Vegetation growth and decline are just one of the changes which satellites can measure

Leading a life committed to the environment
Laura Meszaros recounts her life’s work committed to the UN and the environment
1 Mar 2023

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) strives to transform the international environmental agenda, with effective action and long-term plans for future generations to come. As part of her 29 years work for the United Nations, Laura Mezsaros reflects fondly of her time working for the UNEP across numerous substantive and geographic areas. Her life’s work for the UN combined her passion for the environment, with a recognition for structural change at an institutional level to reduce damage to the planet.

She begins the interview by outlining her lifelong passion for the environment: “To be honest, I’ve always had a natural drive towards environmental issues, which originated from my family. For example, my grandfather examined ways in which sand dunes could be stabilised to retain the correct nutrients and humidity for soil to support the growth of vegetation. My grandmother was also knowledgeable about composting from her agricultural practice studies in Vienna, so she passed on the importance of recycling and preserving food down to me.”

From a young age she “frequently wondered how we could make our world a better place through benefitting from our environment in a responsible manner”, but it was not until the opportunity arose to work for the UNEP in Nairobi that she was able to take significant action in terms of global sustainability. Her first job for the Programme “involved the substantive area of remote sensing- the use of satellite images and the use of geographic information systems for environmental purposes.” The use of technology solved difficulties in “mapping deforestation and environmental disasters, tracking rainfall patterns and calculating flood areas.”

Laura was part of the innovative team at GRID/UNEP that collected data using advanced techniques to create “a digital library for the purposes of future comparisons, so that environmental trends could be detected over time. The GRID library was accessible globally to countries who requested freely available datasets at the time.”

The important work of Laura and her team “at the very dawn of this field” in terms of technological advancements was “simply an incredible experience”. She feels very proud to have been part of this global effort to better understand our planet. Having that kind of information available to us also allowed us to begin to understand the impacts of human activities on the environment at local, regional and global levels.”

Beyond this, Laura reminisced on her “opportunity to work with the UNEP Division of Environmental Conventions. This experience involved supporting the global coordination of numerous environmental activities and cross-cutting issues between different conventions within the UNEP. She “started an initiative called the Gigiri Nature Trail, which was a voluntary effort between UN staff, member states and the private sector.” The aim of this project was “to create an arboretum of African indigenous tree species in an area adjacent to the UN Gigiri compound, contributed to by African delegates. The trail even served as a platform to celebrate numerous events in tree planting ceremonies.”

After an exciting chapter in Africa, Laura moved to Geneva, “to work with the Secretariat of the Rotterdam Convention, of the three multilateral environmental agreements of the UNEP to deal with the production, trade and disposal of dangerous chemicals.” She adds, “I also proudly served as the acting Secretary of UNECE’s Industrial Accidents Convention. Although, one of my strongest memories of my career was being part of the Synergies process at UNEP; a massive and unprecedented collaborative effort between three of UNEP´s global secretariats on chemicals management and their member states. The overarching goal was improving services to parties by increasing coordination and achieving maximum efficiency at the administrative, substantive and geographic levels. Such an experience highlighted the value added of working collaboratively with all relevant stakeholders.”

A career such as Laura’s, is an example of career mobility within the UN, and the importance of uniting systems through a strong sense of international cooperation, which “continues to be vital to advance issues affecting our planet at global and regional levels”. Her final message to sum up her long and illustrious career is that “significant functional and structural changes can be achieved through a collaborative process of uniting systems”. She believes “we can and should work together for the common good.”

Her rewarding career epitomises one of the UN’s mission statements to ‘support sustainable development and climate action’. Her work to address the precarious environmental position of our planet in the past 29 years is admirable, considering the dramatic increase in global warming in recent years. The foundations of our understanding of the environment today has certainly been aided by Laura and her colleagues, and proves to be paramount to the future of the global effort in protecting the planet with a more sustainable approach.

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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