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Eight ‘green careers’ tackling the planet’s biggest development challenges

All over the world, green innovations are shaping international development – from electric cars tackling Nairobi’s fuel dependency to training for rural Malawian mothers to become solar engineers. This month we look at the growth of ‘green careers’ and how they can solve global challenges.

An urban garden sits on top of a sunny rooftop
© Shutterstock/Diego Moreno Delgado
Vertical farming - growing crops upwards - can result in 500% of the ordinary yield

1. Urban gardener
Solving the need for more food with less land

In May, the UN predicted that by 2050, more than two thirds of the world’s population will live in a city. To put that in perspective – that’s an extra 2.5 billion people compared to today. It’s a change that will affect the global south disproportionately, with 90% of the increase felt in Africa and Asia.

As populations around the world flock to cities, new challenges will arise – with one of the very biggest being food production.

How can we produce more – with less?

One answer is through ‘vertical farming’: crops grown up rather than out, meaning more food can be produced per acre of land – up to 500% more, to be precise. Indoors, the climate can be controlled, pests and pesticides minimised, and nutrients applied more accurately.

In Nairobi, one Kenyan startup is using solar technology and mobile connectivity to allow urban farmers to irrigate their crops through their phone. “We want every building to have our systems so that even the 50th floor can have green leafy vegetables,” founder Ronald Kimei said.

A turtle swims near a plastic bag in the ocean
© Shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry
A million species are at risk of extinction unless action is taken, UN scientists have warned

2. Conservation scientist
Ensuring that the animals of today will be here tomorrow

Last month a stark headline made global news: a UN report from an international coalition of 145 scientists predicted that a million species are at risk of extinction unless we act now.

That means two in five amphibians – the cold-blooded vertebrates that include toads, newts and frogs – could be lost forever, permanently damaging ecosystems and losing the potential for future scientific research that could save human lives.

One man doing something about it is Ghana’s first trained ‘frog doctor’, Caleb Ofori-Boateng. He’s won an international award for his work establishing Ghana’s first protected area for endangered amphibians – and in particular, the Togo slippery frog.

Ghana's first 'frog doctor', Caleb Ofori-Boateng on his research into the Togo slippery frog
A pile of landfill in the evening while seagulls fly ahead
© Shutterstock/vchal
Malaysia made the decision to return plastic waste illegally imported from the global north

3. Recycler
Turning old electronics into gadgets of the future

Last month, Malaysia made world headlines for its decision to return plastic waste illegally imported from the global north. The south-east Asian nation is going to return shipping containers of waste like cables, CDs and electrical components to countries like the UK, US and Australia.

In India, they’re handling things differently. They’re taking the huge amounts of electronic waste dumped – two million tonnes every year – and dismantling it. It’s a sector that by next year will create almost half a million jobs, according to a report released earlier this year.

The last step of this waste processing is notoriously dangerous. The million, often poor, workers involved in the job are at risk of health conditions such as respiratory disorders, skin diseases and even lung cancer from their exposure to toxic chemicals like arsenic, lead and zinc.

That’s all changing. Waste collection organisation Karo Sambhav provides e-waste bins for citizens in 68 Indian cities to dump their old devices. They’ve kept almost 300,000kg out of landfill – and made sure that hazardous waste is being safely and responsibly recycled.

Two electric vehicles are parked on a road while charging
© Shutterstock/Matej Kastelic
The recent arrival of electric cars in Kenya is tackling the country's fuel dependency

4. Electric car pioneer
Finding clean solutions to Africa’s fuel dependency

When Kenyan renewable energy innovator Francis Romano imported his first electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf, into the country in 2016, it was held up by customs officials. They’d never seen a car without an internal combustion engine before.

In Nairobi, commuters spend as much as a third of their income on transport. Like much of Africa, the city is dependent on fuel – but fighting a losing battle against rising global fuel prices and growing concerns about air quality and its impact on public health.

Electric vehicles are changing that. In the south-west district of Karen, Uber has some competition. Nopia Ride uses a fleet of electric vehicles to pass on the fuel savings to drivers, giving them a higher wage and customers a lower price – and all while producing zero emissions.

Find out more about how Kenyan taxi company Nopia Ride is using electric cars
Protestors march with banners through central London
© Shutterstock/Sandor Szmutko
Climate action group Extinction Rebellion's protests in London caused a standstill

5. Environmental policy and advocacy
Save the planet through politics and campaigning

In a month where Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg called for adults to join her strike for climate action, Europe’s green political parties also celebrated a victory. Many won seats in the European Union elections – driven by young people passionate about the planet.

Under the 2015 Paris climate deal – the shared global goal to limit global warming to below 2C above pre-industrial levels – the EU has pledged by 2030 to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% below the levels seen in 1990.

But faced with a lack of urgency among politicians and decision-makers on climate action, it’s easy to feel demotivated. If you’ve always been inspired by Greenpeace’s radical activism, read this blog from four campaigners on how they ended up on its scientific research ship in Brazil.

A triangular floating school on a pontoon set against the evening sunset
© Shutterstock/Angus MacKinnon
The Makoko Floating School was made from plastic drums and locally-sourced wood

6. Green designer
Tackling urban design challenges to solve social issues

Cities “will have to continue to drive innovation in ground-breaking ways” in order to tackle poverty. That was last month’s instruction to city planners and green designers from the United Nations’ sustainable urban development programme director, Maimunah Mohd Sharif.

In Nigeria, the Makoko waterslide slum in Lagos is home to as many as 400,000 dwellers. With little access to education, the Floating School was intended to be a cheap answer to a lack of classrooms.

Constructed from plastic drums and locally-sourced wood and made by local residents, it could accommodate 60 students. Sadly, soon after winning awards and international recognition, it collapsed in heavy rain – but left behind new ideas for innovation in slum housing.

Discover the story behind this incredible example of green design
A Malawian woman holds up a lamp in front of her face
© VSO / Peter Caton
Malawi's Solar Mamas are now earning an income thanks to their training in solar tech

7. Solar technician
Harnessing the power of the sun to provide free energy

Africa generates less CO2 than almost anywhere else in the world – yet it stands to lose the most from global warming. Yet with no shortage of sun, the potential to gain from solar power is huge.

In Malawi, just one in ten homes are hooked up to the electrical grid. Last year, eight women from the rural areas near the capital of Lilongwe left behind their families – and their villages – for the first time to travel to India to be trained as solar engineers on a pilot VSO project.

Studying for six months at a college in Tilonia, in India’s Rajasthan state, the ‘Solar Mamas’ learned how to build and wire electrical components. When they returned, they built lighting systems in over 100 homes across their villages – and are now earning a regular salary from the maintenance.

A group of steel flatpack refugee homes sit together against backdrop of mountains
© Better Shelter
The Better Shelter, produced by IKEA won awards for its innovative design

8. Corporate social responsibility
Making companies greener, more ethical places to work

As government and public attitudes on the environment change, companies find themselves under pressure to take actions to make their businesses more green or ethical. Corporate social responsibility – or CSR – is exactly that.

But did you know that Swedish flat pack furniture giant IKEA has a CSR side to its business? In 2017, the IKEA Foundation funded €144m in grants for projects that work to achieve the basic human necessities of secure housing, good health, regular income and stable education.

It was the CSR genius of combining what they do best – flat pack, cheap, easy-to-assemble furniture – with the urgent housing needs of the refugee community, that led them to come up with the Better Shelter, a solar-powered, stab-proof, cheaply-constructed 17.5 sq m structure.

“Private-sector innovation in the humanitarian world often has a bad name. But the Better Shelter is a real improvement. It offers a chance for basic, dignified living,” said Dr Tom Corsellis, executive director of NGO Shelter Centre.

Where to look next

If you’re serious about finding a green career, read this blog from UCL on how to begin your job search, and this Guardian article on tips from graduates now working in the industry.