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Economics student Alex Jayasuria raises his voice at COP26

10/12/21. By Luisa Mitchell. 15 min read.

Alex Jayasuria.

Alex Jayasuria took to the international stage recently to share his insights and passion for the environment after being awarded a prestigious Global Voices Scholarship.

A Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student, Alex represented Australia as part of the global discussions on climate change at the United Nations COP26 summit last month.

He was one of ten young Australians who received a 2021 Global Voice Scholarship, which allows students to develop a policy paper with key recommendations about Australian public policy while receiving mentorship from government officials and senior academics.

Due to pandemic restrictions, Alex attended COP26 virtually, making these exciting calls over Zoom and listening in to the speeches and addresses online. Here’s what he had to say about the experience.

Congratulations on receiving a 2021 Global Voices Scholarship! Tell us about yourself and what made you want to apply for this opportunity?

Thank you for the kind words! I am from Southeast Asia, where income inequality and the disparity between standards of living within the region are substantial, particularly in Malaysia where I was born. I lived in a small house in a collapsing neighbourhood there but have also been privy to the luxuries of life here in Australia. I am lucky to have been gifted a better quality of life and I intend to use this to help those less fortunate than me.

It is through economics and public policy that I’ve found the instruments to create change. These are also the focus of my study and research at Curtin, and where my career aspirations lie. This is what drew me to the Global Voices Scholarship. It’s an exceptional opportunity for young adults to gain practical experience in domestic policy and multilateral engagement.

You’re part of a generation that grew up learning about climate change very early on in their schooling. Where did your interest in climate change begin and when did it start to feel serious?

It’s hard for us in Australia to really gauge the urgency of climate change, as many of us have been sheltered from the acute effects of the crisis. We are educated about the science of it, but very rarely made aware of its long-ranging effects. We’re taught that sea levels will rise a little higher and that the days will get a little warmer – hardly a call for urgent action. It wasn’t until the first year of my studies at Curtin that I came to comprehend the enormity of the problem.

Climate change is no simple warming of the weather. It’s mass migration, it’s an instigator of cultural tensions, it’s the destruction of complex natural systems, and it’s killing the development of impoverished countries. Climate change will likely be the largest humanitarian crisis of my generation.

What are you most concerned about in regard to your future and our changing environment?

I have faith in our systems and our ability to adapt to the effects of climate change. However, the ability to react quickly and sufficiently will largely be determined by our comparative wealth. Look at the nations who were able to promptly vaccinate their citizens – these were rich, advanced economies. The Indonesia’s and Brazil’s of the world continue to suffer.

The harmful effects of climate change are further magnified by the disparities in national income and infrastructures. Developing countries simply cannot afford to promptly transition to a climate-resilient economy, particularly after the harsh economic drain of the pandemic. Countries like Australia will need to honour their commitments and financial pledges if developing countries are to adapt and recover in a changing environment. This will likely remain a point of contention moving forward.

Alex Jayasuria.

You’re currently in your final year of economics at Curtin. Some people would argue it’s thanks to economics and under-regulated capitalism that we’re facing this climate disaster. How do you bring these two areas together in positive ways?

This argument definitely holds some weight. Free market economics and booming industrialisation is certainly the cause of the climate crisis – the ever-expanding academic literature has shown this to be true. However, capitalism and free market economics has also lifted millions out of poverty. It allowed millions to find a better way of life here in Australia, and many advanced economies around the world.

But yes, too much of a good thing is certainly unhealthy. And at the scale at which the entire globe is now operating, the effects of under-regulation are magnified.

It’s certainly the case now that the race to a net zero economy will be driven by the private sector. Businesses see the enormous potential and value of renewables and sustainable operations. The stakeholders of many of these corporations also continue to drive and demand change. At COP26, it was announced that $130 trillion in private sector funding has been mobilised to support climate resilience and adaptation. This is an amount that far exceeds the $500 billion proposed by global governments.

The scholarship has allowed you to represent Australia as a delegate at the COP26 Forum, albeit virtually due to the pandemic. What was that experience like and what were your day-to-day activities? Any highlights?

It’s been a phenomenal experience. You’d think that attending virtually would diminish the spectacle of a multilateral summit, but that has certainly not been the case. I believe the other delegates and I have engaged with more stakeholders virtually than we could possibly have engaged with in person.

Most mornings and afternoons were filled with Zoom meetings with members from the public, private and civilian sectors. COP26 events would then begin in the evening and run through to the early hours of the morning. Sleep deprivation aside, it has been an incredibly insightful and rewarding experience. Witnessing in real time the discussions and interventions of all the countries was incredibly eye opening. However, the highlight had to be David Attenborough’s and Minister Mia Motley’s opening speeches – powerful opening statements that set the tone for the rest of the summit.

Alex (centre) joined other Global Voices Scholarship recipients online at COP26.

What were the outcomes from the COP26 discussions? Do you think drastic change will be achieved?

COP is an iterative process. Countries convene year after year to collaborate and ensure the needle keeps moving. With that in mind, I believe that COP26 has been the most productive summit since Paris 2015. China, India and Australia committed to net zero targets prior to meeting in Glasgow, and China and America (the world’s two largest greenhouse emitters) have formed an alliance to combat climate change. Although there is still plenty to do, these are powerful and catalytic ambitions.

It’s important to note that Australia, like most developed countries, was expected to upgrade its net zero targets – but it did not. Neither China nor India was expected to propose net zero targets by 2050 as they are still developing countries, and it’s a huge achievement that they formally proposed to reach net zero emissions at COP26.

Climate justice is often overlooked in western media. Countries like India and China don’t have the capacity to decarbonise without foreign aid – at least, not without doing so at the expense of the people living there in poverty. Trillions of dollars in natural resources has been stripped from them through the colonial eras, never to be repaid. Meanwhile, a deal was struck between some developed countries and South Africa during COP26, where billions was pledged to help shift South Africa away from coal power. No such aid was lent to India or China.

Every element of the Paris Agreement was also agreed upon again at COP26, including the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and carbon offset trading schemes, which will allow for a synchronised and transparent transition to net zero.

I think determining whether ‘drastic change’ has been achieved is subjective. Many will say this COP has been incredibly productive. For the first time ever, over 40 countries have pledged to shift away from coal and fossil fuels, and although some of the world’s biggest coal-emitters like China and India softened the language in the pledge from ‘phasing out’ to ‘phasing down’ coal, a global consensus like this is unprecedented. Fossil fuels are on the way out.

Part of this scholarship means you have to present recommendations for economic change in regard to climate policy. What are the biggest economic changes we need to implement to reach a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030?

Australia needs to place an expansive and explicit price on carbon. Recent political in-fighting has made it difficult to implement a federally mandated carbon price. We saw this through the ousting of the Rudd, Gillard and Turnbull governments. Australia has therefore taken a different approach, and has allowed the market to set a price for carbon. Referred to as Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs), these financial instruments represent the abatement of one tonne of carbon pollution. Companies purchase ACCUs to offset their current operational pollutions. It’s an incredibly innovative scheme, however it is operating on too small a scale to drive the change we need. My policy fellowship will detail how Australia may best expand this market domestically and throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

Carbon pricing is just one piece of the puzzle. More funding must be directed to the research and development of renewables. And our policy frameworks must also adapt. We can no longer free-ride on the political efforts of other global governments.

Alex (bottom left) joins other Global Voices Scholarship recipients online at COP26.

You’re a council member for Sustainability in Business and Law at Curtin. Why do you think universities can be an ideal space for young people to fight for sustainable climate policy?

Climate change is an extremely complex problem. It is more than supply-side pollution. It’s our culture of consumerism, it’s the current shape of our social and financial infrastructure. I can’t speak for other developed countries, but I can certainly speak for Australia – there is a definite lack of awareness when it comes to climate change, and this stems from undereducation.

Universities are well placed to drive this shift in education. The Faculty of Business and Law is currently looking at ways to embed climate change education into every undergraduate course. So no matter the discipline – whether it be law, accounting, property or marketing – students will learn how climate change will affect their career choices. As more students become aware of the urgency of the matter, advocacy will inevitably turn into action.

What are your career plans after you graduate? Do you think you’ll continue to fight to end man-made climate change?

All I know is that I’m led by my convictions to serve and contribute. Climate change is an enormous problem, and one that will grow in importance as we progress through the decade, so I don’t see myself stopping the work I’m doing in this space.

As part of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship program with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will be travelling to Singapore in 2022 to undertake further study and work. Singapore is spearheading sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific region, so I hope to return with some valuable insight. After this, I will look to continue my studies and work in China and America.

Climate change is an aggressor of other issues. The current geopolitical tensions that we are seeing now will be amplified by the effects of climate change. Severe poverty and mass migration will also ensue. It is therefore vital that everyone working in this space adopt a holistic view of the climate crisis.

Three Curtin students have been announced as scholarship recipients of the New Colombo Plan Scholarship program. Left to right: Alex Jayasuria, Niamh Wilkins and Fraser Robb.

As well as the Global Voices Scholarship, you also received the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation Scholarship in 2020, a professional development scholarship. Why are scholarships like these so pivotal to the student learning experience?

These opportunities are phenomenal as they expose students to a range of perspectives, which they might otherwise not have had in their regular course of study. It is often the case that through these extracurricular opportunities, students come to understand the interpersonal skills needed to succeed in the workplace. The networking, the need for mentorship, and continued learning and upskilling are all crucial elements for success. Unfortunately a lot of students will only come to grasp this after they’ve graduated and are seeking employment. You’ve got to put yourself out there, and you’ve got to do this early and often. Opportunities like the Mannkal and Global Voices Scholarships have done that for me.

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