Every other year, the United Nations Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth singles out 17 young leaders from around the globe who exemplify dedication to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Imperial College Business School graduate Hanyuan (Karen) Wang stamped 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.
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, policymakers, and other crucial stakeholders from civil society and the private sector. I had the great honour to speak at ECOSOC on topics of creating actionable plans for COVID-19 recovery and advancing towards the SDGs' implementation especially climate change. During the retreat, we had the honour of meeting Secretary-General António Guterres, representatives of the UN Development Programme including Achim Steiner, and UN Foundation administrators.
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.
Being interviewed by UN News was another standout moment for me. The interviewer was from my home province of Yunnan, China. She and I decided to conduct the resulting podcast and interview in our local dialect, in 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. It also reinforces a crucial message from Secretary-General Guterres: " We don’t have a moment to lose."
Adjacent to the UN Headquarters and housing the UN Foundation, stands the home of the Ford Foundation. This impressive structure boasts a "nature-based design," complete with a colossal indoor "forest." The New York Times fittingly described it as “a Gem, Polished, Shines Anew”. You can read more about the Center for Social Justice’s design here.
My Role as an SDG Young Leader
The Youth Envoy office is led by youth and for the youth. In the past half-year, my fellow SDG Young Leaders and I 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 Prime Ministers, Bill Gates, Larry Fink and more. While the privilege of being seen and heard is immense, I am grounded by the sobering reality of how far we are from achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. Our solutions need to be expansive and rapid, encompassing finance, technology, and policy.
My Journey with SDG Goal #13: Climate Change
Raised in the picturesque town of Dali in China, I've always cherished the importance of air and water. My first working experience with climate change issues was at Microsoft, where the "AI for Earth" programme piqued my interest. Later, my start-up project garnered first prize at Microsoft's AI for Good competition. 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 far too removed from addressing 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 Business School, enrolling in the Climate Change, Management & Finance (CCMF) programme. Soon after, I was given the opportunity to work with the Centre for Climate Finance & Investment (CCFI). Here, as a research assistant, I am involved in the crucial – yet often overlooked – field of climate finance.
The Centre conducts interdisciplinary research to understand of the risks and investment opportunities arising in this changing climate. We address fundamental challenges, such as integrating carbon assets into financial accounting systems. I am continually inspired by my colleagues and professors at Imperial College London who merge academic rigor with practical industry relevance, embodying the essence of interdisciplinary research.
Net Zero Challenges and the Power of Digitalization
Given my background in digitalization, I embrace the concept of speed and scale (originally introduced by John Doerr) as integral to my approach towards addressing climate change issues. 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 my projects using the development of AI solutions, 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 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is not seamlessly translated into actionable business operations. Therefore, a scientific, data-driven approach and digitalisation is paramount to speeding and scaling-up our solutions.
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.
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. It will require considerable effort from the global community to ensure we meet these goals.
Published 1 June 2023.