< Back to previous page

Alumna Nishadi Liyanage shares insights on sustainability and COVID-19

Posted: 11 May 2020

Sri Lanka, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact,

Australia Awards alumna and sustainability specialist Nishadi Liyanage has published an informative article on sustainability in this time of COVID-19, shared among her LinkedIn networks. Nishadi is also soon to kick off operations for the Sri Lanka chapter of an environmental initiative, Climate Leaders of Tomorrow. We interviewed her to dig a little deeper. We also asked how her Australia Awards experiences have contributed to her work, skills and networks in this space.


Q: Can you tell us briefly about the concept of Green Swan events?

“First, it is important to talk about Black Swan and Grey Swan events. In the world of finance and risk management, the term ‘Black Swan’ was coined by former Wall Street trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2001 to describe events that are unexpected and catastrophic. The 2008 global financial crisis is an example of a Black Swan. Grey Swans are similarly significant events, but are considered less likely to occur.

“In 2020, John Elkington coined the term ‘Green Swan’ to describe events that create “a profound market shift, generally catalysed by some combination of Black and Grey Swan challenges and changing paradigms, values, mind-sets, politics, policies, technologies, business models and other key factors”. Therefore, Green Swans can be viewed as events that can provide opportunities for breakthrough in terms of how we operate in our current global and local systems.”

Q. Why is sustainability important now, as we battle through COVID-19?

“Sustainability is a multi-faceted concept and is essentially a framework to manage non-financial risks. Unfortunately, the concept has been devolved to mean ‘environmentally-friendly’, but it’s a lot more than that.

“Sustainability also focuses on governance risks, social risks, labour risks, safety risks, supply chain risks and many more. It is a concept that anyone, not only large corporations, can make use of to manage their non-financial risks more effectively. For example, if you’re driving a vehicle with an internal combustion engine, you’re not only contributing to air pollution, but also spending lots of money on fuel. Now compare your contribution to air pollution and your costs when using an electric vehicle, travelling on public transport or riding a bike. Not only do these actions have an environmental impact, but also an economic and social (health) impact.

“Adapting to a “new normal” will require us to live more sustainably and well within our means, and sustainability has therefore never been more important.”

Q. What are some examples of the interconnectedness of the current environmental setting and the COVID-19 pandemic?

“The COVID-19 virus is suspected to be a zoonotic disease, meaning it may have originated from pathogens that transfer from animals to humans. Illegal wildlife trade and markets have been noted as possible causes. As we increasingly overstep ecosystem boundaries, the interaction between us and vectors of disease also increases, and therefore responsible production and consumption patterns become a crucial aspect of a “new normal.”

“This is further exacerbated by climate change. There are many studies that suggest climate change may contribute to an increased spread of disease. There are also new studies that suggest a possible link between pollution and the severity of COVID-19 infections. These are just some of the examples of how the current environmental setting and the COVID-19 pandemic are interconnected.”

Sustainability specialist and Australia Awards alumna Nishadi Liyanage shares her insights

Q. What are some ways you think society could benefit from the COVID-19 pandemic?

“COVID-19 has shed light on social injustice and inequality across the globe and tested the social contract of many organisations. This has led to leading companies considering stakeholders more widely and adopting best practices such as supporting their employees, paying suppliers early, waiving late payment fees for customers and supporting local communities. COVID-19 has also brought about changes to the nature of work, as well as access to education and skill development.

“Companies that have previously shied away from flexible working arrangements have now been forced to adapt to telecommuting almost overnight. Other leading labour practices during the pandemic include providing paid sick leave, ensuring flexibility with childcare or caring responsibilities, providing emergency financial and mental health support, supplying personal protective equipment, and continuing to pay staff if temporarily closing operations. All these trends would benefit workers, especially the informal workforce.”

Q. You’ve recently announced you will be operating the Sri Lanka chapter of an environmental initiative, Climate Leaders of Tomorrow — can you tell us how it will work and what you hope to achieve?

“Education for Sustainability (EfS) is a passion project of mine, which started as part of my thesis while pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Sydney. I continued some of this work when I came back to Sri Lanka on a part-time basis. Later, with the support of Australia Awards, MAS KREEDA (a subsidiary of MAS Holdings) and other partners, three other Australia Awards alumni and I embarked on a wonderful journey to take EfS to a few rural schools in Sri Lanka. I also initiated a Facebook group called “Education for Sustainability – Sri Lanka” where group members share ideas on how to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

“A friend of mine, Anjukan Kathirgamanathan, currently studying in Scotland, reached out to me and described his experience at the European Innovation and Technology Institute’s Climate-KIC summer school (EIT Climate-KIC Journey). This is a four-week, full-time residential program focused on climate action, innovation, systems transformation and community building. He discussed the possibility of piloting a similar program in Sri Lanka, to which I immediately agreed. Climate Leaders of Tomorrow is the organisation my friend set up, and I’m helping him manage the Sri Lankan chapter.

“The rationale behind this project is simple. There is injustice in the fact that those who have contributed and continue to contribute the least to climate change are the ones who will suffer the most detrimental consequences. While there is a preconception that knowledge transfer needs to be from the Global North to the Global South, the concepts and projects that work in some regions may not be applicable to others, and people know their own contexts best. In addition, nations of the Global South have the opportunity to “leap-frog” the practices of the Global North that we are now acknowledging as leading to the degradation of natural environments and contributing to climate change.

“In a nutshell, we are hoping to replicate the EIT Climate-KIC Journey model in Sri Lanka, but formulate curricula and content that incorporate local traditional knowledge. We hope to empower climate-conscious youth in Sri Lanka by increasing their capacity to create innovative solutions and connecting them to professionals from their regions to build a network for climate action. Through the program, participants will understand the causes and impacts of climate change, learn about how traditional and modern practices can be combined for sustainability and innovation, build confidence through leadership training, and become empowered through networking and co-creation. Depending on funding acquired, we aim to start the pilot program in mid-2021.”

Nishadi (middle) in Bhutan at the 2018 Australia Awards – South and West Asia Regional Alumni Workshop ‘Australia Awards Alumni as Champions for the Environment and Climate Action’

Q. Could you tell us how your Australia Awards Scholarship and alumni experience has contributed to your work in environmental protection and sustainability?

“Studying at the University of Sydney in Australia with the support of Australia Awards was a game changer for me. The Master of Sustainability program equipped me with the appropriate skillset required to work in my current field. Our program was multifaceted and included lectures from various faculties to illustrate the interconnectedness of subjects and related issues. I was also able to receive training on the Global Reporting Initiative’s Sustainability Reporting Framework, which led to my contribution to the development of an award-winning Integrated Annual Report in Sri Lanka.

“As an alumna, I have received support from Australia Awards for many projects. In 2017, as a committee member of the Sri Lanka Association of Australia Awards Alumni (SLAAAA), I co-chaired a sustainability forum called ‘The Big Shift’. This forum brought together subject experts in construction, transportation, waste management and multi-stakeholder partnerships to rethink sustainable urban solutions for Sri Lanka. Best practices and knowledge were shared among over 100 participants and we managed to make close to LKR800,000 in profit, which SLAAAA used to build libraries in rural schools.

“Similarly, ‘Cradle to Cradle: Empowering schoolchildren to be catalysts for preserving the environment and tackling climate change in Sri Lanka’, a project I implemented together with other Australia Awards alumni, was also supported by an Australia Awards grant.”

“Undoubtedly, Australia Awards has not only supported me to change my understanding of sustainability, but has also assisted me in the work I do in a very holistic way.”

Nishadi (centre) with fellow Australia Awards alumni—and team members for various environmental projects—Saliya Jayathilaka (left) and Dr Pradeepa Jayaratne (right)

Q. What else are you working on at the moment?

“In 2019, I and three other Australia Awards alumni (Dr Randika Jayasinghe, Dr Pradeepa Jayaratne and Saliya Ratnayake) organised a roundtable discussion on the status of EfS in Sri Lanka, with the support of Australia Awards. We had participants from the private sector, public sector, non-governmental organisations, universities and general enthusiasts engaging to discuss the current status of EfS. We are currently exploring the possibility of publishing a paper based on our findings through this roundtable discussion, as well as our experience with the rural schools project.”

Q. Do you have any other reading recommendations on the topics of sustainability and social change, of relevance to our current situation?

“I’m currently reading Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism by John Elkington. I’m also looking to read Reimagining Capitalism by Rebecca Henderson.

“Three other non-fiction books I’ve enjoyed are: The Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability by the Post Carbon Institute; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond; and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.”

About Nishadi Liyanage 

Nishadi Liyanage completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, and received an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2013 to pursue a Master of Sustainability at the University of Sydney. While there, she became interested in early childhood education for sustainability and completed a capstone work placement research project at a local Montessori school to help bridge the gap between policy and practice.

In 2017, Nishadi was selected as a Local Pathways Fellow (an initiative of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network), and in 2018 she had the privilege of being trained by Al Gore as a Climate Reality Leader. She is currently part of Global Shapers Community, the youth arm of the World Economic Forum.

Nishadi has more than 8 years of experience working in the field of sustainability at various organisations, ranging from the United Nations Development Program to large corporates in both Sri Lanka and Canada. She remains passionate about EfS, especially in Sri Lanka, and continues to remotely volunteer her time to facilitate EfS-related programs and create awareness around this space.