Meet edie’s 30 Under 30 Class of 2023: Cathy Yitong Li, environmental diplomacy specialist

This new series profiles the members of edie's 30 Under 30 - a nomination-based community of 30 hugely talented young sustainability and energy professionals who have already achieved great things or are showing fantastic promise. Up next, Cathy Yitong Li, youth advisor to the UN on environmental and climate justice.

Meet edie’s 30 Under 30 Class of 2023: Cathy Yitong Li, environmental diplomacy specialist

More than just a list, edie’s annual 30 Under 30 initiative shines a spotlight on talented sustainability and net-zero professionals – aged under 30 – who are delivering on efforts to build a better future and showing fantastic promise for their future potential.

After a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, the initiative has returned for 2023-4, with the new class having been announced last September.

In this weekly series, we will be sharing their stories and successes beyond the group, giving edie readers insight into the minds of those who will be leading the charge in creating the low-carbon, resource-efficient economies of the future.

Our next profile interview is with Cathy Yitong Li. Cathy is the deputy chair of IUCN’s climate crisis commission and a youth advisor to various UN agencies.

Editor’s note: Views shared in this article have been shared in a personal capacity and do not refer to any specific organisation.

How I got to where I am now:

“My ‘day job’ has always been a journey of pivoting – from investment banking, to professional services and consulting, to now working at a multilateral initiative. But since I was a teenager, civil society advocacy in UN climate processes has always been what matters to me the most.

“I love working with diverse stakeholder groups and in various fields around multilateral environmental issues at the same time, whether it’s empowering civil society advocates, mobilising government ambition, or advising CEOs and UN agencies.

“I’d say that I got to where I am now by always being honest with myself about what I truly love doing the most and preserving despite practical challenges.”

My biggest career achievement to date has been:

“Nothing can top the experience of co-coordinating the years of efforts behind securing the first-ever seats for youth and women and gender representatives at a UN climate advisory board, through a COP26 decision with consensus among all member states.

“Allies and trust-building were key to making this piece of history. It wouldn’t have been possible without the support and leadership of many member states and various actors in the process.

During those years advocating for this decision, no one was certain whether this would ever come true, until the very last second of the negotiation in Glasgow. I always look back on this to remind myself of the importance of hope and courage in driving change, no matter how unlikely it seems at the time. The creation of these seats also led to our second seats on the UN climate advisory board on Loss and Damage, and hopefully, more to come!”

The biggest challenge I have encountered has been:

“A lack of understanding of how valuable it is for young professionals to have volunteering ‘side gigs’ in climate, environment or equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI).

“This is an issue countless friends of mine have faced, too.

“Too often, external appointments are seen as great assets for senior colleagues and problems for young professionals. Questions and judgements arise once these young professional friends are recognised publicly because of their contributions to society outside of their day job, no matter how they over-deliver at work. I don’t remember how many times I would receive comments like ‘young people your age shouldn’t have a senior role like this’ or ‘volunteering outside of a full-time job is disloyal’.

“Activism is a basic human right. Being an advocate and having a full-time job should never be an either/or question.”

If I had to describe my generation in a word or phrase, I would say:

“Full of both outrage and optimism.”

A successful 2024 for me looks like:

“Overall, I hope to continue building synergies between my different capacities and the stakeholder groups close to my heart, whether it’s NGOs, businesses, governments, or civil society movements.

“In my IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) capacity, I hope to (a) help to further mainstream climate expertise across the Union – the world’s largest environmental network; (b) continue to empower young professionals in its decision-making, through the implementation of the youth strategy; and (c) gear up towards the World Conservation Congress.

“ I hope to see ambitious resolutions to further guide the Union and the world on climate-nature synergies, rights-based and equitable safeguards for terms like ‘nature-positive’, and a 20-year strategy fit for tomorrow’s world.”

Outside of my day job, I enjoy:

“By now you probably have guessed it out — civil society advocacy in multilateral environmental processes! It’s been the big passion since I was a teenager and I truly love all those incredible people in the space.

“Nothing beats travelling with friends on the sideline of meetings and missions, from kayaking in a mangrove forest to exploring local neighborhoods around the world. Their courageous leadership and activism within and outside their work is what brings me energy and keeps me going.”

My ‘Mission Possible’ message to business leaders is:

“Mainstream an equitable and whole-of-society approach across your business, from ensuring human rights in your value chain to believing in your power to influence national and international ambition. A good example of this B Team’s compelling letter at COP28.

“Also, recognise the talent of young people, including empowering their leadership and creating meaningful dialogues to integrate their voices, advice, and concerns into your decision-making, which some businesses like IKEA have tested.

“Paul Polman wrote a powerful piece on conscious quitting – I’ve seen so many incredible young talents leaving the corporate world full of frustration. My plea to business leaders reading this piece is to acknowledge that enabling more flexibility for young professionals to bring their whole selves to work is a win-win and critical for the business to survive and thrive.”

My advice to young people entering my profession today is:

“Be courageous, challenge the bosses and follow your heart – looking back on those moments of challenges and uncertainty, I’m glad that I’ve never regretted choosing what I truly love and believe in.”

The full 30 Under 30 Class of 2023 membership is detailed here

To stay in the loop for the next round of annual nominations for the 30 Under 30, email [email protected]. Nominations will open this summer.


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