Since 2018, Joo Hyun Ha MPA ’17 has worked as buildings and cities policy officer at the United Nations Environment Program, where she develops briefs and studies on best practices and consults with cities and regions to progress toward a zero-emission, efficient, and resilient buildings and construction sector. Joo Hyun recently spoke with SIPA News about her role at UNEP, what excites her about the future of green buildings and construction, and the challenges that remain to be overcome. This interview, conducted by Christina Sewell MPA ’21, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You graduated from SIPA three years ago with a concentration in Urban and Social Policy. What are some of your fondest memories of being a student here?
I had quite a bit of work experience before attending SIPA. In Brazil, where I grew up, I graduated with a major in international relations and worked at São Paulo city hall for about six years before heading to New York. At the time, I thought it would be fairly easy to return to school, but very quickly realized the coursework was much more difficult than I anticipated. So many problem sets!
The studying was stressful, but there was a great social aspect of life. Being able to go to the coffee shops and see your friends and hang out every day… that’s the part I miss the most. I also really enjoyed being a Lemann Fellow and attending events put on by the Center for Brazilian Studies. I keep in touch with a lot of my classmates now through social media and online gatherings. Since COVID and confinement have become our new normal, we’ve been reconnecting a lot.
Now you’re working for the UN Environment Program as a building and cities policy officer — can you tell us a little bit about what your work with cities and regions around the world entails?
I work specifically on an initiative hosted by the UNEP’s Cities unit called the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction (Global ABC). The initiative was founded in 2015 during the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to fill the need for a convening platform that stakeholders along the buildings and construction value chains could use to collaborate toward decarbonization. It aims to be a neutral platform where all the stakeholders can come together to set targets for decarbonization, track progress and actions, and share and generate knowledge. We mobilize global ambition and solutions around whole life cycle carbon emissions of the sector and give voice to buildings and construction in high-level forums like the UN High Level events.
My position specifically within this initiative is to coordinate a product called the Regional Roadmaps. It involves a methodology that the Global ABC developed with the International Energy Agency to produce policy and technology targets and timelines across the entire built environment. Several different activity areas are included for a comprehensive approach: urban planning for buildings, building operations, building retrofits, system and appliances, materials resilience, and clean energy. Now, using these products, I work with countries to develop environmentally sound buildings and construction strategies that consider their regional and local context. We are now working with Vietnam and Cambodia on national roadmaps in collaboration with our partners PEEB (Programme for Energy Efficiency in Buildings) and UNDP, but also coordinating a “Roadmap hub” to convene other organizations working with similar roadmaps like the IEA, WRI, World Green Building Council (WGBC), and others.
The buildings sector accounts for 39 percent of total energy-related CO2 emissions, a number that is expected to grow as the number of new buildings increases rapidly in the coming years. Given our current path, it will be challenging to meet some of the energy efficiency targets for buildings laid out in the Paris Agreement. What are some of the key ways cities around the world should work now to incorporate higher levels of efficiency?
One of the most cost-effective tools that cities and countries can use to decarbonize the building sector is to develop energy codes and certificates that promote sustainability. There’ve been significant recent efficiency gains, but that gets outweighed by the overall rise in new construction, particularly in regions like Africa and Asia that don't have mandatory energy codes or certificate programs, which is a big missed opportunity.
Building energy codes, for instance, can help ensure that energy-efficient design phase measures are used. Other examples are passive design measures that simply take advantage of the orientation of buildings or measures for better insulation and sustainable window design materials like double glazing.
Cooling is of course an important issue, particularly in Asia where there is a growing middle class. As people there enjoy more economic prosperity and as temperatures rise, thermal comfort will become more important. At this point, however, air conditioners throughout Southeast Asia are not very efficient. Of course, there are other measures that can be taken before resorting to air conditioners but, improving the efficiency of these appliances will also be key for a net-zero future. If the technology is out there, then why is it not widely used? This is the sort of information we include in our Regional Roadmaps, along with other ambition and data gaps, to help create opportunities for policymakers and markets to address them.
From a market-based perspective, what are some of the most promising ways to encourage penetration of more energy-efficient systems in the sector?
There are trailblazers who are committed to transforming the built environment and introducing more green targets and technologies into their business models, but what makes it difficult is that the sector is highly fragmented. It’s different from other industries, where there are a clear couple of companies leading the way. Here, we have real estate developers, building owners, materials suppliers, manufacturers, architects, and all of these different groups of stakeholders playing their part at the same time. Therefore, in my opinion, policy and regulation is the best way to level the field and ensure that everyone understands the best practices for a sustainable future.
On top of that, it's important that we raise awareness that adopting green measures and technologies does not necessarily mean higher upfront costs. In many ways, it can be more affordable! There are many passive design measures that don’t require significantly higher costs but that will result in a vast difference in the overall emissions and efficiency of the building. Promoting this knowledge to all sector stakeholders—including users—will help move the needle faster.
What other energy efficiency innovations out there are you most excited about?
I’m excited by nature-based solutions that can help make cities more energy efficient, like green coverage in cities (trees, green walls and green roofs) as well as transit-oriented development and densifying areas with collective transit. These initiatives are more environmentally friendly but also address social inequalities that exist in our cities. I’m also looking forward to more standardized data about building usage and energy efficiency models. Without a common database, you have a lot of conflicting information.
Passive design of buildings is another powerful tactic because it's something that can be done early on in the project, doesn't cost much, and can make a huge difference in energy efficiency as well as in simple comfort for the user. This is especially the case now that we spend more time in our homes and apartments. I keep thinking about if my building had built better positioned windows, maybe I wouldn't melt during the heatwave! The bottom line is that investing in a green building is not that costly and will, over time, pay off. It simply makes for a better investment.
Absolutely, and on that note, do you have a favorite building that you've walked into lately?
The UN building in Nairobi is a complex shared both by UNEP and UN Habitat and is very eco-friendly. Also, a lot of the architectural aspects of the building were built according to local traditions. There is this immense patio inside with lots of trees and ventilation which isn’t only nice to look at but temperature-wise, you stay very comfortable in the building. I’m also really big into Brazilian modernist architecture. Many of these models are not super efficient, but wow are they beautiful.
Did you always know that you wanted to work for the United Nations upon graduating from SIPA? If not, how did you find your way to the UNEP?
To be honest, I didn’t originally have expectations of working at the UN. I only knew that I wanted to work in urban sustainability. After graduating from SIPA, I went back to Brazil for a little while to take care of family, and by the time I returned to New York, I had just a couple of months of OPT [authorization to work in the United States] left. It was really hard for me to find a job because I would have to find someone to sponsor my visa and a lot of companies weren’t willing to invest that much in a new hire.
I started applying everywhere because I needed a job! When I found this position, I thought it was home based, but during my interview, they informed me it was actually a position in Paris and that I would have to move there. I went for it and thankfully, got along super well with my team and my boss, and I found the work to be more and more interesting. Now it’s been two and a half years!
What a serendipitous story. Now that you’ve been at the UNEP for some time, what kind of person do you think is best suited to work on environmental and climate change policy at the United Nations, and what advice would you give students who are aiming to be in the position you’re in now?
I think it takes a certain type of mission-oriented personality. Everyone at the UNEP, for instance, is very passionate about the environment and climate. A lot of the leadership has dedicated their whole lives to this topic. It’s important to enter this space knowing that what you’re doing isn’t just a job but part of something far bigger. Obviously, working for an international organization, there is a lot of bureaucracy which can be slow and frustrating at times. In the end, you’re still making a huge impact, but that means that we have to be more flexible and adaptable.
In terms of getting the UN job right out of school, my advice would be to take all opportunities and see what happens. In my case: I initially signed on for a five-month contract that required me to move halfway across the world. That wasn’t an ideal situation, but I did it anyway. Then the job was extended and now it’s been a few years! Perseverance and patience is important. If you are a professional, if you're willing to learn, if you are committed to the work, and if you take the opportunities when they come—you’re likely a great candidate for the UN.