Specialist Sustainability, Climate & Energy at Canadian Pacific Railway
Nirwair Singh Bajwa is an award-winning scholar, recognized as Canada’s Top 30 Under 30 Sustainability Leaders by Corporate Knights, who currently works as a Specialist Sustainability (Climate & Energy) at the Canadian Pacific Railways. He is responsible for overseeing the effective delivery of processes and tools to facilitate best-in-class reporting and communication of CP’s greenhouse gas performance and energy conservation practices. Nirwair provides support to CP’s functional groups and external stakeholders in the development, implementation, monitoring, and communication of CP’s climate strategy, a material aspect of the company’s sustainability strategy-Sustainably Driven, Providing expertise and organizational support for initiatives to transition CP towards a resilient, low-carbon future. Nirwair has a diverse background from an MSc (Process Control), LEED AP, WELL AP, C.E.M, Fitwel Ambassador, energy auditing, chemical engineering, and is an integral team member.
Work and impact
How is sustainability/social impact integrated in your work?
My title is Sustainability Specialist, Climate & Energy at CP. A key part of my role is to oversee the effective delivery of processes and tools to facilitate best-in-class reporting and communication of CP’s greenhouse gas performance and energy conservation practices at CP. In a nutshell, I would say helping CP reduce its emission and effectively translating that knowledge internally to our stakeholders is my key role.
What are your past and current areas of focus in a few words?
My current areas of focus are greenhouse gas inventory management, integration of climate-related projects into our existing railway operations and high-quality climate-related internal and external communications and reporting such as TCFD, CDP, GRI, SASB.
My previous area of focus was in a consulting setting focused on green buildings, certification systems and energy auditing. Before that, I was doing my master’s at the University of Alberta and the focus was more on process improvement and MATLAB coding. Before that, I was a chemical engineer in oil and gas and petrochemicals.
How did you enter this space?
My current role is very diverse and there is no single straight path to enter the sustainability world. I’m a chemical engineer with my bachelor’s and I did my master’s at the University of Alberta and I was an immigrant to Canada in 2016. When I entered the new education system, I realized that things are not the same as they were back home in India. And I was disappointed by so many of my seniors or the recent graduates saying there are no jobs in chemical engineering. It hurt to know that we spent so much money, time, and effort coming to a new country. I was getting disappointed that there are no jobs in chemical engineering and the oil and gas industry was falling at a time. So that actually helped me do some reflection and to see what else I could do with my skill set. And at that time, being new to University, I heard a lot of buzzwords about sustainability. I hardly knew what it was. That was a time I was getting exposure and at every event or every outreach, I was going and learning. There was so much discussion about sustainability, green buildings, and innovation, and I realized I wanted to be in that space. What I was finding in that space was that there were not many young students or young graduates attending lots of those events. I saw that there were no bachelor’s in sustainability or there was no bachelors in green buildings at the University of Alberta. I found that this could be a space I wanted to explore. Then, along with my master’s, I started building a parallel path for myself by doing extra courses on sustainability. I was learning things like “What are green buildings?” and “What else can I do in sustainability alongside chemical engineering?”. When I started doing some extra courses on the side, like taking courses from LinkedIn, or Coursera, or doing extra things that were happening at the campus, I was asking difficult questions when I was going to those events on sustainability. I was getting recognized, becoming visible in different events by basically showing a genuine interest. That led to a series of internships while I was doing my master’s at the University of Alberta. The first one was with Stantec, doing a small three-and-a-half-month project on green buildings. Once I did that, I started basically talking about that what I did in my internship, and I got another opportunity to work at the Office of Sustainability at the University of Alberta, to do outreach and engagement. That’s when I was getting more exposure to what sustainability actually means in different domains. I kept building on that and got another opportunity with Stantec, during my master’s. It was at that time that I knew which space I want to go to. The plus point for me at that time was there were not many students exploring this parallel path. There were many students focusing on chemical engineering or their thesis at the time, but I was going out of my way, focusing less on my thesis, more on building a parallel path. The opportunities and events that were happening at the University of Alberta basically helped me change my career path from a traditional oil and gas to a sustainable career. So once I finished my master’s, I got an opportunity to work with Stantec full-time and then became a sustainability consultant for Stantec until 2020. In 2001, I joined CPR as a sustainability specialist. So there is no linear path. Basically, things came up along the way and I kept trying, and I picked what I liked. Building trust and attracting the right people on the way helped me to navigate this career.
Did you always want to work in the impact space?
Great question, yes I always want to work in a field where I can make an impact. Being flexible to mold oneself according to the needs and finding opportunities to make an impact, helped me arrive at my current role.
What are you most excited about that has been happening in your industry/field for the past few years?
Right now, I think it’s a great opportunity as I see a lot of companies and organizations committing to emission reduction and that interest has increased significantly in the last decade. There are more than 2000 companies that have a science-based reduction target and are actually committed already in the near term to reduce their emissions. Being in the railway sector, it’s nice to note that almost all the class one North American rail companies have emission reduction targets within the next 10 to 15 years and that the interest has grown significantly over the last decade. I’m really excited about how everybody’s coming together and taking action. And these are not just words – this is actually creating a lot of pressure on organizations to actually make a plan for the future otherwise, they will be laggards and they will miss opportunities. So everybody’s taking an interest and it’s becoming a giant space to actually do something otherwise we all will be affected. It’s a very interesting space as we will see more and more organizations joining the space to take action and increase investor pressure on those who are not taking action.
Are there any misconceptions about your profession or industry?
I think a lot of young graduates have a misconception that having a specific background means you have to do a specific job. So thinking that when we come out of school, we have done this degree and that’s all we know and that’s what we will do. It’s getting better, but that was kind of my understanding. When I graduated after I did my bachelor’s, I knew I would do chemical engineering because that’s all I knew – I’m gonna apply for oil and gas, petrochemical firms and that’s it. I believed that’s all I could do until I broadened my horizon to see what else I could do with my skill sets, my network, and emerging opportunities – which you do not need a specific degree, all you need is to be open to learning and being comfortable during uncomfortable situations. So I think that’s a missed opportunity because the world is changing so fast and our education system may not be able to change as fast. It can equip us with IQ, skills, and things to learn, but the world is changing so fast that we have to be flexible. There’s a misconception that if you don’t know this, specifically, you can’t work in this space. We have to be pretty open and flexible, that there will always be opportunities, and there may not be a specific degree for each job posted out there. So be open. See what else you have done in your career outside your degree that can help you write a good resume or cover letter that can help you make a good candidate. I think that’s very important at this stage because we are living in uncertain times of COVID. And with the climate crisis, things will change more rapidly in future. I think candidates and young graduates have to be more flexible when applying for jobs – do not just look in your own domain, but look outside your own domain as well.
Life and aspirations
What does a typical workday look like for you? What’s your work-life balance like?
The days vary depending upon what time of the year we are in, for example, right now, from January to March is typically the reporting cycle in sustainability, or ESG disclosure cycle. This means I’m spending more time doing calculations, data collection, and writing quality responses to evaluate the performance in the last year. Sometimes, my days are more collaborative. I’m engaging more internally on education with other disciplines to collaborate and see what actions we can take to set targets or review performance. And some days are purely meetings, so doing more engagement and vendor management. So it varies depending upon what type of activity we are doing. But I work remotely so COVID does not impact the work because it’s not a field job. My level of focus shifts, whether I’m doing our workshop activities, or more desk activities like doing our greenhouse gas calculation. It varies depending upon what effort we are doing. To speak to your work-life balance question, I think taking time for myself is very important. At the end of the day, I either go to workout sessions with my parents or do Ashtanga Yoga for mindfulness. Those are very important as well as getting lots of sleep.
What parts of your job do you find most challenging?
The data management calculation all fits under Project Management and I would say it’s a relatively easy task. The most challenging path when it comes to the implementation of sustainable initiatives is integrating the actual climate-related information into existing business processes. This is challenging because some of the operations have been the same for over a decade and they have a certain way of doing things. There is always hesitancy to adopt and integrate information when new information comes. That is relatively challenging compared to other aspects of my role – how we can effectively integrate the climate-related information or the greenhouse management decision into our existing business policies. This is because climate science is still evolving and in climate science, we’re still working on assumptions for the future.
What’s next for you, what are your long-term goals (if you have any)?
I definitely want to be part of the low-carbon Canadian economy. I think that’s where I always want to be as it’s a growing space. I think that I will be here for the next five to seven years. I want to focus on the opportunities which are coming in the low carbon economy, because there are a lot and there are not many skillful people who know that. So I think it’s a nice space to be in for right now.
Advice for the next generations
What are 3 key skills required in your position?
I would say communication, the ability to learn new skills, and project management are very important.
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 would say not at all, however, there are people who may not agree with me. I think the only thing that I learned in my bachelor’s was heavily focused on just getting good grades and focusing on my GPA. But I think once you pass your degree, you forget most of the information anyways. What you don’t forget is how to troubleshoot, how to collaborate and how to participate in teamwork. So I believe those are very important – as long as you know how to talk and troubleshoot, you will always be successful regardless of what degree you have done. I’ve seen this in my own career path, as I didn’t have a bachelor’s of architecture, but I was quite successful in my role at Stantec doing green building consulting. Sometimes we get so niche that we only need a specific degree to work in a specific field but that may not be the case. As long as you can showcase that you have put effort to go above and beyond to learn those domains, I think there will be always some people who will take a chance on you. You never know who you can run into and there are always so many good people out there to help you out.
What are some personal characteristics that you value in someone you’re interviewing/working with?
Basically, I look for repeated examples showing that you have the ability to deliver things when promised. Also, I look for generosity, the ability to go above and beyond regular expectations, multitasking and I try to look for skills that I’m not proficient in so that we can be a good fit and can complement each other in a team.
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?
I’m actually quite satisfied with the path that I’ve chosen remain flexible for years to come. I think it was a lot of juggling at the beginning and a lot of hustling. When I first landed as an immigrant, and my two years a degree, I really enjoyed that period. The advice that I could give you to a student is when you’re a student, you have a tag that is called a student tag, you can be as stupid as you can, and ask as many questions as you can, nobody will judge you. Because you can always say, I’m a student and I’m learning. This becomes quite difficult once you graduate and you enter the workforce because then there are certain expectations that you have to meet. Then it becomes overwhelming to basically spend time on things to develop yourself. The advice I can give is to explore as many paths you can while you are a student because that will help you navigate what you like and what you don’t like. Use that towards your benefit that whom you want to work with, once you graduate or what actually you want to do, instead of trying those things after you graduate, because then there will be always some judgement. Whenever you become a professional, people may judge you that you’re only reaching out to them because you want to get a job. But if you do these steps while you are in a program, I think people will be more helpful because they will always remember their time as a student and somebody helped them at that time. So use that to your full potential and always don’t be afraid to ask any questions.