State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Alumni Spotlight: Elena Belletti Finds Economic Solutions for Environmental Protection

The Alumni Spotlight series includes interviews with Earth Institute alumni about their career paths, how they became interested in Earth Institute programs, and for any advice that would be useful to current and future students.

elena belletti headshot
Elena Belletti, an alum of the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program at Columbia University.

Elena Belletti came to Columbia after nine years of working in the energy sector as well as in the United Nations. She has a prior academic background in economics and policy, and had already completed two master’s degrees in Italy, her home country. In the interview below, she discusses how she’s using market-based tools to support sustainable development and environmental protection, and how Columbia’s Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy Program has helped along the way.

What drew you to the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy Program (MPA-ESP)?

There were two factors that attracted me to the program, both based on my belief that climate change is the greatest challenge of the 21st century. First, I wanted to become more knowledgeable on the science behind climate change. Second, I wanted to understand how to integrate environmental protection into other agendas, including energy, financing for sustainable development, and corporate decisions. ESP helped me in both these areas. I have learnt a lot about how to effectively develop and communicate climate-related policy.

What were you doing before you took part in the program?

I started my career in the energy sector in Europe (the U.K. and Denmark), where I helped companies improve the value of their commercial and economic opportunities. I then worked for the United Nations for about four years, specifically at the Financing for Sustainable Development Office in New York City.

What area of environmental policy and management are you most interested in?

My main interest is in the development and employment of market-based instruments for environmental protection — for example, carbon taxes. I am also very interested in the challenges in green financing — for example, how to attract greater investment in renewable energy infrastructure.

What skills and tools did you hope to acquire from the program?

I wanted to get deeper knowledge on sustainability subjects, but also to improve skills such as communication. The program has a well-rounded core curriculum, and there is enough flexibility to choose electives; alongside with learning about carbon pricing, green finance and climate change, I was also able to take courses on innovative leadership, communication and sustainability management.

What was your favorite class in the MPA-ESP program, and why?

I have a policy and economics background, so I really enjoyed taking science courses during the summer semester, which were fairly new topics to me. Another highlight of the program were the hands-on policy workshops. The summer and fall workshops focused on unpacking proposals for U.S. environmental legislation, and they were a very useful way to understand the complexity of policy-making in the US.

How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MPA-ESP program to further your career?

I will continue my work at the United Nations and help member states improve sustainability while achieving their development goals. For example, I work with a U.N. body on environmental taxation, and I have been drafting chapters of a handbook that will help member states (particularly developing countries) design carbon taxation.

Any other highlights from the program?

The students! We all share a common objective of bringing environmental protection [to the] top of the agenda and want to help each other succeed. The program really provides a collegial and cooperative environment, and I have learned a lot from my classmates.

Joshua Cooper is an alum of the MPA-ESP program, Class of 2020.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact the assistant director, Stephanie Hoyt (, or join us at one of our upcoming online information sessions. Register here.

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