Sri Lanka was ranked the second most vulnerable country in terms of climate change. Ongoing deforestation, haphazard developmental activities, encroachments into protected areas would further aggravate the situation. As such, many stakeholders including the youth have a fundamental role to play in protecting the environment. Recently, Sri Lanka’s Talal Rafi has been appointed as a Climate Ambassador for Sri Lanka by World Bank’s Global Youth Climate Network. He believes that the youth are in a strong position to mitigate climate change.
Q What are the tasks and responsibilities you have with this new position as GYCN’s climate ambassador for Sri Lanka?
My role as a World Bank GYCN Climate Ambassador is to work with the youth to develop and implement programmes to mitigate climate change. There is a need to inspire, educate and connect communities towards working on this global issue. A big part would be advocacy. Raising awareness and amplifying the message on climate change is much needed. I will also be building vital partnerships with important stakeholders on bringing in sustainability. I am also consulting as an Industry Expert at Moratuwa University under the World Bank AHEAD project and was on the Selection Committee of the Asian Development Bank #DigitalAgainstCovid-19 Innovation Series. Through these two initiatives, I worked on entrepreneurship development and innovation. I will be bringing my experience in these two areas to create climate-focused innovative solutions through entrepreneurship.
Q With Sri Lanka being ranked as the second most vulnerable country in terms of climate change what are the immediate issues that need to be addressed?
Sri Lanka needs to increase the resilience of the diverse sectors against the emerging impacts of climate change by adopting the right strategies. We need to move towards climate adaptation and make people aware of the changes and vulnerabilities of climate change. Sri Lanka needs to focus more on disaster management as Sri Lanka is a climate hotspot according to the World Bank. Climate change awareness has to be added to the education system so the youth know about the climate impact and how they can adapt. We need to have business incubators and accelerators for climate entrepreneurs to give them the resources, investment, and guidance to come up with innovative solutions. There are also a lot of opportunities in this area for entrepreneurs. We need to have a national plan to work towards becoming carbon neutral.
Q Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is experiencing mass-scale destruction apart from haphazard developmental activities. In what ways could youth be involved to be catalysts for change and ensure that the environment is protected for their wellbeing?
The youth are in a very strong position to make the change. Young people are the most active on all social media platforms and can raise awareness and spread the message very quickly. The youth in universities can form groups to raise awareness and spread key messages on behavioural changes to mitigate climate change. It is important to educate people on why deforestation is bad, rather than just telling them it is bad. Young people should think of sustainability when shopping and encourage their elders to do the same. They should encourage people to recycle and create a circular economy as it reduces the need to cut down forests. A study shows that millennials globally are willing to take a pay cut so they can work at an environmentally responsible company. This will put pressure on large businesses to become environmentally sustainable so they can attract talent. These will all lead to less strain on natural resources and help preserve Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.
Q Could you give a few examples of how business models could adopt environmentally sustainable practices?
A good way to make a business environmentally sustainable is to first measure the carbon emission and find out where most of the emission is from. Then to reduce the carbon emission as much as possible. This can be done by having solar panels, recycling used products, digitizing more paperwork, encouraging remote working, etc. Finally, a business can offset carbon emission using more renewable energy for other operations. Apple is an example of a company that plans to even have its entire supply chain carbon neutral by 2030. Apple uses solar panels for some of its data centres and recycles the raw materials in its products. Apple also supports restoring forests and giving solar panels to communities in the developing world to offset its carbon emissions. Microsoft goes a step further planning to be carbon negative by 2030 and wants to remove the amount of carbon it has emitted since it was founded by 2050. Microsoft is planning to do this using carbon capture and storage technologies. Puma is another example of a company that focused on being transparent on its sustainability efforts. It published its data on carbon emission and water usage and this helped identify means to reduce energy and water usage by 60%.
Q What are the challenges you have experienced in this fight to reverse climate change and bring about green recovery?
The biggest challenge I have faced and will continue to face is that most people do not take climate change seriously and see it as a far off event. People are cautious of Covid-19 because its effects are more visible now but what they do not realize is that climate change is more dangerous in the long term than the pandemic as it is going to cause floods, hurricanes, drought, and sea-level rise. If all the ice at the poles and mountaintops melt, it will raise the sea level by 216 feet. This is enough to drown a 20 storey building in Colombo.
Q How can communities engage in making a positive impact on climate change at a grassroots level?
We need to come together as communities to fight climate change. Social media is a good way to spread the word. Anyone who is determined and passionate needs to become a climate ambassador and try to convince another 10 people to the cause and make them climate ambassadors. This will cause a grassroots level mobilization through which they can put pressure on business corporations to adopt sustainability and on the state to bring in stricter regulations. This will be an effective way to bring about change at the grassroots level.
Q What is the role of an entrepreneur in this fight?
With my experience as an entrepreneur and having worked on projects and initiatives by the World Bank, USAID and ADB, I believe entrepreneurs have a big role to play in fighting climate change. Entrepreneurs are the ones who can bring change. A good example is Elon Musk who is a climate entrepreneur. Musk started the electric car revolution at a time when all the other major automobile manufacturers were producing cars with the combustion engine. Today, other car companies are shifting towards electric cars because of Musk’s Tesla revolution. Even Apple is moving into the electric car industry which will change the automobile industry forever for the good. As a climate entrepreneur, Elon Musk is not just an inspirational figure but also became the world’s richest man. There are additional rewards for aspiring climate entrepreneurs.