Environmental Leadership – from Waterford “Climate Kid” to sustainability in Aviation
In June 2019, the Climate Kids at Waterford implemented the plastic ban on campus. This culture of sustainability is not new for the College, however, as Kai Uwe Bauer - Germany (WK 89 – 91) will tell you. “I am working in aviation sustainability, which I find exciting and challenging especially today where the global economy is recovering from the pandemic and the key question is how to build back better,” says Kai as he introduces himself.
Becoming a “Waterfordian”
His journey to Waterford started while he was looking for something exciting to do with his life. Coming from a small village in Germany, Kai was determined to embark on an adventure that took him out of his village. “I was selected through the German National Committee (NC) and felt that I had an exciting opportunity to see the world and get some adventure through the experience.” Kai acknowledges that he did not know anything about Swaziland when he came to Waterford. He reflects, “I got lucky and ended up here with a fair amount of deep ignorance about how things were in this part of the world.”
That changed quickly for Kai, however. Arriving at the airport in Johannesburg he and his fellow German student Elke were to wait for the next morning flight to Manzini. They got to talk to a friendly couple from Johannesburg who eventually invited them to their home. This way they spend their first night in Southern Africa in a place called Soweto.
He notes that he cannot pinpoint an exact experience that made him “green” but it was rather the intense WK life at a time when his character was forming. The motivation for student leadership in areas of sustainability came to life for Kai in those years. “I don’t think the word ‘sustainability’ existed yet,” he says, “but we spent a lot of time worrying about how to preserve the planet.” As a result, Kai was part of initiating student-led sustainability initiatives during his time.
From “Climate Kid” to Sustainability Professional
That initial worry has culminated into a career in sustainability. “My work is about understanding the environmental impacts of aviation, getting the facts right and then doing something about it,” he says. Asked how he would explain this to someone unaware of his area of work, Kai states that this “doing” includes tools such as “the environmental standards for the aircraft itself, ways to operate the aircraft more efficiently, Sustainable Aviation Fuels based for example on food waste, as well as market-based measures such as carbon markets and offsetting.” He notes that where activities come with negative impacts on the environment, it is important that travelers and investors know about these impacts to make more sustainable choices. His current project is on developing an environmental labelling system for aviation. “The idea is that you will be able to choose the most sustainable option when booking your flight,” says Kai.
“I started, from very early on, to think about how this planet can be sustained because it’s been clear for quite some time that what humans are doing on the planet is not sustainable.” This is what initially drew Kai to climate action on campus and post his time at Waterford. He continues, “That’s why I joined Yonge Nawe, the Swazi nature conservation club at the time that also had a small group on campus. “We worked on practical solutions including introducing paper recycling and making sure that the nature reserve and the dam are not cut in half by the new fence. Those were the things I felt strongly about and, at Waterford, there were plenty of like-minded people. Then I studied Agricultural and Environmental Economics which led me, ultimately, to work in the international field with the European Union. Today I am working at the European Aviation Agency EASA. In that sense, it was a continuation of things that I was doing already at WK with plenty of hoops in the middle,” he says.
Diversity and Sustainability
Kai has been working with the EU in different areas over the last 20 years. For him, this work goes beyond sustainability. He says that it is about how people are different and work towards a common goal and he believes the EU is about that. Kai says, “The small village that I come from is very close to the French border and that region was partly France and partly German, so there’s a whole history of war in Europe and the EU is the institution that ended all that. For me, the EU is a peace project. That’s the reason I was attracted to this organization.”
Speaking to diversity and democracy, Kai notes that times have changed since he was at Waterford. “In those days when we were at school, there were so many positive big trends. There was apartheid ending; Mandela visited Waterford shortly after his release and at the same time the Berlin Wall came down in my home country. Nuclear weapons seemed like they were no longer an issue, and we were seeing democracy in more and more countries including in Africa. There were several years in the late 80s and 90s where we thought, hey, we are on the right track here. Now, looking at Europe a lot more nationalist, undemocratic movements are coming up including in Germany. You sense that we must not take diversity and a trend towards open and democratic societies for granted. That’s what continues to draw me to the projects I work on and I am happy to be part of them as part of an EU institution. As the recent events in eSwatini show, building democratic societies is a difficult process that needs to be nurtured, all the time, everywhere,” he says.
“In modern work life I feel we are often defeated by complexity, complexity of technology, communication, workflows, decision-making processes, finance, monitoring, audits etc.,” says Kai as he speaks to how his experiences have altered his view on sustainability. He thinks the key is to simplify complex things based on a good understanding of the complexity. He says for this simplification you need multidisciplinary, multi-cultural and multi-generational teams. “For me, it started closer to the ground in the sense that I started off in Agricultural and Environmental Economics then worked in development projects and in getting new countries in the EU. Now, I am applying these experiences in my daily work in aviation sustainability with people from across Europe and the World. And I am adding points of view that the aviation guys do not expect. Thanks to my Waterford experience and the lasting friendships from this time I love this wild mix and know how much positive energy, creativity and humanity it can unleash.
As alumni, our friendships, experiences and travels inevitably affect how we look forward. We are collecting ideas and, there is a lot of value in carrying ideas from one area of know-how to another; to learn different things and carry them to what you want to do. This is what I have learned from WK and I treasure those crazy, irritating and stubbornly persistent WK friendships which help me to navigate and stay sane,” says Kai in conclusion.