Women of Wolfson - Dr Karen Alvarenga

The independent researcher who wants to help turn policy into reality

Karen left Wolfson in September 2003 with a PhD from the Department of Land Economy on Climate Change and Distributive Justice. After returning to Brazil, she has had a fascinating career and is committed to ensuring practical changes in environmental, social, and governance issues to improve the lives of Brazilians and have a positive impact on the planet.

Karen Alvarenga, photo Teresa Walton

What's your line of work, and what are the big questions that motivate you and drive this work?

There are so many questions… The ones I have been trying to answer, and that have been inspiring me to be curious and persistent, are how to translate United Nations multilateral environmental agreements – such as climate change and biodiversity, green finance, chemicals, corporate social responsibility, poverty reduction, and improvement of people’s livelihoods - into practical national legislations.

As an independent researcher, I have been working on these themes to move them towards policies and legislations that take into account, not only command-and-control measures, but also economic instruments to motivate individuals, companies and governments to change behaviour towards promoting sustainable development, protecting the environment, and eradicating poverty.

What contribution do you hope to make with your work?

I hope I can be an agent who motivates and assists others to be more aware of ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues, enticing them to think more deeply about what each of them can do, inside their zone of control and influence, to care about environmental issues and, if at all possible, to have a positive impact on the planet and on people’s livelihoods.

How did you get here? What was your journey?

For many years, I had worked at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an international NGO, as a consultant for United Nations agencies, including the secretariats of the Climate Change Convention, Chemical Conventions and Biodiversity Convention.

With the experience and knowledge I gathered while consulting on these international environmental issues, I had the opportunity to put them in practice and help influence Brazilian environmental policies, translating such international soft laws into national and state policies.

In 2005, I was invited to be the International Legal Advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, in the Minas Gerais State. This was one of my favourite roles ever because I was finally able to put into practice the expertise developed during my PhD and UN consultancy activities.

Then, I progressed to work in the private sector in a role to develop new projects for carbon credits, raising awareness of the potential of landfills as a source of carbon credits under the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme.

After my maternity leave, I went back to the legal profession, focusing on ESG due diligences, improving ESG standards, and advising on ESG risks and opportunities, before taking on the Head of Regulatory Affairs in Givaudan in 2019.

I decided at some point that I would have two careers running in parallel. One would be the day-to-day job that assisted my employer in their ESG journey and paid my bills. Another would be to, independently, contribute in an individual basis providing food for thought regarding ESG issues for all interested stakeholders.

To that end, I set up my own individual mission, vision and goals. This was such a turning point in my well-being and sense of self fulfilment. I identified what I would like to achieve in my spare time in tandem with my values and principles and went around researching, publishing, teaching and doing a lot of workshops, all in collaboration with universities, botanical gardens, NGOs and governmental institutions.

ENB team members (left -right): Dagmar Lohan, Lisa Schipper, Richard Sherman, Karen Alvarenga and Andrey Vavilov at the 6th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Havana, Cuba, Sept, 2003.
ENB team members (left -right): Dagmar Lohan, Lisa Schipper, Richard Sherman, Karen Alvarenga and Andrey Vavilov at the
6th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Havana, Cuba, Sept, 2003. 

Who were the women who inspired you on your journey?

I need to start with the women who raised me in Ferros, Minas Gerais, namely my lovely mother Angelina, my grandmother Edelvina, and my favourite aunt Maria Alvarenga. This also includes teachers, friends and even the neighbours that used to complaint to my mother about my mischievous behaviours. With them I learned how to swim in rivers, climb trees, and make jaboticaba jam.

Other women that inspired me are:

Cecília Meireles, Brazilian poet, who has always been with me through her book “Romanceiro da Inconfidência”, which reconstructs one of the most important Brazilian emancipationist movements that took place in Minas Gerais, showing the values that formed Brazilian's collective conscience.

Elza Soares, a Brazilian samba singer, for her talent, courage and immense “joie de vivre”, showing all of us how to triumph over personal tragedies in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Recently, I have been fascinated with Dr Laurie Santos’s work on cognitive psychology at the University of Yale via her free course on “The Science of Well-Being” combined with her podcast “The Happiness Lab”. She has improved the life of thousands of people, including my own, helping us to increase our levels of happiness and building more productive habits.

Some of Dr Alvarenga's key publications can be found here.

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