Alumni story: Meet Paola Yanguas Parra (MPP 2016)

Fighting for the climate with policies to phase out coal.

Paola Yanguas Parra is focused on 2020, the year scientists say greenhouse gas emissions must peak so the planet can stay below the 1.5-degree-Celsius warming threshold identified as key to its future safety.

At least until then, she has much to do. Since graduating from the Hertie School with a Master of Public Policy in 2016, Paola has been working as a policy analyst at Climate Analytics, a Berlin-based, non-profit think-tank where she served as a student assistant. She now leads a team focused on decarbonisation strategies, and one of her key areas of research is the phase-out of coal.

Paola’s team has written reports for Japan and Germany on phasing out coal. In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan began building new coal power plants, increasing its reliance on coal. Germany, which aims to phase out coal power stations by 2038, at present relies on coal for 35 percent of its electricity supply.

Southern and southeastern are also an important focus, she says. “Because of the population growth and the economic growth that this region is experiencing, it has huge energy needs that are growing every day,” she says. “They're investing a lot in coal now, but that will lock them into a very carbon-intensive future. So we believe they're making a huge mistake. Our reports will explain what alternatives they have to this future to be able to meet the energy needs of the people in a sustainable and more environmentally friendly way.”

Paola studied at a public university in Colombia, where further education is primarily private and competition for places at state-funded institutions is stiff. “Everyone makes you very aware that you're getting an education thanks to the government and to taxpayers, and that this is a big privilege and you have a debt for life,” she says.

Many graduates enter the public sector – as Paola did, working for a state bank that serves the poorest rural communities. But she grew disillusioned. “The main logic was profit-making and risk-management and all the things that you will find in the normal financial sector,” she says. “It was not really about changing the lives of the people it was supposed to serve.”

So she decided to make a career change that would allow her to focus on having an impact in society, and applied to the Hertie School. She chose courses connected to the environment and found herself increasingly drawn to climate policy – an area, she says, where she feels she can make a difference. The Hertie School network has proven invaluable since she graduated in 2016, she says.

“One very concrete example - I was invited to talk about our coal studies in Romania, and I didn't know much about Romania,” she says. “So I just contacted one of our classmates from Romania and asked her to refer some useful information and tell me about the general feeling on energy policy over a coffee.”

Paola didn’t plan to stay on in Berlin, but her focus on climate change means her career options in Colombia – a major coal producer and exporter – are narrow.

“In Latin America in general, people are very proud of their environment, their landscapes, their biodiversity,” she says. “But they see environmental protection in a broader sense and are not so much aware of the climate change issue and how it could impact their lives.”

Her dream is to go back and found a climate change think-tank in her home country. But for now, she has much to learn where she is.

“It’s a very steep learning curve,” she says. “It’s all about innovation, so everyone is learning in a way. One of the reasons I like it is that you’re never in a comfortable position where you think you know everything. You are learning every day.”

Read more about the Master of Public Policy programme.