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Member Spotlight Selma Zahirovic

Name: Selma Zahirovic
University: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
Program or area of study: Energy, Resources and Environment

Tell us about the issues in energy and/or the environment that you are the most interested in.

I always had a special enthusiasm for learning about new technologies that hold the promise of overcoming big social challenges, especially in the context of developing countries. So during my studies, I developed a great interest in projects that address energy poverty through the expansion of mini-grids and off-grid alternatives. I feel excited just thinking about the possibility of renewable energy solutions that will bypass inherent problems caused by extending the power grid to distant, rural communities.

Scaling up such projects could literally be life-changing for a large portion of the world’s 1.5 billion people who have no access to electricity. This naturally led me to study the power sector as a whole. And in the process, I discovered many other fascinating issues such as different market structures, alternative approaches to regulation, and even minutia like various bidding procedures that are used to increase competition.

What program or concentration did you study at your school? Why did you choose this path, and what did you want to achieve from studying it?

In my undergraduate studies I majored in international relations and business. But I took almost as many courses in art and religion because I was still exploring my interests. As I entered the professional world, I realized that I would benefit from taking more advanced-level economics courses and acquiring other marketable skills. So, I studied international relations and economics with a focus on Energy Resources and Environment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I had been considering several environmental policy programs but I chose this path because it combined a functional specialization with an international perspective and the strong economics curriculum that SAIS is known for.

Initially, my goal was to get an education that would prepare me for a successful career regardless of whether I chose to go into the private, public, or international sector but my interests have since evolved towards private sector consulting.

What kind of professional opportunities would you ideally like to pursue?

I would like to work for a consulting company with energy infrastructure projects in emerging markets. I believe that this will allow me to use my previous development work experience.

Ideally, it would be part of a larger initiative where entrepreneurs, international financial instritutions, think tanks, corporations and governments team up -- to bring to scale -- smart power projects for the rural poor. I have a very specific initiative in mind that one of my former professors is promoting, and I am hoping to share more information on this with the WCEE community in the near future.

My priority, at the moment, is to find a job where I can apply my knowledge of issues in energy and environment, and demonstrate my skills and commitment to hard work. As long as I have an opportunity for professional development, I have no doubt that I will be able to embrace new challenges.

If you could fundamentally change how we as a society use energy and treat the environment, how would you do it? Does it need to be changed at all?

Individual acts of responsible behavior -- like individuals buying offsets to balance the carbon footprint of their air travel or building rooftop gardens -- are honorable but I don’t expect that these will amount to a fundamental society-wide change. We as a society need to adopt a starting position for discussion that lies between the extreme outlooks, and acknowledges the validity of economic, environmental, and legal concerns.

I am aware that this is rather general but I still believe that we first need to see a change in our attitudes. On one hand, we need a restored trust in scientific evidence, especially with regard to climate change. On the other, we need to accept that it is not possible to simply wave goodbye to any source of energy that implies a negative effect on the environment.

I recently read an article in the European Energy Review about the banners carried by Greenpeace activists that can be summed up as "No coal, no oil, no nuclear and no biomass.” I can easily imagine myself, back in college, supporting that rally because the information I was exposed to then made the energy challenge seem like a simple question of resolve. Only after I made a decision to study energy issues did I learn that many of the simple solutions are not feasible.

While education is key, we cannot rely on specialized degrees to change widespread misconceptions. I would like to see interesting primary and high school education material on energy sources and our energy dependence taught in conjunction with issues like resource depletion, pollution and climate change. I believe this would encourage future generations to embrace the concept of sustainability independent of what they as individuals study later on.

Here’s an example of how to do it right: Former Governor of Paraná and Mayor of Curitiba (in Brazil) Jaime Lerner initiated a program where kindergarten children were taught how to separate garbage. Curitiba now has the highest rate of garbage separation in the world and it is because children taught their parents new habits.

What technology, law, or regulation regarding energy or the environment do you want to see created?

I would like to see more coherence and consumer-friendly labeling of products and promotion of services, as well as standards on what makes something green, clean, and ecologically or environmentally friendly. This is not only an issue of regulation and standards but effective communication of consumer interests.

During the past year, I conducted research on Building Energy Efficiency Codes where I looked into initiatives like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). There is a growing market for environmentally responsible tourism, and many hotel chains are responding to that. However, it seems that too often we are only rewarding clever marketing efforts that would have been undertaken anyway.

If businesses already have incentives to cut down on their energy bills, a reminder to "reuse your towel” in a hotel should not be regarded as a particular sign of environmental friendliness or be tagged as such. Some of these initiatives may be admirable, but I feel that consumers ought to expect more.

If you could have 30 minutes of anyone’s undivided attention (living or deceased, real or fictional), who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

It would be great to talk with anyone who is in the position to influence the course of history, or had done so, whether through political and scientific ideas, the arts, or social leadership. However, as there is already so much material out there to learn from the experiences of others, as well as ample opportunities to meet inspiring individuals, I would not forego the opportunity to speak to my (late) father. He had a very special way of encouraging my ideas and I miss him.

Why did you join WCEE, and what do you want to achieve by being part of the WCEE community?

I enjoy learning about new topics in a lecture format. I love going to classes and discussing and meeting with interesting speakers. Now that I am no longer in university, attending WCEE events is something like a perfect substitute. Of course, the opportunity to meet accomplished women in a peer setting with similar interests to mine is another aspect of my motivation.

By being a part of the WCEE community, I hope to keep abreast of important emerging issues, including topics I am working on, and to become a part of those dialogues.

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