How I got here… UNEP Asia Pacific director Dechen Tsering

The United Nations Environment Programme’s Bhutanese regional head speaks to Eco-Business while in Nairobi, negotiating for the first legally binding treaty to tackle plastic waste. She says women should not feel guilty for having a family.

Dechen Tsering talking at the Responsible Business Forum in Thailand
Dechen Tsering talking at the Responsible Business Forum in Thailand in 2019. "Look at the global environment now, and the rate that we're losing species and crossing planetary boundaries... it's like someone is working really hard, but failing the exam, says Tsering. Image: Global Initiatives/Flickr

The green light has been given to move forward on a global treaty to tackle the plastic waste crisis. 

Speaking to Eco-Business from Nairobi while in talks to achieve a resolution for the historic treaty, Dechen Tsering, United Nations Environment Programme’s Asia Pacific director, shared insights on how hard it is for such negotiations to move forward, given the developmental differences between economies. 

For the Bhutanese, who has negotiated on behalf of some of the world’s poorest countries, the resolution this time, described as the most ambitious environmental action since the 1989 Montreal Protocol, was particularly “difficult” to get over the line.

“There was a willingness to move forward, and an understanding that voluntary [commitments to reduce plastic waste] would not work,” she said of the treaty, which is to cover the full lifecycle of plastic for land-based sources of pollution.

Where it “always get stuck” is when countries at different development levels have different ideas on how to move forward, she said. 

“There are always common but differentiated responsibilities depending on national capabilities. That’s really where a lot of the thinking was [when discussing the treaty].”

The UN has set up an intergovernmental committee to negotiate and finalise the treaty by 2024, as data emerges that the amount of plastic trash entering the oceans could triple by 2040. “Let us not prejudge what that committee will do,” said Tsering, who is an experienced negotiator with over 30 years of experience.

Tsering has had a stellar career working with national governments and international organisations. She helped establish the Least Developed Countries Fund, which provides support for emerging economies to adapt to climate change. She joined UNEP from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, where she was director of the finance, technology and capacity-building programme, a role she performed around the signing of the Paris climate treaty.

An outspoken figure on women’s rights, Tsering has said that the Covid-19 pandemic created an opportunity for governments to reimagine sustainability, and rethink the role of women in working to restore ecosystems. In an interview that comes just ahead of International Women’s Day, Tsering talks about how her career has unfolded so far.

What prompted you to move into sustainability?

I come from Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, a country in the eastern Himalayas. We have a population of under a million people. It is a matriarchal society, so there is a lot of acceptance for women who want to study. When I completed high school, I applied to go to university and went to the University of California, Berkeley. I studied economics, but I also did a course on natural resources and conservation, which was a tiny programme at the time. After I graduated, I went back to work for the government of Bhutan. I worked in the planning commission, but I was one of a two-person team who set up the National Environment Secretariat, an agency responsible for the environment. So all of it really started with finding this small field of study at Berkeley. I believe that programme is now enormous.

The best piece of advice I got was, don’t feel guilty about having a family.

Dechen Tsering, regional director, United Nations Environment Programme Asia Pacific

Who has been your career mentor, and what is the most valuable thing you have learned from them?

Cristina Boelcke from Argentina, who was director of UNEP, and Carmen Tavera from Colombia, who was deputy director. They both have families, and they work passionately. The best piece of advice I got from them was: don’t feel guilty about having a family. When you work, you work. When you are with your family, you are with your family. That was important to me. Angela Cropper, who was deputy executive director of UNEP, and Christiana Figueres, the former executive secretary UNFCCC), were also an inspiration to me. They were really powerful women who were able to balance their career with raising a family. It is possible for us now to have very important careers and at the same time spend a lot of time with our family and our children [Tsering is married with three children].

What has been your proudest career moment to date?

There have been two important career moments. The first was in Bhutan. I was one of 39 members of its constitution drafting committee. Article 5 of the constitution was devoted to the environment. [It contains a commitment to keep 60 per cent of Bhutan’s land area covered by forests.] I was able to put in really strong principles to conserve Bhutan’s natural resources for future generations. The second was when I was director of climate finance and technology for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat for the Paris agreement.

What is the hardest thing about your job?

Being aware of the challenges we face. Look at the global environment now, and the rate that we are losing species and crossing planetary boundaries… it’s like someone is working really hard but failing the exam. We need everyone to work on this problem. A small group of dedicated professionals is not going to cut it. It is going to take all of society. So while I am excited to be working in this field, the window for keeping the world to within 1.5 degrees of warming is really small. And we are not just talking about climate impacts for our children, but impacts in our lifetime.

What motivates you?

The commitment of the professionals I work with, and seeing young people pushing for the transformative solutions we need.

What advice can you give someone starting out in sustainability?

Sustainability is not a narrow field. It is not just about nature and climate. It is about human systems, agriculture, industry, infrastructure, energy and transportation. Sustainability is not about planting trees or protecting a river. Young people need to expose themselves to a broad range of fields, and be advocates for sustainability in those fields. Advocacy is really important, but we are in a period of transition — we need to think about jobs, and the financial architecture of the transition. It is complicated. 

What is the one thing you wish you knew before you started out in sustainability?

I wish I was a better communicator. I need to tell better stories. We tend to be very technical in this field. Climate has got to be something you can communicate at the dining table, parent to child. I wish I was better at getting across what the climate crisis means for us in everyday life.

This story is part of our series on women to mark International Women’s Day 2022.

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