Five years after the signing of the Paris Agreement, a new term has found itself at the center of climate discourse: climate finance. Used to describe funding that will support climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, climate finance is driving new opportunities to address climate change, from mobilizing the trillions of dollars needed to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals to getting microloans to rural farmers.
The development of financial programing to support climate mitigation and adaptation actions has often been perceived as a responsibility of governments and private sector institutions – but this narrative is slowly changing as the sector grows. And, in turn, more jobs are being created that allow young people to direct their professional lives away from the traditional world of banking and toward climate finance instead.
For Greg Zegas, 27, a young environmentalist from Massachusetts pursuing his joint Master of Science and Master of Business Administration degree in Environment and Resources at Stanford University, remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity. He moved to Colorado to reconnect with the outdoors and focus his academic and personal passions more deeply on climate finance. There, he maintains a healthy balance between his love for sport and nature, taking business and environment courses and working as an Investor in the Energy and Environment Deal Team for the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) Impact Fund.
“For me it comes down to the international equity angle,” Greg says, discussing his reasoning for wanting to contribute to the movement for climate justice. “It’s really troubling to me that people who will be the most impacted by climate changes are the ones least able to adapt.”
While Zegas has homed in on his interests in climate finance in the past few years, he has always been committed to restoring healthy and sustainable global ecosystems. In high school, he worked with Peace Corps volunteers on clean biomass stoves and irrigation systems in the Dominican Republic. During his undergraduate studies, he spent time studying Himalayan livelihoods in Bhutan and tropical ecology in Ecuador, and worked on climate projects at the U.S. Embassy in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, exposing him to the harsh realities of climate change on marginalized communities in international contexts.
But it was in 2017 that Zegas’s interest in climate finance was put into action, when he was awarded the Princeton in Asia (PiA) Fellowship to work in the eco-banking department at XacBank, a commercial bank in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The bank underwent an accreditation process with the Green Climate Fund (GCF) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which provided it with greater ability to implement programs focused on greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate change mitigation and adaptation – and Zegas was brought in to help.
During his 2017–2018 PiA fellowship at the bank, Zegas drove an approach that channeled international, climate-focused funds toward local public and private institutions taking a bottom-up approach to their operations. He led his team to set up a business-focused loan program for individual households implementing energy efficiency in their homes and was responsible for defining the eligible product types to be used, such as insulation retrofits and electric heater purchases, and developing all the documentation needed for projects to be approved by the GCF.
“In my mind, that approach has shown a lot of promise and could be replicable in other countries,” he says.
The fellowship also exposed him to the global climate finance ecosystem, and the varying levels of financial need therein. “Climate finance activity really varies between countries, depending on the policy framework, the presence of relevant local and international organizations, and the visibility and immediacy of climate problems,” he says. “Mongolia has made a lot of progress compared to other countries. It has a very favorable policy framework, with emissions reduction targets set and relatively good coordination among public and private sector entities engaged in the space.”
To most young people, leading climate finance initiatives such as this seems like a daunting task. But Greg’s experiences in Mongolia, rather, invigorated him to build his own equitable climate finance initiative under the purview of Smart Air, a BCorps social enterprise operating in Asia and the U.S. that conducts data tests on air purifiers and masks, shares best practices on limiting the impacts of air pollution, and sells effective and low-cost air purifiers.
As the Executive Director, one of his first projects in the role was to set up the Mongolia branch, and after doing so, Zegas launched the project “Let’s be smart about Air Pollution” to reach out to young Mongolian professionals to develop greater awareness around climate change and its health impacts. “My priorities were to scale up our local educational impact and to introduce a new efficient and affordable air purifier to the local market,” he says.
This youth-for-youth approach also prioritized addressing the impacts of climate change on local communities from the ground up. This included training youth to be air pollution workshop facilitators in community spaces and equipping children’s shelters with air purifiers, among other efforts.
After running his initiative for two years at Smart Air, Zegas relocated to Stanford for his studies. Although he no longer lives in Ulaanbaatar, Zegas remains highly active in the world of climate finance and international climate equity, and in the future, he envisions continuing his work by thriving on the intersection between business, energy, and the environment.
Acknowledging the rapidly changing nature of the development sector, Zegas explains how public-private partnerships are increasingly fundamental to driving international development and environmental projects. “In order to avert the worst of climate change, the amount of funds going toward climate-friendly projects and businesses need to increase exponentially,” he says.
Most certainly, his relationship to Mongolia is not an ephemeral one, and he hopes to continue his relationships with communities there and elsewhere to drive new climate projects. His time there also gave him the optimism to help realize the change he knows is needed. “I know from Mongolia that a lot of progress can be made when many different types of organizations work together, and I’m looking forward to building on those learnings in the future,” Zegas concludes.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Youth in Landscapes Initiative.