The world has a date with destiny to fight climate change. We won’t get there unless we have all hands on deck to cooperate and get things done.

One group of people vital to meeting the challenge are the officials and experts who have spent their lives in environmental research and policies.

They have contributed to important decisions that have gotten many countries to pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050-60.

A giant in this field is Xie Zhenhua, China’s envoy in climate change. He has spent much of his professional career in environmental protection, having been the head of the State Environmental Protection Administration before it became a ministry; and having held many senior positions related to the environment within the Chinese policy structure over the years.

Xie is best known internationally as the leader of the Chinese delegation to the UN Climate Conferences from 2007-18, and serving as China’s climate envoy till early 2020 when he retired although he remained a special adviser to the government.

He then continued to work at his alma mater, Tsinghua University at the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, where he oversaw efforts by many experts to map a carbon neutrality pathway for China.

Xie is respected both domestically and internationally for having played a vital role in the adoption, signing and entry into force of the Paris Agreement of 2015. In 2014, Xie and then-US secretary of state John Kerry, had marathon negotiations that resulted in China and the US committing to reducing carbon emissions, which paved the way for other countries to step up alongside the world’s two biggest emitters.

When the Biden administration named John Kerry as US climate envoy, the Chinese government invited Xie back to represent China. The world is fortunate to have the familiar duo once again lead climate negotiations at a time when Sino-US relations are rocky and mutual trust at a premium. It is vital for these two world leaders in climate change to set the tone for the world to follow in aspiring for carbon neutrality. 

No doubt the trust and respect between Xie and Kerry played an important part in their two countries signing a joint declaration on climate cooperation in Shanghai on April 17. Climate change cooperation is the bright spark at a dark time in Sino-US relations.

Xie’s dedication to the environmental and climate cause is even more impressive when seen as a whole. For example, during the Trump administration when the US backed out of the Paris Agreement, Xie continued to work with state officials in California and New York to keep the candle burning when the geopolitical atmosphere darkened.

Less well-known is his work with developing countries. Xie promoted environmental protection and helped trained 1,000 officials and technicians in climate change for 100 developing economies.

Xie stood on the shoulders of another giant — Qu Geping, who was the first SEPA director. Younger people may not remember Qu but he was the one who started China’s environmental journey within the government.

There are many significant environmental experts who play important roles to help China to get on the pathway to sustainability. While there are too many to name, several academicians known to the author help to illustrate China’s journey.

Pan Jiahua of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences helped develop China’s “ecological civilization” concept that was embedded into the Communist Party of China’s Constitution in 2012 and the national Constitution in 2018, the importance of which is obvious — it is taking China down a new path of green development.

Hao Jiming of Tsinghua University and Tang Xiaoyan of Peking University, are two of the most significant experts on air quality studies in China; and Qian Yi of Peking University, is often referred to as “the mother of water quality”. They have taught two generations of younger experts, many of whom are now well-known in their own right.

All of them also have strong relations with Hong Kong. Hao and Tang have worked with experts in Hong Kong to deal with regional air quality, as they advise the Guangdong authorities. Qian was one of three international panel members who reviewed the Hong Kong government’s harbor water treatment program soon after the handover to get the program on the right path.

In Hong Kong too, there are experts whose work is vital for the city. They are our unsung heroes. Many of them are at our universities, and they too are teaching younger generations about the environment.

While the number of experts in the city is relatively small when seen alongside the very much bigger national picture, Hong Kong experts are distinguished in the quality of their work, such as in air quality, water quality, energy, engineering, modeling, ocean and marine sciences, conservation and biodiversity, infectious diseases, etc.

The quality of their work can be seen from the recently published survey funded by the Croucher Foundation that provided an archive of climate-related risks studies done in Hong Kong. The work should be of importance to the Hong Kong and national authorities as they contain gems for policy making.

Moreover, the work is also of interest to the commercial sector as businesses and investors have to understand the climate risks they face. Alongside aggressive decarbonization, the world must also adapt to extreme and severe weather events caused by climate change, since global temperature has already risen about 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial levels.

This may sound small but in climate terms, the risks are large. The 2021 heat wave in North America, the floods in Central Europe and around Zhengzhou in China are examples of threats to life and property from wild fluctuations in weather that could be linked to a changing climate. It is the painstaking work of scholarship that helps to show the way forward.

Hong Kong’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 must be supported. We should expand our local capacity in climate related research, which includes greening finance to raise capital for low-and-zero carbon projects, as well as be part of the national effort for the whole country to meet our date with destiny by 2050-60.

This article is written by Christine Loh, chief development strategist, Institute for the Environment, HKUST and board member of CDP Worldwide, London; and also Jade Yung who is a freelance content and creative writer. She writes about innovation in multiple disciplines, including arts and culture, wellness and sustainability.

The article has appeared on China Daily