Pradeepa Bholanath: Guyana’s lead climate negotiator

Guyana is making a lot of noise internationally, hoping to convince more people that trees should be saved and there should be a dollar value attached to keeping forests intact.

The country’s President Dr. Irfaan Ali and Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo are among those travelling from country to country, conference to assembly, hoping to convince more people that saving these forests, which trap harmful greenhouse emissions, is just as important as cutting out fossil fuel use.

But usually behind-the-scenes, paying rapt attention to people’s verbal and non-verbal responses to Guyana’s arguments and plans, is Pradeepa Bholanath. She’s Guyana’s lead climate negotiator and a champion of the country’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS).

Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo makes a point about fair financial systems on a panel he shared with Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley. Behind the two leaders is Guyana’s climate negotiator, Pradeepa Bholanath (Photo: News Room/ December 4, 2023)

As a climate economist, she is smack dab in the centre of Guyana-led forest solutions to the climate crisis and figuring out ways to get money for those solutions.

But that wasn’t always where she thought her professional career might’ve taken her.

“…no one thought at the time, certainly not me, that we would be able to open an entirely new spectrum of value of resources, of natural capital recognition, that we were able to do now,” Bholanath told the News Room during an interview in Dubai, where she was for this year’s global climate talks, COP28.

So how did Bholanath and Guyana get here?

In 2002, Pradeepa Bholanath joined the Guyana Forestry Commission (GFC), fresh out of the University of Guyana. She was focused on protecting Guyana’s forests and getting those forests adequately valued.

She spent years at the Commission aiding efforts at ensuring that Guyana’s 18.5 million hectares or so of forests remained largely protected, even as Guyana tapped into the forestry sector for economic gain.

Guyana’s lead climate negotiator, Pradeepa Bholanath (right) engaged the News Room’s Vishani Ragobeer in Dubai (Photo: News Room/ December 5, 2023)

Protecting the forests and gaining from the forestry sector haven’t been contradictory for Guyana. The country’s average deforestation rate is 0.06% of forest area, a figure 90% lower than other tropical countries. This means that huge amounts of harmful carbon emissions are avoided.

And low deforestation is guaranteed through a sound measurement, reporting and verification system (MRVS) for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), which helped measure and report Guyana’s forest carbon emissions.

It should come as no surprise that Bholanath helped develop this system.

Her work on that MRVS but also on supporting forest governance and community forestry development were part of the climate economist’s contributions to Guyana’s 2008 Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS).

Pradeepa Bholanauth, a climate economist who is Guyana’s lead climate negotiator and Senior Director for Climate and REDD+ at Guyana’s Ministry of Natural Resources in Dubai for COP28 (Photo: Yusuf Ali/ News Room/ December 5, 2023)

Bholanath said the first LCDS in 2008 was a strategy created by Dr. Jagdeo, who was Guyana’s President then. According to Bholanath, Dr. Jagdeo had the foresight needed to correct a gap in the marketplace, that is, getting value for forests which were otherwise unvalued unless they were cut down.

Then in 2021, when President Ali launched the updated LCDS, LCDS 2030, she helped to draft several chapters.

“… my role is now to support the implementation of the strategy now that it is completed, central to which is the execution of the national carbon credits programme- now on a market-based mechanism… and going into the compliance market that is regulated.

“Over the last 24 months, we’ve been able to bring to life the national carbon credits programme,” Bholanath explained.

That’s how she spoke throughout much of her interview in Dubai. She easily acknowledges many others for their contributions to Guyana’s ambitious ventures but never really mentions herself, unless of course she is asked directly what she has done. She responds plainly, never with glowing adjectives.

Guyana’s government inked a historic pact with the Hess Corporation. The company’s CEO John Hess is seated at right and Abena Moore, Permanent Secretary in the Office of the President is seated at left. Also in photo is President Dr. Irfaan Ali (third right), Prime Minister Brigadier (Ret’d) mark Phillips (centre), Vice President Dr. Bharrat Jagdeo (third left) and other officials including Pradeepa Bholanath (Office of the President photo)

Her modesty is recognised by others. At the signing of Guyana’s major landmark carbon credits deal with American oil company Hess last year, she sat in the audience looking on as the President, Vice President and other officials inked the massive US$750 million agreement.

“Where is Pradeepa?” Jagdeo asked on stage. When he spotted her, he called her to be part of the team on stage for the signing. She stood to his right.

In Dubai, she moderated the side event on the LCDS at Guyana’s pavilion. She stood at the podium, moderating an event that featured President Ali, Former British Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair, Former Colombian President Ivan Duque, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimy and President of the Inter American Development Bank Ilan Goldfajn. Vice President Jagdeo also spoke eventually.

As she offered comments about the LCDS in between presenters, she credited President Ali and Vice President Jagdeo for throwing full political support behind the technical work done. President Ali interjected at one point.

“Pradeepa is modest,” he said. “She is Guyana’s lead climate negotiator.”

President Dr. Irfaan Ali makes a point during Guyana’s side event at COP28 in Dubai. He was joined by joined by Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Former Colombian President Ivan Duque, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimy and President of the Inter American Development Bank Ilan Goldfajn. Guyana’s lead climate negotiator Pradeepa Bholanath moderated the event (Photo Office of the President/ December 1, 2023)

Just over twenty years after she started out at the Forestry Commission, she is an instrumental, if not irreplaceable, part of Guyana’s major forest-saving plans that have opened up an entirely new spectrum of valuing local resources in Guyana and around the world.

“Now that my work is on climate finance, I am able to bring everything I would have learnt everything I learnt from 2002 all the way up to my last days at the GFC and now I work with Ministry of Natural Resources to bring that together in the climate debate,” Bholanath said.

She added, “(It’s) to be able to bring forests, valuation from the environmental side and climate finance all in the same landscape of coming up with a solution.”

As Guyana positions itself as an early mover for what it believes will be the next phase of forest conversation- saving biodiversity, for example- Bholanath intends to stick around and help push Guyana’s case forward.