COP26, Tang Prize, and the Trajectory of Sustainable Development

  • Jane Goodall, 2020 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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Chinese original by Chih-Chung Chen of the Central News Agency (CNA), published on CNA’s website on December 8, 2021


English translation by Wei-Hsin Lin of The Tang Prize Foundation


The COP26 summit held in November, 2021 once again drew the international attention to climate change, energy efficiency, and carbon reduction. Soon the Tang Prize will be celebrating its 10th anniversary, and its laureates have not been indifferent to this uncertain time we found ourselves in. From the perspectives of science, law, culture, and so forth, they helped point the world in the right direction to the realization of our sustainable development goals.

COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, took place in Scotland in November, 2021. Both prior to and after the meeting, political wrestling between nations made headline news time and again. Though the attending parties’ political stances might differ, the pursuit of a path to a sustainable future for our planet was undoubtedly the common goal.

Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, winner of the first Tang Prize in Sustainable Development, is the person who gave sustainable development a clear definition. In 1987, the United Nations’ World Commission for Environment and Development, chaired by Dr. Brundtland, published the report “Our Common Future,” describing sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation, remarked that from 1995’s COP1, held in Germany, to 2021’s COP26, many branches of the spirit of sustainability have grown from Dr. Brundtland’s definition of sustainable development.

Prof. Arthur H. Rosenfeld, the second person to be awarded the Tang Prize in Sustainable Development, made great contributions to energy efficiency. The compact fluorescent lights and building technologies he invented as well as the efficiency standards he set still deeply affect how we live our lives today. “The Rosenfeld” has also become a unit for electricity savings (one Rosenfeld equals a reduction of three billion kilowatt-hours per year).

The third generation of laureates, Dr. James E. Hansen and Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, each carried out valuable research that provided crucial scientific support for international climate accords, such as the Paris Agreement and the Montreal Protocol, and enabled people outside the scientific community to have a clearer understanding of the harm human activities have done to the environment.

The latest winner of the prize Dr. Jane Goodall was even invited to serve as the COP26 Advocate. She constantly reminds us that climate change is no longer a looming threat. Extreme weather events such as wildfires, floods, hurricanes, and heatwaves have been repeatedly inflicting pain on us. Humanity has to wake up to this harsh reality and realize that if we can’t learn to live in harmony with nature, the future will be doomed.

A broader perspective offered by Tang Prize laureates

Dr. Chern observed that the values and meanings embodied by the Tang Prize in Sustainable Development concern not only the relation “between humans.” They are meant to broaden our horizons to look at the relations between “humans and other living creatures,” “humans and the environment,” and “humans and the Earth.” These are the most important questions for us living in the 21st century, and are also the global issues that are most edifying and have the greatest impact.   


He also pointed out that when Dr. Samuel Yin, chairman of the Ruentex Group, decided to establish the Tang Prize, the first category coming into his mind was sustainable development, as he hoped that it would help promote the importance of sustainability, raise the public’s awareness about environmental protection and social equity, and ensure future generations can flourish in a sustainable fashion. After all, we shouldn’t compromise the long-term interests of our children for the sake of our own short-term interests.

Apart from the prize in Sustainable Development, the other three prize categories and their winners are all highly pertinent to the development of the world. Dr. Chern noted that Prof. Wang Gungwu, 2020 laureate in Sinology, is a pioneer in the study of the Chinese overseas in Southeast Asia. Understanding China from the southern perspective, he has been guiding the world to see things from different points of view. Recently, unmarked graves have been found at the sites of two former residential schools for indigenous children in Canada, unveiling a dark chapter in North American history that shocked the world. Very early on, Prof. Wang started to examine the relationship between immigrants and local residents of countries around the world, warning us that unless we stop indulging in parochialism, conflict is all but inevitable.   


Prof. Yu Ying-shih, who won the inaugural Tang Prize in Sinology, passed away in August, 2021. He was seen as one of the most influential Chinese scholars in the United States. Dr. Chern remembers that when the announcement of Prof. Yu being awarded the Tang Prize was made, it evoked very positive response from all over the world, including Mainland China, and it was a decision that laid a solid foundation for the future growth of the Sinology prize.  

Dr. Chern used to visit Prof. Yu almost every year. Now the sage is no longer with us, but he believes that the contributions Prof. Yu made to the world will never perish.