Lessons from London-Paris cycling can be applied to solving climate change

It is undeniable that climate change is one of the most, if not the most challenging problem faced by the world today. Just a peek at the statistics would be enough to scare you. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports that global temperatures have risen by 0.8 degrees Celcius since 1880; causing sea levels to rise by 3.24 milimetres per year. If this is to continue, many low lying island nations like Maldives and Kiribati will simply be consumed by the sea as early as next century. Malaysia too will be affected by this global phenomenon. Already we are seeing more extreme floods and spells of severe droughts.

Hence as the world leaders congregated in Paris for the challenging task of agreeing to a climate deal at the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP), I decided take up a challenge of my own. Together with a classmate, we joined the climatekilometre movement. As part of the event, we were to cycle from London to Paris in 3 days covering a total of 385.1km. To put things into perspective, that is the exact distance from Kuala Lumpur to Sungai Petani.

Me at the starting line

Yew Aun at the starting line

Sounds crazy? Well, what doesn’t kill you make you stronger. Along the way, I’ve learnt many life lessons that could be applied to our efforts in slowing down climate change:

Gear up

To cycle that far in that short amount of time, it is important to have the right tools so first I swapped by 5 gear bike to a 14 gear one. A normal bike just wouldn’t take you as far or as high as a road/touring bike would. Besides the ride, other accessories that I had to prepare for included a reflective vest, bright lights, and padded shorts. In case of emergency, I brought spare inner tubes and a pair of chain links. One thing that I’m guilty of not doing is buying bike insurance and was lucky that my two wheels were very well-behaved throughout the entire journey.

In our efforts to slow down climate change, we need the right tools as well. At the moment, most of the electricity we generate comes from fossil fuel (coal, petrol, gas). This releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide of which a Form 1 student will tell you causes global warming, hence leading to climate change. It is indeed sobering to discover that Malaysia generates 83.5% of its energy from fossil fuel sources. We need to the structural capacity and political will to transition to more sustainable forms like wind and solar energy. 

Start early is you’re slow

Being the beginner long distance cyclist in the group, it was only natural that I would be placed with Group 4 (the riders that followed the slowest pace). On rides that would take 6 hours for normal cyclists, it would take us (mostly dragged down by me) at least 2 hours longer. Since we were approaching the winter solstice at this point, limited daylight would also prolong our ride from constantly stopping to navigate. Thus on Day 2 and 3 of the ride, the group made it a point to leave as early as possible.

Here, I could liken this to developing countries. Yes, we might not be as financially or technically as advanced at the other major economies. But we have to start this battle early on or we’ll lose out in the long term as the green technological zone advances. If we’re lucky, we might even be the first to arrive!

Just keep cycling; there is no hill too hard to climb

One thing true about cycling is that being on two wheels at whatever pace will get you there faster than walking at your fastest pace. So you’ll eventually get there as long as you keep pedaling. As far as hills are concerned, there were numerous occasions where I looked at the incline and thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m going up that. Well, here again I proved myself wrong. All I had to do is just drop down to my lowest available gear, try to put on a brave face and pushed through.

Climate change is challenging, no doubt. There will be times where people, even nations feel like giving up. However, I urge them not to give up hope. It may sound naiive but we can definitely save the world together, as long as the stakeholders persevere and keep fighting this good fight.

*cue Miley Cyrus’ The Climb*

…yet there is no shame in getting down to push your bike

Bikes are such fickle creatures; sometimes, they don’t do what they are told. For example, climb at 45 degree hill. This is me being the bad workman that blames his tools. On a serious note, when things got a little unbearable for my thighs I got down and pushed the bike uphill, praying that the next turn would take me downhill. Luckily my pride was salvaged by fellow bike pushers; though they probably had more valid excuses. Hanna had a 10 gear bike while Antonia had a 12. I’ve digressed; my point is that pushing your bike will get you there nonetheless.

Tough times don’t last, tough people do

Tough times don’t last, tough people do

Climate change will be more challenging for some countries as compared to others. The argument that developed countries will find it easier to manage their targets is a sound one. After all, these countries have already reached a certain level of development. For the developing countries, we need to reach our climate goals even if it means going at it at a slower pace.

Savour the wins

Throughout the entire route, cycling wins would definitely be exhilarating downhill rides. They made the uphill climbs so worth it. Other than offering rest for tired legs, most of the downhills had such mesmerizing views of both the English or French countryside.

Amazing scenery

Amazing scenery

The agreement reached at COP 21 had mixed views from climate activists. Ignoring the detractors, I would like to think of the agreement as a representation of world solidarity on climate change and should be celebrated as a step in the right direction. Yes, it might not be fair for everyone but it does give us something to work on in the coming years. What is clear is that much more work is needed to fulfill the commitments.

but, there’s always another hill to climb

No matter how many hills conquered there was always another that stood between me and Paris. That fact didn’t change until the Eiffel tower was in sight.

I’ll never forget the first time we glimpsed it.

I’ll never forget the first time we glimpsed it.

The Paris Agreement is no doubt a momentous occasion. The challenge now is to make sure every party fulfills their promise and that such future climate talks would always put the collective needs.

Having a buddy or better yet a group, helps

 Humans are social creatures. I’m not ashamed to admit that I would not have been able to do this cycle without my buddy, Marcel or the awesome group mates. Dave (our Brompton riding leader), Hanna (the vegan chick on a bike from the 80s), with the 3 other couples- Jack (the happy go lucky dude with a ponytail) and Jessie (the ever bubbly optimist), David (our handyman extraordinaire) and Rebecca (the caring one with a small bladder), Aidan (the caring boyfriend) and Antonia (girl with the Harry Potter glasses). We supported each other by giving words of encouragement and waiting if either one of us were lagging behind (this was mostly me).

Our group victory picture. It was 12am

Our group victory picture. It was 12am

One would think that with 193 countries in the UNFCCC COP, a consensus would be almost impossible to reach. Some would want to dictate future movements while others vote in groups. However, I feel that this immense number should be seen as an advantage. As a country, there are 192 others in the same boat. The knowledge that all of us are in this together has to spur parties to work harder and support each other to combat climate change. After all, there is only one Planet Earth.

When the times get tough, improvise!

This one is not from me, but from the resourcefulness of David. We met David and Rebecca on the first day. Both of them were cycling to Paris despite not being part of Climate Kilometre. Since they didn’t know the existence of a transport van, David was carrying a cabin sized trolley bag on his bike. When he eventually found it was too heavy to cycle up the hills with a bag in tow, he improvised by cable tying the bag to the back of his bike at a 45 degree angle! This simulated a person dragging a bag and reduced the weight he had to carry tremendously! Along the way, he improvised with an inner tube dampener to reduce the stiffness.

Serves as a bike stand too!

Serves as a bike stand too!

To combat climate change, human innovation can be our single most potent weapon. By the Malthusian principle, the human race couldn’t have increase exponentially while food production only increased linearly. And yet here we are. I believe the intensive farming driven by the advances in machinery and development of Ostwald process to produce nitrogenous fertilizer saved the world from mass starvation. Now, we are at this critical juncture where a paradigm shifting innovation is once again needed. Who knows? We might already have an answer in the works.

Last but not least, it is all in the mind

To be honest, there was not one moment throughout the ride that I thought about giving up and taking a train to Paris. After all, what would I have gained if I completed the ride? I wouldn’t have made any difference in the decisions made in COP. Neverless, I decided to complete what I started, to make a point that anything is possible as long as you put your mind to it.

The same could be said about climate change. A good friend once told me that ‘Nothing worth doing/having comes easy’. For a better world, we need better policies, better cooperation among countries and political leaders willing to do what is necessary. It might be difficult at first, but the mind has a way of turning impossible feats into reality.

Arrival at last

Arrival at last

On a concluding note, I urge all of you to take into consideration your individual actions to combat climate change. Just simple gestures, if practised by the masses will make a difference. Eat up all your food, bike to work, use public transport, recycle your waste, install solar panels. Remember, climate change will affect everyone including our children and their children’s children.

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