Six years into her career, Radhika Lalit ‘16 is already making an impact in the fight against climate change. As a manager of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s (RMI) Global Finance Team and director of RMI’s Center for Climate-Aligned Finance, she has been working to promote decarbonization across real economy sectors working closely with the financial sector. Before that, Lalit led a global coalition of over 30 organizations to encourage breakthrough innovation in the room air conditioning industry through the Global Cooling Prize.
People are taking notice of her hard work and impact — she was named one of the Energy News Network’s 2020 “40 Under 40” honorees and was awarded the Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) William K. Bowes Jr. Award for Leadership last week.
Lalit, a 2016 graduate of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy (MIP) program at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), spoke with FSI about the policy impact she has made, her experience in the MIP program, and her advice for young people who want to change the world.
AW: You recently were named one of the Energy News Network’s “40 Under 40” award recipients and were awarded the EDF’s William K. Bowes Jr. Award for Leadership - congrats! How does it feel to be recognized in this way so early on in your career?
RL: I feel honored, humble, and incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to work on some very impactful and meaningful projects and initiatives — and especially ones that have tremendous climate impacts. I also feel lucky to have had some amazing mentors along the way who have inspired me to work hard and be the best version of myself. The credit for these two recognitions is certainly due in part to my mentors, my colleagues who've worked with me on many of these projects, and my family, who supported me on this journey.
I personally don't think anyone can be successful just by themselves. It takes a village. My hope is that my work can serve as an inspiration to others to join the climate impact movement and further the impact that I've been able to create.
Why did you decide to apply to the MIP program originally?
By the time I was applying to graduate school, I had work experience that equipped me to understand the private sector and the business side of things. However, I believe policy is one of the most effective levers of change, which was one of the reasons why I decided to enroll in the MIP program. FSI is one of the most recognized institutes for the study of international affairs globally. When I looked at the curriculum, I found it to be really holistic and interdisciplinary, which was something that I was looking for.
I also appreciated the flexibility of the program. You can specialize in whichever field you want, and you can take the courses that you think are most appropriate to your specialization. The flexibility that MIP offered was really unique. I was also attracted to the class size and the diversity of the class. MIP has ensured every year that its cohorts are made up of some of the best minds from all around the world — each of whom has had a different experience and comes from a very different background. I've learned a lot of things from the people in the program.
Also, when I looked at the list of who was going to teach us — Professor Francis Fukuyama, Professor Michael McFaul, Professor Kathryn Stoner, Professor Chonira Aturupane — it felt like a dream, and I was certainly looking forward to it. And last but not least, I see myself as an entrepreneur in the making, and as I made a decision about which school I wanted to go to, I knew that Stanford would provide me with an entrepreneurial environment and opportunities for career growth. I definitely wanted to immerse myself in that culture.
How did the MIP program prepare you to make a policy impact with your career?
The program has been instrumental in building a strong foundation for my professional growth. I specialized in Energy, Natural Resources, and the Environment within the MIP program and ever since, I've been applying the fundamentals of what I learned there to everything I do. Most importantly, I think the program equips you with the tools and knowledge to think through problems differently and apply yourself to solving the complexity of these challenges to develop resilient solutions. I have really benefited from learning and applying this approach to my work.
What is the policy impact you feel you are having now?
I feel very lucky to be leading some catalytic initiatives over the past three years, which have contributed to fighting the good fight against climate change and spurring larger climate impact. One such initiative is called the Global Cooling Prize. It's an innovation competition intended to reinvent the air conditioner of today — so that it's not only affordable, but so it's also designed to have at least five times less climate impact than what's commonly sold in the market today.
The prize was launched in 2018 by the Rocky Mountain Institute, the government of India, and Mission Innovation, a global initiative working to accelerate clean energy innovation. Innovators and entrepreneurs from around the world were invited to solve the growing climate threat that comes from exponential demand of room air conditioners. We’re aiming to identify cooling solutions that would enhance people's lives without contributing to climate change.
This is important because the energy demand for room-cooling globally will more than triple in the next 30 years. It will account for 37% of the global electricity demand growth by 2050, and India, China, Brazil, and Indonesia will account for 60% of that additional capacity.
What would happen if we use our traditional fossil fuel-powered capacity to power this additional demand or surge for room air conditioning? This cooling demand will not only derail us from our Paris Agreement climate goals, but it will also out-space the grid plant capacity infrastructure and impede other critical developments in infrastructure investments in these developing countries. RMI's research indicates that under a business-as-usual scenario, room air conditioners could contribute up to half a degree in global warming by the end of the century.
Clearly, doing nothing is not an option. And it's important to acknowledge that providing people access to cooling is not a luxury, it is a basic human need for productivity and even survival in some cases. We need a breakthrough technology solution or innovation that can not only help families around the world stay cool, but also ensure that cooling doesn't lead to the warming of our planet.
This is why we created the Global Cooling Prize in 2018. Fast forward a couple of years, and we've identified eight finalists from about 445 applications from 56 countries around the globe. As we speak, the finalists are testing their prototypes in an apartment building in India. The final winner of this competition will be announced in early 2021 at an international ceremony where we will be awarding $1 million to the winner. Hopefully, with these innovations, people who need access to cooling will be able to afford it without further warming our planet.
I'm really moved by the impact of it because I lived in India and I have undergone days of extreme heat stress. I feel very passionate about bringing cooling innovation to the market so that everyone can have access to cooling, without warming the planet.
Tell us about how you aim to have an impact on climate change by partnering with financial institutions.
The second project that I've been working on is the Center for Climate-Aligned Finance — I'm serving as one of its directors. The center was established as an engine room to help financial institutions and the industries they serve to understand and overcome the practical barriers to climate-aligned financing, which includes lending and investment. The center is part of a global partnership to accelerate sectoral decarbonization, and also focuses on the development of global frameworks that connect financial institutions with what future regulation is going to be in this space with regards to climate.
The center's founding partners include Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase, which are some of the most prominent banks in the U.S. and globally. I believe that finance is the lifeblood of the economy, and with finance aligning itself to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, we will likely see an increase in the pace of decarbonization across some of the most important sectors globally that contribute significantly to global warming today.
In this role, I'm helping to support the creation of global sectoral decarbonization platforms as part of a larger partnership. And I’m very excited about the potential impact of this work that I've just embarked on as well.
What was the most rewarding part of the MIP program for you?
If I had to choose just one part, I think the opportunity of learning from a world-class faculty tops the list. They're inspirational and being able to learn from such people is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
What advice do you have for young people who are interested in making a policy impact in their careers, either working in an energy or climate-related field, or otherwise?
I have three pieces of advice, and the first is to take risks. It is so easy for all of us to stay within our comfort zone and do things that we are used to doing, but it’s challenging and daunting to do something that you haven't done before. If you’re passionate about something and believe in the cause, you should embark on the uncharted and challenging path. In my experience, you learn the most when you challenge yourself.
Secondly, define your own normal. It is important to challenge the status quo. As future leaders, you will be able to have a more lasting impact if you are able to question what isn’t working and be part of defining the new normal and the way forward.
And finally, be part of the solution. Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Be the change you want to see in the world," and those words have remained with me. It is our small contributions that inspire larger change in the world around us, so when a problem arises, see what you can do to be part of the solution.