Students for sustainability… University of Oxford’s Natalie Chung

Back in 2015, after learning that air travel accounted for more than 25 per cent of carbon emissions per capita in Hong Kong, Natalie Chung realised how much her travels abroad contributed to climate change.

An equally puzzling fact for Chung was that this figure was not captured in government data as the carbon emissions of international flights were considered cross-boundary emissions.

In her first year of university, she started V’air, a platform dedicated to showcasing different scenic attractions in Hong Kong, to promote local tourism as an alternative to getaways.

Five years on and V’air has grown to become an environmental education organisation that organises eco-tours to country parks, rural areas and green facilities around the country. The team also coordinates outreach programmes that encourage participants to interact with and learn more about local ecology.

Chung quickly learnt that the first step to environmental education is exposure to the natural environment. “If you’ve never been to a country park, how would you have the awareness to conserve it when it’s turning into a property development? Bringing people out into nature is the best way for them to understand and feel the value of nature for themselves,” said Chung.

[Pursuing sustainability] can be a lonely journey, as I witness my friends go into professional industries and enjoy easy lives. But I rather think about what we can do to create a positive impact despite how destructive the current system is.

Her latest initiative with World Economic Forum Global Shapers, a community of youths driving climate action, involves building up a sustainability mentorship programme that bridges mentors with passionate students. Chung believes that this important bridging tool will allow students to learn about how industry experts build up their portfolio and excel in their current positions.

“Personally, I’m feeling the struggle in making the right career choice even with the many resources that I already have. I hope this tool helps other students too,” she said.

In this interview with Eco-Business, Chung shares her sustainability role models, the importance of working around existing systems, and her dream job of becoming the Secretary for the Environment in Hong Kong.

What are you studying?

I’m doing a Master of Philosophy in environmental change and management at the University of Oxford in England, which is a two-year programme.

My previous degree was a Bachelor of Social Science in geography and resource management at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which is where I developed my interest in environmental management and policies.

When did your interest in sustainability begin?

My passion for environment-related subjects was developed in primary school. In the last year of primary school, I did a project on climate change, which was hosted by the Hong Kong Observatory. For the project, we got to interview a polar explorer in Hong Kong, Dr Rebecca Lee Lok Sze. She talked to us about her experience at the two poles and shared the simile that climate change is like trapping the earth in an oven which is continually increasing in temperature. That planted a seed in my mind.

I studied geography in high school and university for its emphasis on the environment and sustainability and realised that I’m more inclined towards the human side of the issue. But in Hong Kong, there are not many degrees specifically focused on environmental management at an undergraduate level, that’s why I’m pursuing my master’s now.

What are the things you look for in a company when applying for sustainability jobs?

I consider the values of the company, and whether ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues factor in their decision making. And it’s not just about completing a sustainability report, but actively trying to improve existing practices because the company truly believes in sustainability. This will drive the team to propose new benchmarking principles to push their company to perform better.

I always reach out to people working at a potential employer and ask them how they feel about the company.

Which companies do you admire for their approach to sustainability and why?

In the Hong Kong context, I really admire New World Development, a real estate company. They carried out a climate assessment to determine the impact of extreme events on their properties in Hong Kong and China.

I talked to their head of sustainability, Ellie Tang, and she told me that it was a two to three year process, in which they assessed many different existing methodologies before choosing the best one for the company.

I admire their professionalism; they didn’t take a check-box approach where they picked the first or cheapest company to do the job. This showed that they’re doing it to make an actual difference, not just for the sake of reputation.

[Many people] think that nothing good can be done under this not-so-equitable and not-so-sustainable system, so they just resort to doing nothing, which perpetuates the current system.

Another organisation is the Doughnut Economics Action Lab, which was started by one of my lecturers at Oxford, Kate Raworth. She wrote a book called Doughnut Economics, which is a theory to measure economic success, rather than GDP. The centre ring represents our basic needs, while the outer ring are the planetary boundaries. So the framework assesses how well we meet the basic needs of our most vulnerable communities while keeping development within planetary boundaries.

Her lab turns the economic concept into an action-oriented approach, working with cities to integrate this model into their city-planning. Recently, she succeeded in persuading the Amsterdam city government to adopt the doughnut model into their post-Covid city planning.

To date, economics has been driven by continued growth, but it’s important to question if that’s needed in the world today. Rather, we should focus on how systems interact with one another, and how both humans and the planet can thrive simultaneously.

Who are your sustainability role models?

An important role model of mine is Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laurate. I really like his idea of social business, where businesses are driven by altruism and thinking about how to improve the world.

It’s part of the reason why I founded V’air—Yunus was telling university students that we are privileged and have many talents. If we can’t find a job that fits our goals and visions, another option is to start your own social business to solve existing problems in the world, because we have the responsibility to make society better.

Many people believe that the entire system has to be disrupted before anything can be done. They think that nothing good can be done under this not-so-equitable and not-so-sustainable system, so they just do nothing, which perpetuates the current system.

But Yunus shows us through his work in microfinance that we can achieve the three-zeros—zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero net carbon emissions—just by working around and adding new values to existing systems.

It’s something that I’ve kept in mind to motivate myself because it can be a lonely journey, as I witness my friends go into professional industries and enjoy easy lives. But I rather think about what we can do to create a positive impact despite how destructive the current system is. The existing system is not an excuse to stop trying.

What’s your dream job?

The Secretary for the Environment in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is such a small city, but we’re still contributing significantly to the global climate issue. We have a lot of resources to leverage on but our ambition has to step up.

It would be a great chance for me to think about policies that are regenerative, like how the circular economy can take flight in the country, and how this financial capital can become a green finance hub.

I would also protect the existing natural resources in Hong Kong right now. In Hong Kong, we face huge developmental pressure to build more public housing. How do we change the narrative from continually downsizing country parks and green belts for public housing, and how do we not make the two issues competing interests?

It’s interesting to note that lower income families also support this movement because the middle and upper class can go abroad for a breath of fresh air. But for the rest, they rely on the country parks and the pockets of green for leisure. They’re very important free assets for everyone to enjoy.

What advice would you give other sustainability students?

Reach out to higher-up figures in this field and look at what they’ve been through and learn from them. Connections are an important factor in this field.

Another thing is that sustainability is very diverse, there’s a huge range of topics. So to be competitive in this field, you have to read a lot and keep updated with the recent trends. Keep striving to improve, and share resources with like-minded individuals for a greater impact.