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In less than a decade, Helena Molin Valdés took the Climate and Clean Air Coalition (CCAC) from a small collective of 6 countries and the UN Environment Programme launched in 2012 with an ambitious idea for changing the world: unite players from across the public and private sectors to rapidly reduce short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), to make a rapid impact on global warming while saving millions of lives from the destructive air pollution they cause. Today, the CCAC is an expansive, internationally recognized alliance with over 150 official partners, including over 70 countries and an extended network of over 400 non-state actors.
“It's very clear that some of the work of Kigali wouldn't have happened if you hadn't of been here — I don't think that it would have been possible without all the work that you've done,” said Jonathan Pershing, United States’ Senior Advisor to the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate and former CCAC Co-Chair of the work the Coalition did to push forward the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol. “This ability to create intersections between air quality and climate and human livelihood and community is a hallmark that you will leave behind you — and is a very high bar for anyone to follow. But you also created an institution that will have durability for everyone who comes after you.”
In 2012, SLCPs were a relatively niche term, known mostly to a small scientific community advocating for the potential impact of their reduction. Today, they are top of mind for climate negotiators around the world and the potential for their transformative impact on health and development is increasingly championed.
“Working with the founding countries to set up the CCAC and leading the early days of the Secretariat was an absolute highlight of my own career, so you might think it was hard to hand over to you— but it was actually one of the best HR decisions I ever made,” said Kaveh Zahedi, the Deputy Executive Director UN ESCAP and former interim CCAC Head of Secretariat. “It’s one thing to be involved in an exciting start-up as the CCAC was in my time but quite another to keep it moving at a breakneck speed and to take it to the scale needed to tackle the massive climate and clean air challenge we face. Your unending enthusiasm and your drive really match the very DNA of the CCAC itself.”
Molin Valdés has overseen this transformation, steering this bold experiment in international partnerships for the United Nations towards success by bringing together both governments and non-state actors for joint decision-making and close collaboration. The approach has achieved a strong sense of ownership of the coalition by everyone involved.
“You are a loved manager, you are loved by your partners and the people you serve. You work with enthusiasm, you think outside the box, you work with steely determination, but always with a smile,” said Inger Andersen, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and United Nations Environment Program Executive Director. “Without you, without that visionary leadership, we would not be where we are today.”
To get more insights into her impact, we spoke with Molin Valdés during her final month at the CCAC to get a better idea of the foundation she built and the reverberations she hopes it will have as CCAC’s work impacts generations to come.
The Coalition has achieved a lot during your time—putting air pollution on national and global agendas, producing reports used by countries around the world to set priorities and create policy, as well as more concrete legislative accomplishments like helping the state of California adopt a super pollutant bill to slash SLCPs. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I think we’ve shown what is possible. We’ve mobilized awareness and political buy in for the need for fast action to reduce SLCPs— that fact that we can avoid over half a degree of global warming in the next decade while saving millions of lives and tonnes of crop yields every year. Our work has put air pollution at the top of national and global agendas and we’ve played a crucial role in adopting policies as significant as the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.
We’ve increased the scientific rationale for acting on SLCPs by putting together a fantastic Scientific Advisory Panel who have proved and implemented technical and social solutions to SLCPs. They’ve undertaken regional assessments that have mobilized scientists and policy makers to act.
I’m also very proud of how our latest Global Methane Assessment, led by Dr. Drew Shindell, has made headlines even before its launch in May 2021. The first was an article in the New York Times about the need to slash methane emissions. This has already been followed by many more - a huge step in spreading the word about the importance of methane mitigation in meeting global climate targets.
We’ve helped over 100 cities to assess their waste management and 97 of these cities were supported to create action plans to mitigate SLCPs from the waste sector, such as preventing open burning of waste, diverting organic waste, and capturing landfill gas. We even played a critical role in replacing a dumpsite in Addis Ababa with a sanitary landfill.
I am very proud of the work we’ve done with the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) and the UN Environment Programme that paved the way for Global Strategy to Introduce Low Sulfur Fuels and Cleaner Diesel Vehicles, which is now being implemented in countries on almost every continent, with particularly exciting results in West and East Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Our work has led to a sea change in countries implementing higher fuel standards (Euro VI) and megacities moving to soot-free alternatives like electric mobility buses.
We helped 22 countries do national inventories for the first time, identifying the size and impact of their SLCP emissions. The support we’ve provided to over 30 countries on national planning has led to integrated climate and clean air policies, strategies, while also enhancing Nationally Determined Contributions.
You’ve mentioned that part of why you’re passionate about CCAC is that it’s a coalition that doesn’t just talk about making change, it actually puts those words into action. Do you have a memory of a particular project, event, or conversation where the significance of the CCAC’s work really crystalized for you?
When I was visiting Talca, Chile after they joined the BreatheLife Campaign—a Climate and Clean Air Coalition initiative led by the WHO and UN Environment—I was so excited to see CCAC documents on soot-free burning for heating and cooking in the hands of a municipality worker when I showed up. They didn’t know I was visiting in advance so it was an organic moment— they were in the middle of using the documents as part of their heat stove exchange programs and community outreach.
It really showed me how the CCAC’s work is manifesting in communities. While I was there, the mayors of the region signed commitments to BreatheLife and school children acted out plays showing how to reduce air pollution and improve management of waste, improve stoves, and use cleaner transport. It was really powerful to see.
It’s always impressive to see the local impact of our work— the ways that the campaigns and policies we work on globally turn into practice on the ground. What we do matters and it helps improve people’s lives— it doesn’t just end up on a website or a shelf.
I’ve been amazed to see how often CCAC assessments, projects, and initiatives are cited and used around the world to showcase what is possible when it comes to climate and clean air. At an event organized by The Veolia Foundation around COP21 in Paris, I was amazed to see that out of 15 fifteen speakers— which included mayors, researchers, and commercial entities— over half spoke about CCAC initiatives or referenced our sources. It wasn’t a CCAC-supported event or anything, that is just how far-reaching CCAC’s impact has been.
Some people might be surprised, given your current work, that you’re an architect by training. What made you decide to pivot and lead the CCAC. What made it the institution you wanted to dedicate such a large part of your career to?
As an architect, I had experience working in disaster risk reduction and helping to build resilient communities and nations— which included improving resilience to climate change. I had also worked on community based solutions, including towards improving cookstoves and bricks production in my early career, which had such clear ties to CCAC’s work.
I found the idea of combining climate and clean air to speed up mitigation and solve all of these other problems— such as health and crop loss— really compelling. I thought it was such an exciting opportunity to focus on really practical results and it was clear this coalition wasn’t just going to be talking about changing things— it was going to be focused on fast and effective action.
I was also attracted to the strong evidence base of the coalition, which was initiated by two scientific reports: the UNEP/WMO integrated assessment of black carbon and tropospheric ozone released in 2011, followed by a UNEP report on HFC phase down potential. These reports outlined these concrete and cost-effective measures for avoiding warming while saving lives in the near term and the coalition was committed to making that theory a reality. I was impressed by the resolve and the pragmatism that requires.
It was also such an incredible opportunity to be a part of building something from the ground up— especially something that would have such a big impact in the near term.
My early excitement for the topic never changed!
The CCAC has packed so much work into its still relatively young lifespan—what do you hope the CCAC will accomplish in the next 10 years?
I hope we’ll build on existing successes and continue creating strong political buy-in. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the links between the environment, air pollution, and public health painfully clear, which provides a huge opportunity to build support for a green recovery that rebuilds economies with technologies that limit pollution.
Our upcoming Global Methane Assessment is a really exciting opportunity to propel CCAC’s work forward, helping countries and companies with the scientific backing and practical information to tackle methane emissions in all the critical sectors— fossil fuels, waste management and agriculture practices.
I would encourage the Coalition to focus on enabling more equitable access to technology and market opportunities for the global south in the upcoming years. Everybody needs safe and clean cooking and safe and effective heating and cooling and we have a lot of exciting technological innovations that make that possible— but those innovations are only accessible to part of the world.
Because the coalition is so good at convening people and has connections to so many different sectors, we can really help to connect all of the most important actors to help make standards and regulations more equitable.
Finally, I hope that Coalition leaders make stronger connections with the youth movement for climate action— they are the future and the ones who are completing changing the game.
It sounds like the Coalition has some important work ahead. What advice do you have for the next head of the CCAC to help accomplish all of it?
Keeping bringing people together and taking incremental steps towards larger, more systemic change. Focus on all the practical solutions we already have at our disposal which have huge mitigation potential. This year in particular, focus on controlling methane emissions because doing so has major potential for reducing warming.
It’s also going to be really important to speed up implementation of the Kigali Amendment. The reason the CCAC was so critical in helping to pass the amendment is that we were able to create a really important safe space where partners felt comfortable speaking more frankly and forging collaborative partnerships. The CCAC needs to continue doing that to hasten implementation. It will also be important for the CCAC to continue making sure the biggest polluters are part of these conversations.
The CCAC should continue documenting and publicizing the solutions and results. People are already feeling hopeless: the impact of the ongoing pandemic, the extreme weather events, the climate change forecasts. It’s hard not to always feel depressed. I think it is our job to work on what’s positive and point to the solutions.
How can the CCAC showcase what is possible, what is available, and how it can be accessible to everybody? Innovations like space travel are fantastic possibilities but, in the end, what counts is whether regular people can access things like clean and safe mobility or clean and efficient cooling.
Almost three billion people still cook or heat using harmful open fires. It’s easy to forget how huge the global divide still is. The pandemic forcing everyone to work and meet virtually has made the world smaller but it’s also shown us how unequal access to technology is.
I’m so proud of all that we’ve achieved for people and the planet—if we continue with the same level of commitment, resources, cooperation, and hard work I’ve witnessed during my time here, I don’t have any doubts about the Coalition’s continued success.
We only have one atmosphere and the air we breathe is instrumental for all of humanity’s survival. Achieving SLCP reductions at the speed needed is no small task— but it is so essential.
Manuel Pulgar, Former Peruvian Minister of the Environment and President of COP20, currently WWF’s Climate & Energy Lead
“When we met for the first time, I remember seeing a strong leader and a committed and energetic person. Helena has achieved many good things as a professional and for the planet. You’ve done a remarkable job maintaining the focus of the CCAC and you’ve been able to maintain a united coalition with a balance of public and private initiatives. You’ve also made the coalition very visible and very relevant. By doing so, you’ve made it possible to move the needle on domestic policies, while also ground what we have achieved globally.”
Lena Ek, Sweden’s former Minister of Environment and Chair of the CCAC high level assembly on the margins of the 2014 UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit
“The Climate and Clean Air Coalition is a fantastic organisation— the combination of science, reality, on the ground knowledge, and leadership is something that earns respect in every corridor. To have you as leader for the CCAC was especially fantastic - such a knowledgeable, practical person, with good, warm leadership is rare to find. This marriage of qualities is reflected in the results of the CCAC. This is truly the ‘Coalition of the working’ as we agreed when it all started!”
Hanne Bjurstrøm, Norway’s former Climate Envoy and Minister of Labour, former CCAC Co-Chair
“I’m so happy to be able to participate in this farewell party and celebration of all the important work you have been doing for the CCAC. It was a great pleasure working with you and I think we achieved a lot. You are one of the most hardworking and energetic people I ever worked with— I have to wonder: where will you put all this energy in the future?”
Marcelo Mena, Chile’s former Minister of Environment and former CCAC Co-Chair, currently Director of the Center for Climate Action, PUCV
“Your leadership style was always very special because you never lost your cool, you always had a smile and you always had kind words for all the people that were trying their very best to achieve something difficult. I think that you have really shown that spirit of never giving up on connecting climate and clean air. Thanks to that work, we know that we cannot achieve a 1.5 degree target without addressing air pollution.”
Loren Legarda, The Philippines’ Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives
“Helena, you’ve been a bridge-builder and you’ve given a voice to the world’s poorest and the most vulnerable nations, particularly the Philippines. My gratitude goes out to you for your commitment to ensure the wellbeing of our people and our common home. As an environment and climate worker myself, I truly admire your work and leadership. It has been a great privilege to work in the climate arena with you.”
Maria Neira, WHO’s Director of Public Health and the Environment Department
“Everyone in the World Health Organization loves you— I never heard any complaints, on the contrary, everybody was extremely happy when your name came up. You are the accomplice to BreatheLife— it was a fantastic idea and we will always recognize you as somebody who has contributed enormously to making it happen. Action on climate and clean air are more strongly linked around the world because of you.”
Rodolfo Lacy, OECD’s Environment Director, and former Vice-Minister of Environment, Mexico
“You have proven to be such a passionate, influential leader. What makes you really unique is not only your in-depth knowledge and understanding of the science but your adeptness at the international context needed to move action on short-lived climate pollutants forward.”
Drew Shindell, Professor of Earth Science at Duke University, Chair of the CCAC Scientific Advisory Panel
“As a scientist, the CCAC has been the most rewarding group I have ever worked with. When Helena came on to lead, I was really hoping that we would have somebody who would defend the role of science. What we got was something even better than that: not just someone who defended the role of science but someone who really championed it. One of the things I find most telling is just how appreciated and valued CCAC scientists feel: our opinion is always welcome and our views are always listened to. I am noticeably happier when I am on calls with the CCAC and I attribute that to all of my colleagues, but especially to Helena’s leadership.”
Durwood Zaelke, Founder and President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainability Development (IGSD) in Washington D.C, Professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, University of California, Santa Barbara
“We gave you one of the most important and most difficult jobs in the world: fashioning the lever to slow warming as fast as possible to save the most lives, but without the budget or political support you deserved. And yet you managed to bring together your great science team and accomplish some incredible things—first helping lay down the tracks to avoid up to 0.5ºC of warming by reducing HFCs, then the tracks for avoiding another 0.5ºC from reducing methane.”
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