In 2007, Dr. Jennifer Jenkins was part of a group of scientists, including former Vice President Al Gore, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate. Nine years later, she became vice president and chief sustainability officer of Enviva, a leading global energy company specializing in sustainable wood bioenergy. We sat down with Dr. Jenkins to learn more about how she became a champion for climate change and the challenges she faces every day as a scientist, a mom and a fitness enthusiast.
Q: So, you won the Nobel Peace Prize…not something that everyone displays on their mantel at home. Can you tell us how and why you won the award?
A: In 2003, I was a research forester with the USDA Forest Service’s Northeastern Research Station in Burlington, Vermont. I worked with colleagues to write something called the “Jenkins Equations,” which basically allow you to estimate a tree's total biomass from its diameter. We used allometric equation to work through the data relating tree dimensions to weight – think of allometry as relationships between body parts, like the distance between a person’s fingertips with their arms stretched out being equal to their height, or likewise, the distance from a person’s wrist to elbow being equal to the size of their foot. We collected 2,734 allometric equations and put them into one meta-analysis, where basically each equation was a different line of code in a database. After that, we had a way to compare biomass in trees in Missouri versus Maine, for instance. It was hard work, it was interesting work, and it felt important. And it was important.
Because of that work, the U.S. government invited me to participate in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methodological development for forest inventory that is still used today to measure climate change and analyze strategies to mitigate it. Fast forward a few years to 2007, and Al Gore and the hundreds of scientists from around the world working on the IPCC were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for our collaborative efforts on climate change.
And no, it’s not sitting on my mantel. I have my certificate displayed in my office!
Q: What got you interested in bioenergy?
A: I’d have to say that my trajectory was more of an evolution versus one thing. The common thread throughout my career was an emphasis on taking action on climate, while also being practical. I wanted to better understand the role that forests play in climate mitigation. How do forests accumulate carbon as they grow? Why do they gain and lose carbon over time? And what tools and techniques can we use to measure that? This work on carbon storage is incredibly relevant to policy and how we solve the climate crisis.
Q: What has it been like coming up in the bioenergy, climate, carbon industry as a female scientist?
A: I remember going to meetings as a Forest Service scientist and being really pleased that, while many of the meetings were male dominated, my group was bringing women to the table. I was one of three or four people from the Forest Service, and most of us were women.
At the end of the day, I have always just been myself. I think, no matter who you are, you have to have the courage to speak your mind and use your voice where it really matters.
Q: What was your favorite day/experience/project/moment at Enviva?
A: My role at Enviva is the most interesting and challenging position I’ve had in my career, in part because no two days are ever the same. My team is responsible for a broad and diverse set of initiatives, like managing environmental stewardship in the supply chain, developing the systems and procedures for sustainable harvests, building and managing our transparency tools like Track & Trace®, creating our environmental reporting and disclosures, and leading the company’s restoration and conservation work, often in partnership with large and small third-party organizations on the ground. All that is to say that while sometimes my days can be long, they’re also satisfying and I’m equally fulfilled because I know the work we’re doing at Enviva is important.
I truly believe that the fight against climate change will be won when businesses take action. The private sector is where the action is – we are the ones who are really in a position to make a difference – and I’m so proud to be part of that.
Q: Who would you like to have dinner with?
A: I mean – how can you not say Al Gore? His leadership and commitment on climate change is inspiring. And while I’m not Catholic, or even terribly religious, I really respect Pope Francis and think he would be quite an amazing person to meet. I appreciate his approach to leadership, and the idea of being a servant leader. And, of course, I love his approach to climate.
Q: What profession other than your own would you like to try?
A: About eight years ago I became a CrossFit level 1 instructor, but I never actually taught a class because I just didn’t have time. It was hard enough to make it to the gym reliably for my own workouts! While I always thought it would be fun to coach a few classes a week, I’m not sure I would want to do it full time.
Q: You’re obviously a fitness nut… what other hobbies do you have?
A: Since I stopped doing CrossFit last year, I’ve turned into more of a runner – right now I am training for a half marathon at the end of March. The nice thing about running is that I can always pack my shoes when I go on trips – business or vacation. I have been lucky lately to have had the chance to run around Amsterdam, London, and Germany as well as Los Angeles and Phoenix. I am also obsessed with my Peloton.
Q: Who isn’t? Who is your favorite Peloton instructor?
A: Christine D’Ercole. She has this great saying, “Your dreams are bigger than a smaller pair of pants,” which I just love.
Q: As a Chief Sustainability Officer who travels the world on business, a mother of two, and someone who stays fit and healthy, it’s clear you don’t have much free time. If you had more time on your hands, how would you spend it?
A: With my kids. My son is a sophomore in college, and my daughter is a sophomore in high school. Sometimes the most fun things are simple: last night she and I went furniture shopping at Ikea. It was great. And of course, we got to sample our fair share of the Swedish meatballs.
Q: What are you currently reading?
A: Every year I make the same New Year’s resolution: Read more books. I have friends that read 50 books in a year, which I think is just amazing. The last book I read was last month, a short one about how to create a training plan for a marathon because I’m thinking about that. I assign my team some summer reading each year before we gather for our mid-year offsite session – it’s usually a business book related to a topic we’re struggling with collectively as a team. Last year we read “Invisible Influence,” which was about how people make decisions and how little actions make a big difference.
Q: Do you listen to podcasts? If so, which do like most? What should our readers also listen to?
A: I’m a sucker for political podcasts – I listen to The Daily when I run in the morning, or when I’m traveling. I’ve also enjoyed Pod Save America, and The Energy Gang is one my colleagues at Enviva have turned me on to. Can’t forget the podcasts based on my favorite NPR shows, like Fresh Air, Planet Money, and The Moth.
As Enviva’s Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, Dr. Jennifer Jenkins leads the team responsible for the company’s environmental stewardship, from ensuring the sustainability of the fibre supply chain to interacting with policymakers on regulatory matters.
Dr. Jenkins holds an MBA from the University of Maryland’s RH Smith School of Business, a PhD in ecosystem ecology from the University of New Hampshire, a master of forest science from Yale University, and a BA in biology and environmental studies from Dartmouth College.