Uniting nations on sustainability

June 28, 2012
Raina Delisle
Julie Larsen

Ten years ago, Julie Larsen was a wide-eyed United Nations Association in Canada youth delegate. Along with 25 contemporaries from across the country, she worked on engaging young Canadians in the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Last week, the Royal Roads student watched the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development with the satisfaction of playing a part in making it happen.

“When I arrived at the UN for the first time, I never imagined I’d actually be working here,” she says. “One of the things that attracted me to the UN is that it is a convening power, it brings the right people to the table to have the discussions – governments and private sectors and engineers and academics. It brings the best of the best together to advance this tricky agenda, but one that’s full of opportunities.”

Larsen, a MA in Environment and Management student, is a communications professional with the UN in New York. Leading up to Rio+20, she worked on the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability. For eight months, she designed, implemented and monitored an outreach and communications strategy in support of the panel’s work. She also worked with members of the panel, including co-chairs former Finnish president Tarja Halonen and South African President Jacob Zuma.

“This is a group of people that really knows how difficult it is to bring about change and so the recommendations were bold and ambitious, but also practical given the times, and the austerity and the cutbacks that are going on pretty much across the world,” says Larsen, who’s originally from Montreal.

One of the recommendations that came from the panel is to focus on energy. Larsen says energy – one of the seven priority areas addressed at Rio+20 – is an issue that really drives home what sustainable development is all about because it touches so many people in a variety of ways.  

“There’s an access side to energy – three billion people in the world still lack modern energy services, so there’s that whole human-poverty dimension to it – but it’s also really tied to the environment because we know that we need to transition to renewable energy sources,” Larsen explains. “There’s also the economic aspect to it because it’s quite a business opportunity.”

With the conference wrapped up, Larsen is now focusing on the secretary-general’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which aims to secure energy for people worldwide by 2030. She says she’s found a home at the United Nations and hopes to continue working there.

“I learned from a really young age that nature is a gift and we can’t just go in and spoil it; we have to give back,” says Larsen, who has worked for various UN agencies, including UNICEF and UNFPA. 

Larsen couldn’t fathom stepping away from her field to study full time and risk losing track of important developments. Royal Roads allowed her to continue working while she studied and connect in small groups with professionals from diverse industries.

“The team-based model at Royal Roads is so applicable because most of my day is spent bringing partners up to speed, making sure we’re all moving in one coherent direction,” she says. “It’s very interesting to see how strategic decisions are taken and balanced against all sorts of needs.”

Larsen even found time to get involved at the university and sat on the board of governors for two years from April 2010 to 2012.

“Julie made an outstanding contribution to the board and was always thoroughly prepared for meetings. Her questions were thought provoking and always to the point,” says Peter Meekison, chancellor and chair of the board of governors. “She made an effort to reach out to students to ensure their interests were reflected in her questions and her general participation in board discussions. Perhaps her most significant contribution to our deliberations was stressing the importance of intergenerational learning experiences. She is a remarkably gifted individual who will bring great credit to Royal Roads University in what, I am sure, will be a most distinguished career.”

For Larsen, sustainability is a way of life. After work, she puts on her jeans and heads down to her community garden in Manhattan, where she runs the compost heap, or checks on her rooftop bees.

“The one caveat I have about working on issues on a global level is you really also need to keep a foot on the ground,” Larsen says. “Sustainable development isn’t something that lives in a policy document; it very much translates to your day to day and being really connected and responsible for the place that you live.”