Yaping graduated this spring from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) with a specialization in business and the environment.  Her work tries to address pressing resource and pollution issues through business solutions. Prior to Yale, Yaping worked as a teaching fellow with Teach For China in a small village in Southern China. She also worked for Goldman Sachs on corporate sustainability and real estate, and at Alibaba on international buyer management. Yaping received her Bachelor’s Degree in Geographical Information Systems from Wuhan University in China and a Masters of Environmental Management from F&ES.

Q: What initially drew you to environmental data and policy?

A: I grew up in western China where natural resources such as natural gas and coal abound. I first learned to perceive the environment as a victim of development when China initiated the Western Development Program to eliminate poverty in my hometown, Xinjiang. I remember the excitement in my uncle’s voice when he spoke of new jobs, but they came with a price. Urumqi’s air quality deteriorated as a result of the development, hitting the worst rating in China’s guidelines almost every winter. In college, I worked for a World Wildlife Fund wetland survey project, and through interviews with local fishermen realized that most sensible people wanted to achieve sustainable development. “I’ve never over-grazed fish, because otherwise I will have nothing next year”, said a local fisherman, reflecting the same homespun wisdom followed by ancient Chinese thousands of years ago.

I was intrigued by the relationship between nature and development, but what really pushed me into a career in environmental policy was my two-year experience teaching in rural China. There I developed a personal connection to the social and environmental impact of industrialization in China. Farmers tend to their rice crops only 200 meters behind pollution that streams steadily from the smokestacks of local factories. Almost all the local teachers have blackened teeth, resulting from years of consuming fluorine-rich well water.  Students play basketball on courts with pungent smell of daily trash incineration. There are opportunities for individuals and organizations to lead efforts to improve the environment in urban and rural China, but I believe top-down approaches would be the single most effective way for China to solve the tragedy of commons.

Q: How do your graduate school studies and previous professional experience relate to your current work?

A: My focus at FES was on the intersection of business and the environment. On the business side, I took several courses on finance and economics at the Yale School of Management, and spent my last summer working on corporate sustainability and real estate analytics at Goldman Sachs, where I saw how the finance industry could play a big role in the fight against climate change. I leveraged this experience in my first project after graduation where  I provided analytics for a website called NAZCA, or the Non-State Actor Zone for Climate Action, which was newly launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The NAZCA website  records nearly 3,000 actions undertaken by businesses, cities, states and regions, and financial institutions. When exploring NAZCA’s Investor Sector , I noticed that the commitment made by Goldman Sachs was about the firm’s own operation across its offices and data centers, as opposed to investment in climate mitigation or adaptation. This discovery led me to separate commitments from the Investor Sector into two categories — investment and operation, since the former is likely to deliver a much greater impact than the latter. I was aware that Goldman Sachs had worked on climate change beyond daily operations through investing, which is what they are best at. The firm’s Asset Management division, for example, developed the proprietary 60-factor Environmental, Social And Governance (ESG) model, which integrated environmental and social impact into investment decision-making. To distinguish investment and operations painted a more accurate picture of the impact from commitments made by investors. Our NAZCA report was very well received at the United Nations, and the UNFCCC has come to us for more analysis, so stay tuned for more work on this front.

Students meet with business representatives in the Business and Environment Clinic (Photo by Pooja Chopra, Yale FES ’15).

Q: As a recent graduate from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, what advice would you give to students interested in environmental policy?

A: Build your expertise in a specific area early on (e.g., climate change, air quality, water management, etc.), and develop technical skills. I would recommend courses on statistics and GIS, and  to get proficient in R if you are interested in data-driven policy. I also benefited from working on environmental consulting projects through courses such as Life Cycle Assessment Practicum and Business and the Environment Clinic. In Business and the Environment Clinic, I teamed up with three other “FESers” (what we call ourselves) to analyze the modified U.S. Farm Bill and cooperated with the Global Public Policy & Government Affairs Team at PepsiCo.  We designed concise and easy to read brochures that educate growers about available technical and financial assistance. As an international student, I was able to hone my communication skills in real business settings, which helped me when I reached out to stakeholders and led discussions.