Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Alumni Profile: June Choi

HNC Student Blogger Amanda Walencewicz interviews June Choi, an HNC Certificate + MA graduate who concentrated in Energy, Resources, and Environment (ERE). She currently works as a climate finance analyst at the Climate Policy Initiative.

How did you become interested in China and end up at the HNC?

My interest in China had two major drivers. One, I'm Korean, so I was interested in the shared heritage, and my interest in Mandarin in particular stemmed from its close relationship with Korean. I had started learning Mandarin in college and wanted to deepen that experience and be in an environment where I could use the language 24/7.

The second driving factor was the fact that you need to understand China if you are interested in global climate policy, because of the huge role that China plays in terms of emissions contributions. For example, if China's national emissions trading scheme went online, it would be more than four times the size of the current EU trading system. So just in terms of scale, you have to understand China and I had a sense that China would be coming up a lot in my future work. It was very important to me that I feel confident in doing research in Mandarin, and this was the only program out there that provided the 24/7 immersive environment. I also knew that Professor Roger Raufer taught at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) within the ERE program, and I wanted to take classes with him. So that's how I chose the HNC.

How did your experience at the HNC prepare you for working as an analyst at CPI?

Number one was Mandarin skills, being fluent enough to research, read and write in Mandarin, and also be able to hold some basic conversations. I think that was the most important. I also took a lot of classes with Professor Raufer. As an ERE student, I ended up taking two of his classes for credit and auditing two, so I took all four of his classes that were offered. I think he's just so great to have as a resource. He’s a leading China expert in his field, and a world expert on pollution control. The fact that he's with the HNC means a lot. A lot of the foreign professors there who are residents there, they’re in China for a reason, and that’s what makes the HNC so great.

I also participated in the Jessup moot court with Professor Simon as our coach. It was a crash course in international law and helped me understand the challenges of resolving transboundary environmental issues. It was also a strong team bonding experience, I remember the day we had to submit our case we were crowded around in Professor Simon’s office sifting through volumes of legal text, I even missed my first train leaving for Tibet. It’s not easy to be a participant in a prestigious competition like Jessup, it’s great that Professor Simon makes it possible for HNC [students] to participate in the China round.

Does your research at CPI use Mandarin a lot, like looking at statistics from Chinese databases?

Definitely, there's a report recently published that I worked on last year, which looks at China's green bond market. That involved looking at a lot of Chinese statistics on green bond issuance, a lot of green bond reports and third-party reports. A lot of that's only available in Mandarin. And generally, they’re not the copy-and-paste kind of file, they're PDFs that are impossible to copy and paste into Google Translate. So that was very useful being able to read files like that.

Can you talk a bit about your focus on climate finance and the way that financial institutions are mobilized to influence or advance climate policy?

One of the ultimate objectives of climate finance is to mobilize the private sector. For instance, the renewable energy industry is a good example of how the private sector has really started playing an active role. But that's because they've discovered there is a return to the investments made in that sector. For other sectors, the returns are less certain, and private investors are a lot less active. That's where the public sector comes in and provides concessional capital, guarantees and grants, so that more private investors might be willing to consider entering those sectors as well.

Climate finance encompasses all those different types of actors with different risk-return profiles to unlock larger and more diverse sources of capital. It's also called blended finance, another phrase people use to reach the ultimate objective of making sure we can reach the scale of investment needed to address climate change and ensure a resilient economy, and making it possible for all actors to chip in towards that. The investment need is estimated at trillions of dollars per year. Because the private sector is ultimately sitting on the largest pools of capital, it's about shifting that.

Climate finance is also about embedding green standards in financial instruments like green bonds and green loans and improving green practices within institutions. For example, Paris alignment is a leading agenda currently that asks financial institutions to align their entire portfolios and financing activities, including procurement strategies, with climate objectives. It’s not just about increasing the green share of portfolios, but also decreasing the ‘brown,’ or climate-harmful, share of portfolios. CPI works with governments, public and private finance institutions to advance climate finance on all these fronts.

And what are some of those sectors that are less profitable that the public sector is trying to shift funds to?

Most sectors in climate change adaptation, like biodiversity and ecological preservation, are traditionally sectors where private institutions might not find a good business case. Usually they will donate profits from other investments to those causes or purchase carbon credits to meet sustainability objectives like net-zero targets. Now you see a lot of schemes like results-based payments, pay-for-success, financing structures that monetize the value of natural capital while sharing performance risk. They try to capture natural capital and ecosystem benefits, because that value is there, it just hasn't been quantified before. For example, if you invest in water quality upstream through forest conservation, it results in better water quality and reduced costs for water utilities downstream. The DC Water Bond for improving storm water infrastructure is also a good example of how private investors can take on some of the performance risk that utilities may not take on themselves. Ultimately, it’s about capturing benefits and aligning incentives among all the beneficiaries.

Do you see any major shifts in climate finance coming as a result of the current pandemic, whether they're long-term or short-term? Are these the kinds of programs that for these companies are the first things to go and seen as extraneous investments?

Actually, investment in renewable energy hasn't dropped so much. Globally, energy demand has reduced by six percent. But within that context, renewable energy demand actually increased by one percent.

Also, there are trends set in place now that the private sector can't back away from. For example, BlackRock, the largest asset management company in the world, announced that they are going to make sustainability integral to their investments and expressed a commitment to report on climate risks. A lot of banks are divesting from fossil fuels as well, especially in Chinese banks they're tightening finance for fossil fuels. They're allocating more of their loan portfolios to green projects. The green momentum in China has been building quite significantly over the past five years.

The scale of that change, the ambition of that change, that may seem to have dampened a bit, with major climate conferences getting postponed. But we should be positive about building on these existing trends and momentum. Central banks have been discussing green quantitative easing. Many corporates have reaffirmed sustainability targets during this crisis. The key word right now is resilience. Not just for climate change, but in the broader context of health crises like the one we're in right now which will be more likely to occur in a future with climate change. Recently, a lot of our work has been about bringing those two narratives together, how being resilient in health crises like this also means addressing the climate crisis that's at hand, and how economic recovery packages can and should be guided by climate objectives.

What was one skill that you gained from your time at the HNC?

Of course what really stands out is Mandarin, but I also learned a lot by exploring Nanjing as a city. I was really good friends with my roommate, and with another friend, I had purchased a diàndòngchē. Just having that scooter meant that we had a lot of mobility, that we were able to ride along with other Nanjing residents who were going shopping, picking up kids from school, delivering food, and I learned a lot that way. I felt like I could experience in my own way what it meant to be a citizen of the city, beyond just being in the compound that's HNC because it's easy to stay on the campus and forget that you're actually in a Chinese city, a pretty cool one, too.

Interacting with the city also led me to my most memorable moments. I did a lot of things at the HNC, like being part of the Dragon Boat team and learning how to play erhu. But when I think about Nanjing, I think of the time when my roommate Liu Qing and I were interested in the informal recycling sector.

First, we tried to look at food waste recycling, because we were wondering what happened to the food waste collected in the campus dining hall. We ended up tracking down one of the food waste collectors, with the truck with the big blue barrels that collected food waste from all the different restaurants in the neighborhood. We interviewed him, tried to figure out where he takes all of that food, and it turns out he pays the restaurants a commission to take it to pig farms.

Then we tracked down another recycling disposal guy and tried to get on his truck to follow him to the landfill. In the end, he ended up backing out, but we almost got a ride on his truck, it was really fun. We were on the scooter the whole time, following trucks with the scooter.

So I feel like this investigative mindset of being in the city and being curious about how things actually work, and asking the local residents about it, I learned a lot that way. That's something really unique that I remember.

What advice would you give to current or future HNC students?

To make the best time out of Nanjing city, not just the HNC campus. And to pool together money with friends and buy a diàndòngchē! It improves your perspective a lot, it’s not that expensive, and they’re easy to find. With that scooter you can go anywhere: you can go to Xuanwu Lake really easily, you can go have breakfast outside, explore little alleys, see how people live. I think that is really, really important, and leaves a great impression of Nanjing.

Interview conducted by Amanda Walencewicz, HNC Certificate '20.