Natalie Chung’s sustainability journey began at a young age. At just 18 years old, she co-founded ecotourism company, V’air Hong Kong in order to raise awareness of climate change and celebrate Hong Kong’s local nature and biodiversity.
Since then, she’s become a renowned climate advocate dedicated to protecting the environment through different mediums, from co-authoring books (Low Carbon Tours 低碳。好行 and Roaming the Mountains: Yama Girls’ Hiking Guide 山野漫遊——女生行山指南) to running V’air whilst completing a Master of Philosophy in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford.
We caught up with Natalie to find out what sparked her journey in sustainability, what exactly is ‘flash travel’ and her absolute favourite hike in Hong Kong.
What sparked your interest and journey in fighting climate change?
My journey started when I entered a competition held by the Hong Kong Observatory when I was in Primary Five, where we were asked to respond to an assignment titled, ‘Climate Change: What can we do about it?’ I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Dr. Rebecca Lee Lok Sze, a polar explorer from Hong Kong.
My conversation with her opened my eyes to the reality of climate change. Dr. Lee used a powerful analogy to describe it, saying, “The Earth is trapped in a microwave, with escalating temperatures.” This harrowing imagery was what motivated me to study geography in high school.
What motivated you to start your sustainable tourism business, V’Air?
I decided to launch V’air during my first year of university after I took part in the French Consulate’s COP21 Challenge. During the expert sessions, I learnt about the link between ‘Aviation Emissions’ and climate change.
I used to go on a lot of short trips with my family when I was young, not realising that this type of ‘flash travel’ could be quite detrimental to the environment. ‘Flash travel’ is common in Hong Kong because as a small city, we love going on short weekend trips to cities like Korea, Japan and Thailand.
After understanding how much flash travel contributes to Hong Kong’s annual carbon footprint, I launched my social enterprise V’air Hong Kong. The name V’air sounds like ‘Vert’, which means green in French. We promote sustainable tourism in Hong Kong through ecotours, staycations and workshops, in order to showcase the natural beauty and biodiversity of Hong Kong.
How can we communicate the importance of sustainable tourism in an aspiring, uplighting way?
We need to communicate the actual impact our actions have on the environment. For instance, our average carbon footprint per person is around 4.03 tonnes of Co2 per capita, but one flight between HK and New York is around 4 tonnes of Co2 per capita, so going on one trip will already double your carbon footprint.
At the same time, it’s important not to guilt trip people. When we’re conducting workshops for corporates or schools, we prefer to showcase Hong Kong’s biodiversity and the city’s hidden gems instead of focusing too much on how our actions are harming the environment. Through curating enjoyable local tours, we hope to create more incentives for people to travel around Hong Kong.
What is your favourite hike in Hong Kong?
My favourite hike is the Kap Lung Ancient Trail. At the start of the hike, there is a small local snack shop with fresh milk sourced from nearby farms. The hike begins with an ancient trail, which resembles Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Groves. At the midpoint, there’s a small peak with a scenic view of Yuen Long. The hike ends with a downhill walk to Ho Pui Reservoir.
What are some challenges of being a climate advocate?
Every climate advocate has their own focus area, and you tend to think the worst of people who aren’t practicing what you’re advocating for. Before, whenever I saw people holding plastic bottles, I immediately thought that they weren’t trying hard enough because it’s so easy to bring your own reusable bottle. But then again, people can also judge me for not being a vegan. It’s a never-ending argument about who is the most environmental.
Now, whenever I see people holding a plastic bottle, I’ll think to myself, “Maybe they walk to work, or they’re practicing sustainability in a way that works better for them,” instead of thinking that everyone should be a perfect environmentalist.
Who is a climate advocate that you admire?
I find 8-year-old Indian climate advocate, Licypriya Kangujam, very impressive and inspiring. When India’s COVID situation worsened, she mobilised a community to distribute oxygen tanks. She seems to always be on top of all the environmental and social issues in India and tries to uplift the community in any way she can.
What are some resources you would recommend to people who are ‘climate curious’?
Carbon Brief (and Carbon Brief China) has a very credible climate related newsletter. I love Earth Rise Studio (@earthrise.studio) and Intersectional Environmentalists (@intersectionalenvironmentalist) for their engaging and aesthetic content about key climate issues. I also follow Taiwan Youth Climate Coalition TWYCC on Facebook, as it keeps me up to date on capacity building programs for international youth advocates.
Do you have any resolutions for 2022?
For V’air, our next step is to adapt to our guests’ motivations to travel. After conducting some surveys in 2020-2021, we realised a key reason that people love travelling – apart from trying new foods and broadening their horizons – is to ‘escape from reality’. We’re still figuring out how to do this in Hong Kong, but we’ve tried to increase our guests’ connection with nature by incorporating mindfulness sessions and forest bathing.
As for personal resolutions, I would like to establish a more pronounced expertise in a particular area of climate change, and to expand my knowledge in that scope through research and practice.
What is your message to anyone feeling overwhelmed by climate change?
To everyone who feels hopeless about climate change, my message is to remain committed and cautiously optimistic. As Antonio Guterres said at the close of COP26, “Success or failure is not an act of nature. It’s in our hands. The path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours… We have many more seeds to plant along the path. We won’t reach our destination in one day or one conference. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives.”
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