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Insights Developing our sustainability strategy in Peru

As part of our #PeopleDriveResults campaign, this week we have caught up with Claudia Valencia Franke, our Sustainability Strategy Manager based in Lima, Peru.

image of Claudia smiling

Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

I am the sustainability strategy manager for our office in Lima, Peru. This became a new position in July and focuses on adding value to our projects and services by assessing and addressing environmental and social impacts and risks. Our team identifies opportunities to contribute to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and to the conservation of our planet and its inhabitants.

I joined AtkinsRéalis in 2013 working as project manager, senior environmental specialist and biodiversity studies lead, supporting environmental studies, impact assessments and biodiversity conservation initiatives. My work has focused on mining clients primarily, always working towards improving their environmental awareness and performance.

How are you helping to reduce pollution in your job?

Most of our clients and projects are in the mining industry, which can become a significant source of pollution if not controlled. Due to poorly managed mining facilities, some of the most contaminating and harmful substances have been released into rivers and oceans and on land, reaching “disaster” levels. However, we now know that sustainable mining is possible.

I, along with a multidisciplinary team, work to assess a project’s potential negative impacts to the environment and people. We analyze which options, technologies and measures can be put in place to prevent or minimize pollution and any other negative impacts. If residual effects remain in the environment, we look for options to remediate or restore them. Finally, for those impacts that cannot be avoided, minimized or restored, we search options to compensate for them at a scale that is adequate for the type of impact. This process is known as the mitigation hierarchy and is the core of our business. Our goal is to find the right strategy so that the final balance for all our projects is a win-win scenario: the environment wins, people win, and a profitable project is achieved, aiming at reaching net gains which are far greater than the inevitable losses.

What inspired you to take an active interest in reducing pollution professionally?

I’m a biologist. So, from early on, my objective in life has been to find ways to protect and preserve biodiversity. Often pollution and other types of environmental damage are analyzed only from a human receptor point of view. And people tend to forget that there are many other essential receptors—some big, some quite tiny— and none of them get to have a say because they don’t have a voice. For example, pollution from light exposure is often overlooked because people can find refuge in homes or other types of shelter. It can have a significant negative effect, however, on migratory and other types of birds and the insects they eat. Pollution to rivers is very often focused on how it affects drinking water, or water for irrigation, or even water for recreational use. But what about aquatic life?  Fish are often the only organisms considered, and only because they are a source of food. In Peruvian legislation, protection of aquatic life guidelines is the fourth category, and most rivers are not even required to comply with them.

So that has been my job for most of my professional career—to evaluate how projects might harm flora and fauna species and ecosystems, and help prevent, minimize, restore or compensate for them. Lately, that has expanded to a broader context. Now I focus on finding strategies that make our projects more sustainable and managing any negative effects on the environment and people.

What innovative technologies or trends do you see coming that will help us fight against pollution?

Today’s emerging and innovative technologies help fight against pollution.  They will continue to evolve and adapt to meet our needs, such as nanotechnology, engineering at the level of atoms and molecules. However, if I had to choose only one “tool” that I think has been, and will continue to be, most helpful in fighting pollution and raising awareness, I would say it’s digital public accountability— making companies publicly report on their environmental and social performance.

Nowadays, most companies, regardless of size, produce such reports, commonly in the form of an annual sustainably report. These explain how the company measures impacts, such as their carbon footprint, water footprint and other environmental and social issues. And the best part is the report shows what the company is doing to improve trends overtime.

There are more formal ways of doing this, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), which is an organization that has set an international standard for sustainability reporting to help organizations be transparent and take responsibility for their impacts, including emissions, effluents, waste, biodiversity, energy and many other very relevant topics. And since the main principle behind these reports is transparency, anyone can access them and read about the actions companies are taking to tackle their negative impacts. Such transparency is a big driver for improvement. The more actions taken, the better performance to show on the report, and the more likely to attain or maintain their social license to operate. This all leads to a healthier planet. It’s not the solution to our pollution problems, but I believe it is a significant driver for change in our society’s mindset. Everyone is accountable for their impacts to our planet.

In your personal life, what do you do to help reduce pollution at home?

I’m a big believer that anyone anywhere can chip in on the fight against pollution, and you should “walk your talk.” So, if my work consists of trying to reduce a project’s impacts on the environment, I need to do the same at home. We are big fans of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. We almost never use plastic bags for shopping. I carry reusable bags in my purse permanently. I favor sustainably sourced food, although it is not always easy to find. I also shop locally at smaller markets whenever possible. Everyone at home has a personal water bottle. We never use plastic wrap, but rather plastic or glass containers for storing food. And almost everything at home gets recycled. My three recycling containers are seldomly empty because of the crazy amount of plastic and other recyclable materials everything comes in, which is overwhelming. My husband builds eco-bricks from soda plastic bottles. He fills them with plastics that cannot be recycled and then donates them. And lastly, at home we have switched our regular liquid detergent for an ecological version that is biodegradable. And the container is returned to the seller when we need a new one.

Because of the pandemic, a lot of none-recyclable items have appeared in our household. Here are some other things actions to consider for minimizing our COVID-related pollution or negative effects. Always cut your disposable mask’s straps, so they can’t affect terrestrial and aquatic animals if not properly disposed of. If possible, use reusable masks. Also, buy large alcohol or disinfectant containers and use smaller refillable ones for daily use.

 How would you argue that preventing pollution is good for our economy?

I think preventing pollution is the only way forward if we want an economy at all. Each year Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year, falls a bit earlier. In 2021, it fell on July 29. That means that for the rest of 2021, we have already exceeded Earth’s ecological budget. All managers would agree it is not good to go over budget. And pollution only inhibits our planet’s ability to regenerate. It makes it sick. When you are sick, can you work at the same rate, and operate as well as when you are healthy? I can’t, and my husband certainly cannot either. So why do we keep expecting Earth to do it? If we want a planet where humans thrive along with our economy, then we all must do what is in our power to prevent, fight and reduce pollution.

Green or renewable energy, like wind, solar and thermal, is an excellent example of a good contributor to our economy while helping our planet. Such projects need to be promoted and conducted in a sustainable way. We just need to understand that acting sustainably, balancing economic growth with environmental protection and social wellbeing, is everyone’s responsibility if we want our children and their children to have a place to thrive.