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From the UN Headquarters to Imperial College: Climbing the Ladder of Climate Actions

From the UN Headquarters to Imperial College: Climbing the Ladder of Climate Actions

Hanyuan Wang, Karen


Every other year, the Youth Envoy office under the Secretary-General's office at the United Nations, singles out 17 young leaders from around the globe who exemplify dedication to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) globally. Imperial graduate Hanyuan Wang (Wang) etched her name as the first Chinese female to earn this distinction, primarily through her pioneering work in the climate sector as the entrepreneur behind Climind. Karen currently extends her climate pathway as a research assistant at the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment (CCFI) at Imperial College London.

Hanyuan Wang, Karen

photo credit: Office of the UN Youth Envoy/Joel Sheakoski

A Week at the UN Headquarters

This past May, I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit the UN Headquarters for the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) youth forum and the SDG Young Leaders retreat. This week-long event saw vibrant dialogues with governmental representatives, youth delegates, policy-makers, and other crucial stakeholders from civil society and the private sector. I had the great honor to speak at ECOSOC on topics of creating actionable plans for COVID-19 recovery and advancing towards the SDGs' implementation especially climate change.

SDG Young leaders with António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General

photo credit: Office of the UN Youth Envoy/Joel Sheakoski

During the retreat, we had the honor to meet Secretary-General António Guterres, UNDP representatives, UN Foundation administrators, and Achim Steiner from the UNDP. One significant encounter was with the president of the UN General Assembly. When asked about the UN’s role in tackling the climate crisis, the response was insightful: numerous frameworks exist, but they are often insufficiently implemented and lack accountability. This hiatus, despite the advances in technology, underlines the decision-making crisis in our ongoing climate dialogue.

A standout moment was the interview I conducted with UN News, the interviewer being a Chinese lady from Yunnan province (my hometown). We decided to conduct the podcast and interview in our local dialect, a homage to our shared roots. Walking within the UN Headquarters, every detail serves as a testament to the inclusivity and diverse human history that has shaped our present world. Echoing Secretary General António's words, " We don’t have a moment to lose."

Adjacent to the UN headquarters, and also housing the UN Foundation, stands the Fort Foundation. This impressive structure boasts a "nature-based design," complete with a colossal indoor "forest." The New York Times rightly christened it: “A Gem, Polished, Shines Anew”.

Photo: Karen Wang

My Role as an SDG Young Leader

In the past half-year, me and my fallow SDG young leaders have attended numerous conferences, including the MiSK Forum, Oslo Energy Forum, and COP27. These events facilitated meaningful dialogues with respected industry and academic leaders, including the likes of Prime Ministers, Bill Gates, Larry Fink and more. The privilege of being seen and heard is immense, but what grounds me is the sobering reality of our distance from achieving the Paris Agreement Goals. Our solutions need to be expansive and rapid, encompassing finance, technology, and policy.

A less known fact about the Youth Envoy office is its youth-centric leadership. Jayathma Wickramanayake, for instance, became the UN Secretary-General's Youth Envoy at just 26 years old.

My Journey with SDG Goal 13 – Climate Change

My first brush with climate change issues was at Microsoft, where the "AI for Earth" program piqued my interest. Later, my startup project garnered first prize. Raised in the picturesque town of Dali in China, I've always cherished the importance of air and water. Working on a climate product, however, is challenging. After two years in the carbon accounting sector, developing software for companies to calculate their emissions, I grew frustrated. The solutions we were offering felt remote from addressing the real mitigation and adaptation challenges.

Feeling the need for deeper understanding of how climate change is tackled, I chose to broaden my knowledge at Imperial College, enrolling in the Climate Change, Management & Finance (CCMF) program. Soon after, I was offered an opportunity to work with the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment (CCFI). Here, as a research assistant, I am involved in the crucial yet often overlooked field of climate finance – to conduct interdisciplinary research to understand of the risks and investment opportunities arising in this changing climate.

We face fundamental challenges, such as integrating carbon assets into financial accounting systems. I am continually inspired by my colleagues and professors at Imperial who merge academic rigor with practical industry relevance, embodying the essence of interdisciplinary research.

Net Zero Challenges and the Power of Digitalization

The concept of speed and scale, originally introduced by John Doerr, is integral to my approach to climate change issues, with my background in digitalization. Climate change is a fast-paced arena, with a wealth of information emerging daily. The truth is, we can't explore each solution with our limited time and resources.

My working hypothesis, which I'm trying to substantiate through the development of AI solutions through my projects, is that climate change is essentially a data issue. Large language models could potentially accelerate our understanding of climate information and the interpretation of climate risks.

The recent advancements in artificial intelligence, like those achieved by OpenAI, showcase how models can learn and summarize large quantities of data. Climate data, however, come with unique format challenges and issues around downscaling. Unfortunately, valuable resources like the IPCC report are not seamlessly translated into actionable business operations. Therefore, a scientific, data-driven approach and digitalization are paramount to speeding up and scaling our solutions.

Conversation with Csaba Kőrösi, President of the United Nations General Assembly, UN Headquarter, photo credit: Office of the UN Youth Envoy/Joel Sheakoski

I want to close with a nod to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. In 2015, world leaders pledged their commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which incorporates 17 SDGs. This global agreement aims to eradicate poverty, preserve our planet for future generations, build peaceful, inclusive societies, all while ensuring no one is left behind.

This pledge is commendable but falls short of guaranteeing the SDGs' realization. As we approach the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda, every step is crucial.

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