPC) tirelessly represented the 476 million Indigenous people worldwide across 90 countries. With boundless energy, charisma, and ferocity, the IPC relentlessly ensured that Indigenous people informed the outcomes of the final text at COP28 on the Loss and Damage Fund, the Global Stocktake, and Article 6, calling for a total phase-out of fossil fuels.
Although the most robust language forcing an immediate just transition was not adopted, over 200 countries agreed to reduce global consumption and “transition away from fossil fuels”—signaling the slow death of the oil age. This is an incredible step forward for Mother Earth.
It was a privilege to attend a conference with over 80,000 delegates from across the globe yet still run into familiar faces at every corner. That is a gift that SOA has brought me. I firmly believe that it kept me going throughout the most emotionally straining COP I have ever attended.
Specifically, I want to share a story highlighting the beautiful hearts of the people in the ocean conservation movement. The ones who tirelessly and selflessly bring themselves to these conferences to bring a voice to the voiceless. It might seem insignificant sometimes, but if not us, then who?
On the final day at COP28, Bodhi Patil asked me to join a panel session at Extreme Hangout. While hesitant at first, given such an emotionally chaotic week, I arrived at the venue while simultaneously battling this ‘COP virus’ that almost everyone I know fell ill with.
That panel was nothing less than pivotal. Sitting alongside an intergenerational panel of ocean leaders from across the globe, we shared the same sentiment. We spilled our hearts out regarding the levels of disappointment we felt on the last day of COP. No words can do it justice because that conversation came from the heart.
One of the most beautiful highlights occurred at the beginning of COP28, meeting once again with my ocean buddies. I missed them so much. Knowing that the future of the ocean is in their hands is a big relief because I know we share the same love for marine life and we’re going to do as much as we can to protect it.
There was also great progress in ocean-climate action. For one, the ocean was included in the Global Stocktake, calling for a “strengthening of ocean-based action” in reference to the importance of protecting and preserving the ocean and coastal ecosystems.
COP28 was not just a conference; it was a turning point in the global fight against climate change. The transformative agreements and initiatives set the stage for a more sustainable future, emphasizing the need for continued collaboration, inclusivity, and unwavering dedication to addressing the urgent challenges posed by the climate crisis.
Nearly 200 countries came together to forge a historic agreement, signaling a groundbreaking shift away from fossil fuels. The ambitious targets set for renewable energy, including the goal to triple renewable energy by 2030 and reduce methane emissions, showcase a collective commitment to combating climate change on an unprecedented scale.
A major triumph emerged with the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund, backed by an unprecedented initial investment exceeding $700 million. This financial commitment reflects a united effort to support climate-vulnerable nations in addressing the escalating costs of the climate crisis. The milestone achieved at COP28 is not merely a victory for climate justice but also a testament to the global community's dedication to translating climate ambitions into actionable initiatives for a more sustainable future.
The conference also placed a significant emphasis on nature-based solutions, with initiatives underscoring a global acknowledgment of the indispensable role mangroves play in climate change mitigation such as the Mangrove Breakthrough garnering substantial financial backing and the reinforced commitment from the UAE to plant 100 million mangroves by 2030.
COP28 was a rollercoaster of emotions, like experiencing two parallel worlds simultaneously. On one side, there were pavilions, side events, and encounters with my community—individuals working tirelessly every day to confront the climate crisis. It was a space filled with hope, determination, and unity. On the other side, the agreements from negotiations lacked ambition, blocked by major powers, highlighting the absence of youth perspectives. We longed for more ambitious texts.
Nevertheless, I choose to focus on the community that emerges—the birth of new projects, collaboration opportunities, and the exchange of experiences. It's a privilege to witness the growth of my colleagues and reflect on the progress made compared to COP27. Therefore I would describe COP28 as "unifying," because in those critical moments of helplessness and indignation, we work best together and become stronger.
One word that I would like to use to describe COP is ‘whiplash.’ One reason why whiplash is appropriate is because it felt like a ping-pong ball walking from end to end of the huge event venue. Another reason is about the outcomes themselves. Although there was much progress made for the ocean in climate negotiations and with breakthroughs in mobilizing action for coastal and marine ecosystems (especially coral reefs and mangroves), the final outcomes of the negotiations proved disappointing.
While it’s incredible to see the ocean-climate silo dissolve, our ocean’s greatest threat is a warming climate. COP28 made me feel that we are not striving for 1.5ºC but instead for 2ºC of warming. The Global Stocktake also revealed that countries are not implementing their commitments to climate action.
As an Egyptian ocean activist born and raised in the UAE, my two homes were in the spotlight at the most recent COPs. COP28 was of particular pressure for me with the conflict of interest in having the UAE, one of the largest oil-producing countries in the world, host COP28. You wouldn’t call on a tobacco company to host a health conference.
It is vital to acknowledge that representation from various vulnerable coastal communities was present at COP28, however, what is representation worth if we have merely granted more representatives the responsibility of revealing the painful truth to their communities back home of how our leaders have failed us and them, again? How the same leaders who promise change have been simultaneously sharpening their murderous knives of choosing profit over life?
The mere acknowledgment of science and the urgency of staying below 1.5ºC will not guarantee the life of our ocean, but taking action towards the end goal will be the lungs supporting the survival of our existence that is reliant on the health of our ocean.
A diverse range of solutions will be needed to address the complex challenges of the climate, biodiversity, and pollution crisis we are up against. This is a team effort that involves all of humanity, especially those of us who are privileged and capable of taking radical transformative actions.
Throughout my experiences at COP28, it is clear that the climate crisis is a values crisis. Fossil fuel combustion is mixing up many different timescales that have altered the trajectory of humanity in irreversible ways. The idea of burning millions of years of biological material in an instant is a power imbalance that has led to current climate catastrophes and war.
After the Extreme Hangout panel, I felt weak. I couldn’t put together enough motivation to attend the final negotiation. How much could I change after such a disappointing draft, after all? We already decided to sacrifice 95% of our coral reefs. That was sobering enough.
As a few of us were getting ready to hop on the COP Taxi to take us to the negotiation rooms, I saw a dear friend walking in the distance. I ditched the venue and ran to them with hopes to discuss our ‘hopes’ for the future (if any).
We sat on a bench at the venue, and I showed him the livestream of the Extreme Hangout panel session. We sat in a pool of sadness, anger, frustration, and hopelessness. The youth, who usually bring such vibrance to policy spaces, were burnt out. He mentioned how angry he felt and how he had little hope left—and I helplessly agreed.
The darkest moment at COP for me turned into a little beam of hope when a girl who attended our panel came up to us, showing us her drawings of us during our panel, captioned with "this one's for the youth who try."
She mentioned how she was very introverted and found courage in talking to people by showing her drawings. She touched upon her love for nature and the youth in policy-making spaces and how she searched for a community of people who could help propel her within the movement.
After a long and emotional conversation, she is now determined to become one of the co-founders of an SOA Hub in Dubai. That is just one of the impacts SOA has in these negotiation spaces; we bring people together in unexpected ways. She came up to us during such a dark moment and brought so much hope that I probably would not have been able to obtain it if I had decided to attend the negotiation session.
This small act of kindness reminded me of the ‘spark’ of love that youth bring to these tense negotiation spaces. It would be an absolute shame to let that spark die down.
The main challenges for me at COP28 were distances between places with the venue being so large and to find time to eat properly in between sessions. There were a lot of important things happening at the same time that I had to prioritize and try to participate in different side events as much as I could.
I would like to see more strict positions on final agreements and for the ocean to be included in negotiations. The climate crisis isn’t going to be solved if the decisions made are not strong enough. Until then, I’ll continue advocating for the oceans from where I am.
Securing an ocean inclusion in the Global Stocktake marked substantial progress, yet it's just the tip of the iceberg. What we truly crave is a surge of ambition and a complete immersion of the ocean into climate action. It's time to acknowledge that climate justice isn't just a concept—it's a lifeline for coastal communities and artisanal fishers grappling with the repercussions of fish stock migrations. As we explore the conversation surrounding damages and losses, bringing marine ecosystems to the forefront becomes not only important but absolutely paramount.
I mainly engaged in conversations in the run-up to COP28, ensuring that youth felt safe coming to the UAE. I also worked up my courage to try and attempt to believe the presidency’s promises—that COP28 will be the COP of implementation, one of inclusion and accessibility, and that it would be revolutionary in raising ambitions. However, as soon as I walked through the venue’s doors, the mundane and typical truth about COPs was exposed.
Despite the exhaustion, fatigue, and hopelessness throughout COP28, my generation only promises to continue showing up. Not because we particularly want to go through the heartbreak of having built up hope and seeing it shatter again year after year, but because, unlike our leaders, we feel the responsibility our communities lay on us.
We appreciate our past, present, and future so much that we want to preserve the memories of the ocean we once had, the struggling marine ecosystems that remain, and the longing to see future generations experience the same love and admiration we only hope to continue to have for the beauty and resilience of our ocean and our coastal communities.
We need to focus on what we can save. We should not sugarcoat the journey, as it is emotionally exhausting having to constantly remind people why we should care about the ocean. What energizes me, however, is surrounding myself with people that I do not have to explain myself to. Instead, I surround myself with people who get it. The people from SOA, the ocean advocates I have met from across the globe, I do not have to explain myself to them—they just get it. From a birds-eye view, we are all just a part of an ecological system. No matter how hard we try to step out of the planetary boundaries, we are always bound to the ecosystem we live in. Like in any ecosystem, every species has its own niche, role, or job.
While I couldn't directly control the conference's outcomes, the SOA community placed me in a global movement of youth that can influence these policy realms through collective action. The collective action is what motivates me to be the best ocean advocate I can be, enabling me to see my role in the broader movement at COP28.
Despite the emotional spiral I endured post-COP, I am so grateful that I am surrounded by such inspirational ocean advocates who have been able to spiral my anger and frustration into energy and determination to perform my role to the best of my abilities. After all, that is all we can control. This one is for all the youth who try.
I think youth are being heard more in these conferences. This was the second year COP had a Children and Youth Pavilion, which shows the importance of our presence. In the case of Peru, the ministry sent three young leaders to participate in the negotiations.
While COP28 embraced the importance of youth perspectives, a critical observation was the lack of youth representation, especially from the Global South. Financial constraints hindered many from participating, highlighting the need for more inclusive engagement in future climate conferences.
For COP29, we need to see implementation action from countries on their existing commitments, and we need to see commitments that limit warming to 1.5 degrees, no more than that.
Looking ahead to COP29, I anticipate hearing progress updates on the commitments made at COP28. Despite concerns about another fossil fuel-dependent country leading climate conferences, Azerbaijan, whose oil and gas production accounted for a significant portion of its GDP and export revenue, has an opportunity to play a pivotal role in transitioning towards green and sustainable energy sources. It is my hope that Azerbaijan and other nations will join forces to accelerate this crucial shift.
Looking ahead to COP29, I hope to see greater ambition and determination to incorporate ocean-based solutions into discussions. Countries need to make stronger commitments, and these two aspects that unfold simultaneously should complement each other. The ambition we discuss and advocate for in events should be reflected in the texts. At the end of the next COP, I don't want to question why I'm even there, but rather celebrate the achievements and the bold direction toward a more sustainable future.
Sustainable Ocean Alliance would like to extend our sincerest gratitude to our incredible community who literally and emotionally showed up at COP28—young ocean leaders, ecopreneurs, partners, mentors, and beyond. It is your hard work and dedication to solving the climate crisis that will bring us forward to a sustainable, just future for all.
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