Climate Change Policy Analyst at the World Bank
Henry Owen (2012, Biomedical Science), current President of the Oxford Hub, interviews Tara Shirvani (2009, Chemistry).
Why did you choose to go into climate change policy after Univ, rather than working with an NGO or charity?
Climate change is a fundamental threat to sustainable economic development and the global fight against poverty. Working for an international organization such as the World Bank, which is currently helping 130 countries to take action on climate change, gave me the opportunity to look at the development business through a climate lens and become part of a task force, which catalyses climate action around the globe. Just in 2012 the World Bank has contributed about $4.6 billion to climate adaptation projects within the developing world. This has allowed me to work on projects with a low-carbon agenda that have a real impact on the ground and aid rural communities, while I was also able to observe and assist the political negotiation process and stakeholder engagement during international climate negotiations.
Does your department work to prevent climate change, or mitigate its damage?
The World Bank’s Climate Policy Unit is a cross-cutting solution area which works across all areas of the development context to implement Green Growth and Climate Resilience agendas. We are continuously stepping up our mitigation, adaptation, and disaster risk management work, while the broader World Bank lending policy is increasingly looking at its business through a climate lens.
Moreover out department includes the $8bn Climate Investment Funds, which are designed to provide scaled-up financing to initiate transformational change toward climate resilient, low-carbon development. Our Carbon Finance Unit supports more than 150 projects through the purchase of about 220 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
What do you think the main stumbling blocks in political negotiations around climate change are?
To move forward on these initiatives at the required scale, we must drive mitigation action in top emitting countries, get prices and incentives right, and get finance flowing towards low-carbon green growth agendas. However, so far the market doesn’t price the true cost of climate change onto the consumer. Industrial countries are better prepared to cope with the effects of climate change an asymmetrical interest remains in how to cope with this global challenge. If we want to break down political stalemates then we have to urge politicians to sign up to an internationally legally binding framework and price the cost of solving the climate change challenge adequately.
What challenges have you faced pursuing a low-carbon agenda alongside the World Bank’s goals for economic development?
There is an inherent challenge of balancing the energy demands of the world¹s poorest and most vulnerable regions with its impact on climate change. To date, over 1.2 billion people remain globally without access to electricity, while 2.8 billion rely on solid fuels for cooking which results in over 3.5 million premature deaths in 2010 due to indoor air pollution. In some countries of Sub-Saharan Africa you will have to meet basic energy demands of rural populations and will not have any affordable or feasible alternatives to coal power. The pursuit of a low-carbon agenda alongside economic development remains a balancing act which should always be seen within the country context and its stage of economic progress.
You’re only 27 and have also worked at the United Nations Development Programme before your current position at the World Bank. Have you found your age to be a barrier in any area of your work so far?
To the contrary! I strongly believe that if you are young, have strong aspirations and a relentless will for going after your hopes and dreams then it’s never too soon to start doing so. The sooner you start exploring the opportunities that Oxford, Univ, or you yourself have developed, the earlier you will know what path in life is really the one for you. No one said it will be easy, but people will respect you for your determination and hard work at a young age.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a similar career focusing on climate change?
1) Don’t take ‘NO’ for an answer.
2) Leave your comfort zone! Only by working in a developing country and getting handson experience in the field will you get a clear picture of the devastating impact climate change is already starting to have on the world¹s poorest and most vulnerable regions.
3) Make sure you have a technical core or a key skill to which you can always come back. Climate change is not a core skill but a cross cutting theme to which you should apply your knowledge.
4) Start early with setting up a network of mentors and business contacts which can provide you with valuable guidance on the way and drop you a lifeline when needed.
What do you think is the current most exciting sustainable fuel technology or innovation?
There has been much recent excitement about a promising new technology, which creates biofuels not from edible or inedible crops, but from algae feedstock. Microalgae has vastly superior biomass yields per hectare and, most importantly, CO2 removed from the atmosphere during photosynthetic growth of the plant directly offsets CO2 released during fuel combustion. As far as climate is concerned, this should be a zero sum process. Algae grow in water, and although fresh water is in increasingly short supply, algae also grow in salt water, as happens naturally in the ocean. So in principle algae could be grown in rafts on the sea in areas where storms are rare and the waves relatively flat—for example around the Gulf states. Or there could be algal farms on deserts in ponds flooded with seawater. Either way, there would be no competition with food, no need to divert agricultural land or water, and no danger of raising the prices of basic food products in order to satisfy our transport needs.