Climate Advocate Natalie Chung On Why She Didn't Go To COP26

By Samantha Mei Topp

Natalie Chung, founder of environmental education organisation V’air, shares her decision to skip the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also referred to as COP26, and her upcoming trip to Antarctica with prominent marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle

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At 18 years old, Natalie Chung, who was then a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, co-founded the social enterprise V’air with her fellow schoolmates Arthur Yeung and Johnny Yeung. The startup's goal is to promote ecotours as an alternative means of leisure for people in Hong Kong to reduce emissions and raise awareness of nature conservation.

Explaining the company's name, Chung says: “V'air [is a] homophone to ‘vert’, which means green in French, combined with the element of 'air travel' to reimagine the way of green travelling.” The trio created V'air after they joined the HK Tertiary Schools COP21 Challenge, a programme by the French Consulate in Hong Kong inviting local students to come up with solutions for climate change. “Arthur, Johnny and I sat in on a talk about aviation emissions and were shocked to find out that close to 25 percent of per capita greenhouse gas emissions comes from overseas travelling.”

V’air prioritises experiential learning, as the founders believe that first-hand experiences with nature are key to rebuilding the human-nature relationship. The startup has organised over 200 tours, seminars and workshops, and reached over 10,000 people.

Here, Chung shares more on the future of the company, why she didn't attend COP26—the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow this year—and her upcoming expedition to Antarctica.

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You were selected as an ambassador to represent Hong Kong at the Antarctic Climate Expedition 2023. Can you tell us more about this initiative? 
The Antarctic Expedition is led by the world-renowned marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle, bringing together thought leaders in science, art, education, economics and young people on an expedition-cum-climate summit to formulate 23 resolutions for global net-zero emissions by the year 2050. I am honoured to be selected as a Key Opinion Ambassador on the mission representing Hong Kong.

I was personally inspired by a polar explorer to embark on the journey of climate advocacy. When I was 11 years old, I conducted a school project on "Climate Change—What Can We Do?" My teacher reached out to Hong Kong explorer Dr Rebecca Lee to do an interview with us. Dr Lee shared the analogy with us that "the earth is trapped in a microwave, with continually escalating temperature", and shared photographs of melting glaciers and starving polar bears. These powerful images have been engraved in my mind ever since and are what inspired me to develop an interest in planetary well-being.

Therefore, this expedition is crucial for me to expand my storytelling capacity, as I'll be witnessing the change in the cryosphere first-hand in the Anthropocene.

What do you hope to gain from this expedition?
An experience that will strengthen the stories that I share at conferences and seminars, which I hope will, in turn, inspire other young people to dedicate their lives to creating climate action. I also hope to form partnerships and coalitions with the other passengers at the expedition, to co-create innovative, interdisciplinary solutions to accelerate progress towards net zero.

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You attended COP25 in 2019, but chose not to go for COP26 this year. What led to this decision?
I decided not to attend COP26 based on several reasons. First of all, I had the privilege to attend COP25 with an observer badge from Carboncare Innolab. Given that badges were harder to obtain this year, I hoped to leave the chance to fellow youth climate advocates who hadn't been to COP to leverage their resources in stepping up advocacy.

Also, V'air's mission is to reduce the emissions of the aviation industry. Given that I'm now based in Hong Kong rather than the UK as I was before, I think the carbon emissions of flying purely for COP didn't justify the impact I will be able to create within those two weeks. I could still attend a lot of the virtual sessions and provide support to the Hong Kong delegation through research and analysis.

More importantly, COP conferences have long been criticised for their lack of representativeness and inclusivity. COP26 was no exception despite its self-claimed title as "the most inclusive COP". This year, due to the pandemic, it became even more difficult for the least developed regions to send representatives because of quarantine and vaccination requirements.

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COP26 President Alok Sharma (C) speaks during an informal plenary stocktake on day 14 of COP26 at SECC on November 13, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland. On day fourteen of the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow the focus is on delegations' negotiations to agree the final text for the COP26 Agreement. This is the 26th "Conference of the Parties" and represents a gathering of all the countries signed on to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Climate Agreem
Above  COP26 President Alok Sharma (centre) speaks during an informal plenary stocktake at COP26 held in Glasgow, Scotland this October to November. (Image: Getty Images)

What was your experience attending COP25 and your thoughts on what has come out of COP26?
What I learnt at COP25 is that there will be multiple parallel sessions happening every day. Negotiators run from room to room to deliver their interventions. The size of delegation is often correlated with a party's negotiating power or influence. The Most Affected People and Area (MAPA) group need to get more voice and power at COP conferences, because an increase in temperature by 1.5 to 2 degrees celsius isn't just numbers, but a matter of life or death to them. This year, we failed to reach a consensus at COP26 on building a loss-and-damage facility to compensate for the loss that countries are already suffering from extreme weather events. I hope that some form of agreement will be reached next year.

What’s in the pipeline for V’air?
In the coming months, V'air is arranging a series of events on rural revitalisation and circular economy. We will be hosting a workshop at the UN Internet Governance Forum 2021 on achieving sustainable local tourism and nature conservation through digital technology and education. We will also be launching a magazine exploring the complex scene of rural conservation in Hong Kong, with in-depth stakeholder interviews with indigenous villagers from Lai Chi Wo, one of the oldest, biggest and best-preserved rural settlements in the northeast New Territories of Hong Kong, green groups and academics. Workshops and tours related to the theme are also in the pipeline.

Broadly speaking, we wish to strengthen our youth empowerment and policy innovation arms through proactive exchanges with the international community as well as explore digital transformation pathways to scale up our existing ecotourism business.

See more Gen.T honourees from the Sustainability category of the Gen.T List 2021.

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