Senior Research Associate at the Canadian Climate Institute
Jonathan Arnold is a Senior Research Associate on the clean growth team at the Canadian Climate Institute. With a masters in public policy, Jonathan’s research expertise cuts across a range of environmental and economic policy issues, including low-carbon energy systems, just transition, climate risk and finance, air pollution, and municipal water, waste, and transportation. Jonathan was a lead author on the Institute’s recent report, Sink or Swim, which looked at how Canada can secure its long-term prosperity and competitiveness in the global low-carbon transition, and is also a regular blog contributor. His previous roles include Senior Research Associate with Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission and Economist with Environment Canada. Jonathan also serves on the City of North Vancouver’s integrated transportation committee.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
The organization that I work for, the Canadian Climate Institute, is an environmental NGO and think tank, so sustainability and social impact are embedded in the DNA of our organization. Our primary objective is to provide evidence-based research and policy guidance on how Canada can achieve a low-carbon, inclusive, and resilient economy. So across all of our streams of research, sustainability and social impact are very much embedded in our research.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
My academic background is in public policy, so this allowed me to study a fairly diverse range of issues over the course of my career. I started in social policy and transportation policy, then moved into the environmental policy space looking at municipal issues, such as water and wastewater, road congestion, and solid waste management. . From there I started pivoting toward climate policy and I haven’t looked back. I started with policy research on carbon pricing while working at Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, and now I work for the clean growth team at the Canadian Climate Institute which cuts across a huge range of different fields: mitigation, adaptation, employment, innovation, air pollution, and well-being.
How did you enter this space?
I started at the undergrad level in public policy but my original focus was in history. From there I moved towards focusing my studies on political science and realized that combining that with a little bit of economics, a little bit of finance, a little bit more on research methods, I could make that degree a little bit more practical or applicable. Studying public policy offered all of that, so that’s how I got into the policy space. I also did some volunteer work at a local environmental organization in Halifax along with co-ops during my undergrad and graduate degrees, each of which helped me figure out what it is that I wanted to do.text here
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
It was something that I fell into, to be honest. I chose my undergraduate university based on the assumption that I was going to do a degree in history and I lucked out that it was one of the few universities in Canada that offered an undergrad degree in Public Policy. I was meandering through my courses and I started to realize that public policy offered the opportunity to problem solve on a range of issues that I was passionate about. It was scary, in a sense, because it involved a lot of economics.t the time, this wasn’t something that I had ever considered and was a little intimidated by that field at first. But once I dove in, I loved it.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
Referring to climate policy specifically, it’s both exciting and encouraging that the public debate is no longer about why the issue is important. It’s moving more to how we solve it. That’s a big difference that I’ve seen over the course of my relatively short career. Even five years ago, we were fighting to define the issue and get decision-makers and the public on board. We’ve now moved more into the space of how we actually solve the problem, which is entirely different, and a much better place to be. This shift is also opening up the job market. Climate change will affect almost every aspect of society, whether it’s in business, government, or non-profits.
Another really exciting area is in global finance, where there’s been a rapid acceleration in integrating climate risk alongside other traditional business and finance risks. I think once the floodgates of global capital open up, toward the genuine integration of ESG frameworks into finance, there’s no going back. Again, this will open up a world of possibilities for students coming out of school..
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
I wouldn’t even call it a misconception, but I think a lot of people don’t really know what public policy is or the career opportunities in public policy. I’ve spoken with lots of people that assume public policy automatically means you work in a boring government job (always in very vague terms). There’s a lack of understanding around the huge range of possibilities in public policy and the type of work that policy professionals do. It’s a lively profession and is really about problem solving on a societal level.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
I spend more than 50% of my time doing research and writing. The research typically involves reviewing leading academic and grey literature and reports, analyzing data, and using it to build our own research projects. The reports and other writing pieces that we publish range from large reports that can take about a year from start to finish to shorter term projects and blog posts. The combination of that research and writing takes up the bulk of my time. Outside of that there’s a lot of variety from day to day because our approach to research involves a lot of engagement. We engage with different levels of government (federal, provincial, municipal, Indigenous), the business community and other NGOs because whenever we’re doing a really significant piece of research, we want to test that against other perspectives and other expertise out there. So at the beginning, middle and end of our research process there are a lot of engagement calls and events that require a lot of time. That time is well worth it though because it is important to bring different stakeholders into the process.
Regarding work-life balance, I’ve been working remotely for the past four years (so before the COVID-19 pandemic) and is something I am very comfortable with. It’s a work style that offers a lot more flexibility than being in an office. I’ve worked in both settings and I much prefer the ability to work from home and being able to break up the day with things like exercise and getting outside because you have the ability to make up the hours later. It really allows you to optimize your own personal bandwidth for work and, if you do it right, can make you more productive. There is obviously a danger with that because, as a lot of people have experienced working from home the past couple of years, that work and home life can blend together in weird ways. It showcases the importance of being intentional about setting boundaries and just trying to figure out what kind of workflow is best for you.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
I’m very passionate about this work and I can’t imagine working in any other field but at the same time it can wear on you because it is not always a happy subject. Trends are not always going in the right direction and sometimes rarely going in the right direction. To some degree you need to find peace within that and do all that you can as an individual. That said, I do love it and will be that person sitting on a couch on Saturday morning reading a book about energy policy from the 1980s or something like that.
More on the practical side of challenges, I’d say, a challenge that I deal with and our organization deals with is the fact that we want to do really high caliber research, whichcan take a lot of time. However we’re also trying to publish really timely, relevant material to tap into debates that are happening now. That’s a line that we are always trying to walk and sometimes it’s a matter of having a big research project that is longer term, and takes a year to do from start to finish, while also doing shorter term pieces as we go along.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I fully anticipate staying in the environmental climate space because it’s something that I really enjoy. My goal is to keep building out different skill sets that complements my background in public policy and enables me to do my work better and to carve out a niche for myself in this field. Specifically I want to improve my data analysis skills, and up my game on financial and climate risk. The financial piece is something that I see as a huge opportunity in the future. This pairing of public policy and finance; there’s not that many people out there that seem to have expertise in both of those areas.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
I would say self discipline and focus are probably the most important skills to have, especially in this day and age of working remotely where you don’t really have regular touch points with people that you work with and management in particular. The ability to go away and do research and a very detailed level of work requires you to be able to focus on it for hours at a time, and then come out of it and be able to do something with it. The ability to work collaboratively as a team is also really, really important. Whether you’re working with colleagues on a project or working with external stakeholders on a project, you need to be able to work very collaboratively.
To that end I look back and put a lot of value on the team sports and team activities that I did growing up. Anything that requires you to put your own personal interests aside and do what’s best for the larger team or group is an incredibly powerful learning experience. The next skill I would add is the ability to think horizontally, and by that I mean the ability to think across disciplines and to approach problems with creativity so that you can see connections across different issues and come up with solutions that take each aspect into account. This is especially important for work on climate change because the issues touch so many different aspects of life.
Whether it’s from your own path or the ones from your colleagues and friends who have a similar profession, how important is it to have a specific degree to be able to work in your industry/profession?
I think my area of work is fairly unique, in that you don’t really need a degree in a specific field to succeed. My colleagues at the Institute come from a range of different work and academic backgrounds (policy, economics, sciences, engineering, health, communications). Again, it’s the idea that public policy cuts across lots of different issues, requiring people with expertise across a range of disciplines that complement each other. This makes the work very multidisciplinary.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
There’s definitely some overlap with the three skills that I mentioned above but I would say that above all else, I’m looking to work with people who have a passion for climate policy and who are dedicated to the cause. These are the people who are really keen on the research and come to work with a level of curiosity and enthusiasm that is invaluable to the organization. I’ve worked with people that have the data expertise and technical skills but lack the passion for the work, which eventually comes out one way or another and they eventually move on to other things (which is fine). Next to that, I go back to the ability to think critically and have sharp problem solving skills to be able to think outside the box. Finally, I look for that ability to work collaboratively and thrive in a team dynamic.
Knowing what you know now, would you have done something differently with respect to your career? If not, why and what is your best life or career advice for youth?
A very simple thing is that I wish I spoke French proficiently. I’ve had lots of opportunities to learn as an adult but it’s been hard to pick up on the side. It’s often not critical for policy jobs (especially where I live in BC) but in the public policy space at the national level it’s a huge asset. I would say that is true about any second language so my advice would be to just try and learn a second language because you will never regret it. More generally my advice would be to try lots of different things as you figure out your career path and don’t be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone. I did a co-op with the BC business council which was something I wasn’t really sure I would like but I loved it even though I didn’t have a ton of expertise in business. I’ve worked at the ombudsman’s office in Nova Scotia, I worked at a bike shop for 10 years, I’ve worked as a laborer, I’ve done lots of different things that have helped me figure out what it is that I like and what it is that I don’t like. Eventually that process takes you down a path where you slowly figure out the things you do like and rule out the things you don’t.