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Prominent Canadians Weigh In: Barbara Zvan

Barbara Zvan is the President and CEO of the University Pension Plan.  She was also recognized by the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business as CEO of the Year and Corporate Citizen of the Year in 2022. 

What early life experiences triggered your interest in climate issues?

I was always a kid who loved being outdoors and developed a real appreciation for being out in nature. When it came to my career, I had a bit of a slow burn, “a-ha” moment in my role as a Chief Risk Officer at a pension plan. Pensions are inherently future-oriented, so we’re always looking at things with a long-term perspective. Within my work, and in collaboration with peers globally, I really started to understand the impact—and ever-increasing importance—of climate change. 

What worries you most about where we are at with the climate emergency?

The lack of urgency. There was a recent study conducted by the Learning for a Sustainable Future which found that most (81%) Canadians are certain that climate change is happening, and 73% of Canadians feel that we are experiencing a climate emergency. Yet, there is distinct lack of pace in addressing it at a systems-level. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how quickly we can get organized and act once we deem something an emergency. There is such a high potential for loss of life and significant social and economic consequences if we don’t take action. We’re already seeing it globally, and right here in Canada. The recent heat dome in British Columbia is a devastating example. 

What green lifestyle change have you and your family started because of the pandemic?

The pandemic caused us to rethink our travel—we take the train over flying whenever possible. I’ve applied that lens to my work travel as well. I try to group out-of-town meetings, take the train—and push for virtual whenever possible. 

While being home during the pandemic, we saw exactly how much packaging waste we created. We took a closer look about what can be recycled and were amazed by how much can’t be. As a result, we’ve been much more thoughtful about our purchases and habits.

What green lifestyle change are you finding most difficult to take on?

As a family, we’re striving to reduce our overall meat consumption. We certainly eat less these days but could do better.

Do you have a song, musician or other artist that inspires you and gives you hope as you grapple with the pandemic and climate change?

I’m a doer by nature, so I best grapple with challenges by taking action. Feeling like I’m making a positive contribution in some way propels me to keep going. I’m very inspired by the team we’ve built at University Pension Plan (UPP) – everyone is deeply committed to fostering a financially, socially, and environmentally resilient future for our members—and I see that passion come to life on a daily basis.

If a young relative were to ask you in five years' time "what did you do when the climate was tanking," what will you say?

I was determined to increase awareness and knowledge of the role and impact that the financial sector plays climate change. Through those efforts, I helped put the building blocks in place so that investors had better clarity if their investments were funding activities aligned with much needed solutions and change. I also worked hard to get the financial players to work together—and keeping working together though collaborative industry-wide initiatives like Climate Engagement Canada

What gives you hope about the future of the climate and life on this planet?

My hope for the future is renewed by the people I speak to each day. There are so many bright, passionate and dedicated people working tirelessly within organizations to enable meaningful change—and that number grows every year.

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