State of the Planet

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Alumni Spotlight: Pooja Chawda, Decarbonizing the Future by Cultivating Interconnectedness

“My learning curve at Columbia University’s SUMA program has been steep, and I have learned a great deal about energy policy from the courses and my cohort, so I am grateful to all the faculty and staff.” — Pooja Chawda

Pooja Chawda currently works as a project manager at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). Her role is focused on analyzing regulatory landscapes to support the development of policies and strategies mandated by the Climate Law and Community Protection Act, and driving engagement for emerging efficiency, electrification, and carbon valuation policies. Prior to joining NYSERDA, she worked in the United Nations for almost 10 years, with a brief assignment in the World Bank. 

Growing up in Africa and Asia and having spent several years in Europe and North America, Pooja Chawda was always drawn by the interconnectedness of people, things, and experiences. Early in her life, she realized that this systemic interdependence is an important lens through which the world should be viewed. She continues to find different ways to respond to the overarching question: What can I do to play my part in this interconnected web? 

She grew up in East Africa and spent several years in India, before winning the Congress Bundestag scholarship to Germany. She then returned to the United States to finish a bachelor’s degree in communication and foreign languages (German and French) from Ripon College, Wisconsin and then pursued a master’s degree in peace and conflict resolution in Austria. Following her first master’s degree, she spent almost 10 years working in the United Nations to advance sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa. Shortly after moving to New York, she decided to pursue the Sustainability Management (SUMA) degree to complement her strong policy background with the environmental/science/sustainability angle, of which energy is a crucial part. 

Through the Climate Law and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), New York State has passed a landmark law — a commitment to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040, 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, and carbon neutrality across all sectors of the economy by 2050. The law sets forth groundbreaking targets to decarbonize the state’s electricity and eventually the entire energy system. What drew Chawda to this law is not just the speed and scale on the emissions side, but also the ambition on environmental justice and climate justice. When the call came, and after a rewarding career in international diplomacy and foreign policy, she decided to pivot her work towards advancing clean energy policies in her home state — New York.

What led you to join the SUMA program?

After almost a decade of working in foreign policy and diplomacy, I had figured out the governance aspect of the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) nexus. Similarly, having a bachelor’s in communication and spending the majority of my life in countries other than my country of origin also heightened my understanding of the social aspect of how humankind functions, and our responsibility to each other. When I applied to the program, I had significant global experience in the “social and governance” aspect in the ESG nexus, but I lacked the environmental/scientific perspective from a sustainability viewpoint, which would complete the nexus for me. The combination of a curriculum that had both STEM-intensive courses from leading practitioners created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to hone those skills. 

What skills has the SUMA program taught you that you think have proven useful for your job?

SUMA has provided me with the name of the concept that I had understood before I joined Columbia — the interconnectedness, or “systems thinking.” The SUMA program allowed me to gain a profound understanding of every aspect of stocks, flows, feedback, information, and leverage points in my own little “universe-system” — and ultimately a new way of viewing life. For that, I am grateful that I put all the “useful energy” into practical working contexts. 

What is your current role and tasks?

As a project manager working in the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), I see my role as driving on-the-ground engagement for emerging efficiency, electrification, and value of carbon policies. As part of my role, I am advancing the New York State decarbonization agenda by contributing to the state’s roadmap to electrification in the built space, a critical element of which is ensuring that low- and moderate-income/disadvantaged communities in New York have access to clean and affordable energy. New Yorkers have committed themselves to a better and stronger economy, and they understand the advantage of [investing] billions of dollars in advancing the CLCPA. I am excited to work in this type of a democratically sourced pathway to a clean energy economy.

What has been your most significant accomplishment associated with sustainability with this position?

One of the policy instruments I was excited to be part of is accounting for the value that is unlocked by taking out carbon from the sky. To establish the value for carbon, the CLCPA requires the consideration of two approaches — the social cost of carbon, which seeks to place a value on damages from climate action, and the marginal abatement cost approach, which entails evaluating costs to meet a target. I had the opportunity to review both approaches to carbon valuation, with attention to specific considerations for the application of each approach to inform policy analysis and decision-making in New York State. I had the opportunity to propose a hybrid methodology for the state, as well as translate and present estimates adopted by several European countries, including France, the Netherlands, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

What inspired you to work in sustainability? Since when have you worked in sustainability?

Since my former career in the United Nations, and what led me to join that organization in the first place was the belief in helping disadvantaged communities in Africa to obtain basic sustenance and a means to live a dignified life. I worked with war-torn communities to support sustainable development by helping former warring parties to become law-abiding citizens, and to move the needle on the justice aspect. Linking to this climate change, environmental justice became a central piece to me. I realized that even in my home state of New York, there are several disadvantaged communities that are bearing the brunt of climate injustice. I started to connect the dots that we collectively as a society have not done enough to protect disadvantaged communities, that we have not been as thoughtful about the greenhouse gases we emit, and not as courageous as we should have been in investing in innovation needed for cleaner air quality for all. So, for me, it is all really connected, and that is what placed me into the sustainability policy space and continues to manifest in all the work that I do — because I now realize that we can not just be “neutral” here. We have to work towards environmental justice and we have to go that extra mile to ensure equity in the communities we inhabit.

What has been your favorite class in the SUMA program, and why?

My favorite class by far has been the course taught by Professor Curtis Probst, titled ‘Financing the Clean Energy Economy.’ Professor Probst has a unique way of installing practicality and real-world examples in his teaching. I learned how to approach financing while connecting it with broader energy history and context, and unraveled different layers within a system to consider the regulatory signals needed, and learned that the capital to achieve solutions at the scale and the speed we need are all so inherently connected — another aspect of interconnectedness. The Excel sheets that seemed challenging during the course have made every single Excel assignment in the working world easier in comparison. Aside from being a true professional, Prof. Probst is also very personable and truly believes in students’ success. I highly recommend this course for anyone who, like me, wishes to view energy policy, innovation, and investment from a holistic angle.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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