Penn Junior Tabeen Hossain Learns Eco-Lessons From Two European Leaders

By Niharika Gupta

The summer before her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania, Tabeen Hossain decided to take her academic journey in environmental science and policy abroad to Berlin and Rotterdam. In those two cities, she discovered the cultural aspects of sustainability, environmentalism and policymaking.

The opportunity came about when Penn’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy funded six students, including Hossain, via its student research grant program. Simon Richter, a professor of German literature and culture at Penn, led the group.

Hossain emerged, Richter said, “with a strong commitment to sustainability. She is someone who ... can get things done.”

The program gave Hossain, a philosophy, politics and economics major in the School of Arts & Sciences, an opportunity to see sustainability in action. In both places, she met local and federal policymakers, sustainability researchers at universities and practitioners at energy plants. And she said that though each city is considered a climate change leader, they approach it differently.

“Sustainability has a strong cultural aspect” in Germany, Hossain said. “The word the Germans use to describe their transition to sustainable energy is wende, which is the same word they used to describe the changes associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall.” In other words, in this country, sustainability delves deeper than science, politics and engineering.

It’s also been around longer there than in most places. In particular, Hossain noted, the German people have been practicing sustainable forestry since the 18th century. It was an early attempt at environmental activism before the notion permeated cultures everywhere, and, according to Hossain, in part led to today’s overwhelming support in that country for the transition to renewable energy sources.

In the Netherlands, where more than 40 percent of terrain is at or below sea level, there is an urgency on issues related to sea-level rise and flooding.

“The Dutch have to do it now,” Hossain said. “They have to deal with the consequences in the moment, and that’s not something we’ve had to deal with in the United States.” She visited storm surge barriers and met with Dutch engineering firms to get the full picture.

Hossain, who is of Bangladeshi heritage and lives in Houston, was most excited by her meeting with representatives from the GIZ, a Berlin-based international agency that assists developing nations, including Bangladesh, in achieving their own energy transitions. She said she strongly supports this collaboration.

“Bangladesh just isn’t a rich country, and they can’t make it happen by themselves,” she said.

At the end of the program, Richter asked students to adapt a sustainability practice for the U.S. based on a solution successful in either Germany or the Netherlands. Hossain recommended taking steps to change public perception and understanding of energy-efficiency certifications.

“There are many certifications in America, like Energy Star, but no one really knows what they are,” Hossain said. “We should create a widget or tool that shows certifications the same way you see how products are rated by consumers.”

Hossain said she hopes that her experiences abroad will help her pioneer innovative solutions in the U.S., a goal she’ll attempt to make happen by continuing such studies at Penn and by pursuing a career in the field after graduation. 

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