Before the age of 30, Lisa Emelia Svensson had already gained a PhD and landed a top job in New York. Today her stellar career has led her all the way to the United Nations, where she is Global Director for Oceans. Her favourite place is a small island in the West Sweden Archipelago.
Lisa’s career path has been unusually linear. But it wasn’t mapped out like this from the outset. Although she comes from an enterprising family, she grew up far from the world of big business and politics.” She and her four siblings were raised in Bohuslän in West Sweden, and their lives centred more around the sea than the house.
“My father spent a lot of time at sea and encouraged us to do the same. I learned to love the sea and the archipelago from an early age. It determined how I saw the world. We had the vast sea in front of us, and beyond it was the rest of the world – which I became very curious to explore.
After graduating from the Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law, Lisa applied to the Swedish Trade Council for an international trainee position. She landed the job and was posted in New York.
“I loved being there. People say big cities are stressful, but for me it was the opposite. My first feeling was one of calm. The rest of the world was moving, and I could stand still in the midst of it.”
After a time in New York, she returned to Sweden to start the internship programme of the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This was followed by work at the Swedish Embassy in Washington and as a trade negotiator at the European Commission in Brussels. Lisa also spent a year as Diplomat-in-Residence at John Hopkins University, where she also finished her doctoral dissertation as well as a book on climate change.
Back in Sweden, she started working as Ambassador for Sustainable Enterprise.
“At that time, sustainability and CSR were not yet strongly established. It wasn’t unusual for people in prominent business positions to say that they were only interested in results. Today nobody would claim that companies don’t have a strong responsibility for sustainability.”
Many companies today are taking important initiatives to promote these issues. For example, Lisa points out that Volvo has transitioned from primarily selling cars to focusing more on how to meet people’s mobility needs. Volvo is also phasing out disposable parts and aims for 25% recycled plastics in all Volvo cars from 2025.
“The great added value of this is that it creates a pressure in the market and can encourage more companies to use recycled plastic for other types of production. This can be a way of initiating and driving change. It is crucial to our future that more companies set this type of example.”
Sustainability has been Lisa’s primary focus area since she became Ambassador for Sustainable Enterprise. Her work has focused particularly on matters regarding the sea.
“There’s something about the sea that always attracts me. I don’t know what it is; maybe I’ve got salt in my veins! There’s something out there in the waves that never stops beckoning me. However, the sea is endangered and there is a widespread lack of knowledge on how to manage and utilise its resources sustainably.”
Two years ago, the United Nations called to offer her the post of Global Director of Oceans at the UN Environment Office. She accepted without hesitation. Since then her office has been in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Using the United Nations Environment Programme as a platform for promoting marine issues seemed like a natural path forward. My greatest motivating force has always been curiosity and an urge to explore and understand new contexts. And now that I’ve gained an understanding of this context, I’ll be happy to move on to new challenges.”Her work involves a lot of travel and she’s seen many exotic places across the globe. But deep in her heart there’s always one place she’d rather be.
“The best thing in life is nature. Walking barefoot on rocky cliffs is what gives me energy. Even if I’m on the most beautiful exotic island in the world, there’s no place I’d rather be than a wet, stony cliff in Bohuslän or outside my house on the island of Käringön. That’s bliss for me.”
Working with sustainability and being Global Director for Oceans is no easy job. Eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the sea every year. If people continue to use the sea as a dumping ground at this rate, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
“So much stuff just gets pumped into the sea. People think it will just disappear,” says Lisa. “But of course it won’t. There is a strong link between the ocean and climate change. The world’s oceans absorb nearly a third of our carbon emissions, and seaweed beds bind carbon.”
Half of the carbon stored in living organisms is in the sea. The sea is crucial to our survival, but the overall context is not explained and communicated in a way that decision-makers and the public can easily grasp.
However, she points out that there’s hope. Awareness about climate and sustainability has steadily increased, and more and more individuals are making conscious and climate-friendly choices.
“We need to find creative systemic solutions that are based on science. Even if people stop buying plastic bags at the supermarket, a systemic solution is needed to bring about real changes. And that’s what we’ve got to find.”
Copyright: Magnus Carlsson (text), Katja Ragnstam (photo)
This article is an excerpt from “Magasin Göteborg”. To read the entire magazine (in Swedish) click here.