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'As an engineer, I am interested in solving challenging problems'

July 21, 2020

Milena Gonzalez Vasquez in front of a Moroccan landscape
Photo courtesy of Milena Gonzalez Vasquez

Milena Gonzalez Vasquez is a Global Environment Facility Climate Change Specialist. In an interview, she shared how her background in engineering prepared her for a career helping countries transform their energy systems, protect their forests, and find other solutions to avert a climate change crisis.

What is your role at the GEF?

I am a climate change specialist in the Global Environment Facility’s programs unit. Like many at the GEF, I wear many hats. I am a program manager for climate change mitigation projects in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Small Island Developing States (SIDS). I also work on topics related to the climate change convention - UNFCCC - including on transparency, reporting, and capacity-building.

My team is working to help countries shift towards low-emission development pathways in line with the objectives of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. This means supporting transformational projects, programs, and policies that lead to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions while conserving and enhancing greenhouse gas sinks, aiming for global climate neutrality by the second half of this century. In the GEF’s latest four-year funding period, from 2018 to 2022, we are promoting innovation and technology transfer related to clean and efficient energy systems and e-mobility; supporting integrated approaches for cities, food systems, land use, and sustainable forest management; and helping support countries’ transparency and reporting capacities as part of their obligations under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

What does success in your work area look like?

Success in climate change would mean achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement: to keep a global temperature rise this century below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and to strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. In practice, this would mean the decarbonization of the global economy - from electricity to transportation to industry - as well as the protection and restoration of ecosystems, forests, and degraded lands, and the improvement of agriculture practices for a more resilient world. For this to occur, we need to see a continued rise in ambition from countries around the world coupled with enhanced climate action and commitments from the private sector.

What motivated you to work in the environmental field?

As an engineer, I am interested in solving challenging problems and as global citizen I am interested in making an impact in the issues I am passionate about. I have pursued a career in climate change because I am both moved by the urgency and scale of the issue, and deeply motivated and excited by the breadth and potential for solutions that this immense challenge requires. The climate change challenge is massive, but I am driven by the responsibility we share as stewards of this planet and by the sincere belief that every person should have the opportunity to lead a happy and healthy life.

How did you get into this line of work?

I first became interested in global environmental issues when I was a freshman at Stanford University in 2008. I knew I wanted to study chemical engineering, because I enjoyed math and chemistry and as it seemed to open up many different types of job opportunities. But it was during a summer engineering program for incoming first-year students from under-represented backgrounds that I first learned about global energy and climate issues. One of the guest lecturers of the program, Prof. Thomas F. Jaramillo, spoke about the global dependence on fossil fuels, the impact of the energy sector on climate change, and the potential for renewable energy to support sustainable development. He also presented findings from his research, which focused on the study and development of electrocatalyst and photo-electrocatalyst materials for clean energy applications. After that, I became motivated to continue with my chemical engineering studies with focus on energy and the environment, including by joining the Jaramillo Research Group.

I also joined the Stanford chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW), a nonprofit network of students and professionals with a shared passion for sustainable development. With ESW, I had the opportunity to lead a project in ecological sanitation for two rural schools in Oaxaca, Mexico, that aimed to protect the community’s watershed while providing access to safe drinking water and sustainable sanitation systems. I became the chapter’s president my junior and senior years, overseeing the planning and implementation of multiple projects through a student-led course in civil and environmental engineering which made communities safer from earthquakes; designed a micro-hydro system for a community with no electricity; investigated solar refrigerators for food, milk, and vaccine preservation; and designed a portable solar kiosk, among other innovations. I then pursued a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering, with a focus on atmosphere and energy, as a way to study air pollution, climate change, and energy systems in depth, and after graduating got a job at the Worldwatch Institute, researching and analyzing low-emission development strategies and renewable energy development with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean.

Milena Gonzalez Vasquez speaks at a climate conference in Bonn, Germany
Photo courtesy of Milena Gonzalez Vasquez

What is a ‘typical’ workday for you?

My workdays typically start by reading about the latest news and developments in the world of climate change, environment, clean energy, and sustainability. Every day usually involves working on at least one project review— this could be for a climate change mitigation project, a multi-focal area project, a Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency project, or an enabling activity. I also work with other GEF colleagues on a combination of focal area and regional work related to project and portfolio analysis, and on engaging with stakeholders such as our colleagues at GEF Agencies and our country constituents.

How has COVID-19 affected your approach to work?

The coronavirus outbreak has affected our planned missions and has led to the postponement of several important meetings. For example, this year we had plans to hold the Fourth Global CBIT Coordination Meeting and Technical Workshop in Tokyo, Japan, in April. Also, every June we participate in the UNFCCC’s subsidiary body meetings in Bonn, Germany, and every fall we participate in the annual global meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC. Due to the pandemic, these meetings have been postponed to 2021. Without these large gatherings, we have had to work virtually to keep advancing the climate change agenda and to remain in contact with our partners and key stakeholders.

Overall, I have been very heartened by how the GEF as a whole has been able to continue operating without interruption throughout the shutdown, in particular through the continued approval and processing of projects, ensuring our ongoing support for urgent environmental action.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

The biggest lesson I have learned from work is the importance of collaboration and diversity. While it may be challenging to work alongside stakeholders with differing views and agendas, it is always an enriching experience and the outcomes are much more rewarding. I have found that a diversity of backgrounds, interests, and experiences is invaluable to any team.

What makes the GEF unique, in your view?

Considering its immense mission and scope - protecting the global environment and serving five UN conventions by managing $4 billion in a four-year period in partnership with 183 countries, 18 agencies, and countless stakeholders - the GEF Secretariat is quite small! I am often asked where we are based and whether we have any regional or country offices. It can be surprising for people outside of the GEF partnership that we work with such a streamlined model.

The GEF Secretariat includes a special combination of expertise and skillsets and benefits greatly from the diversity of its staff. Over the last close to six years, I have greatly appreciated the learning opportunities that working at the GEF Secretariat has provided me. I have learned a lot from the experiences of my colleagues and from the perspectives of our partners and stakeholders on the ground.