Headshot of Dolly Oladini on a green background

Meet the incredible people behind the work we do at C40 Cities

What motivated you to work in the climate space, and how did you become involved with C40?

It all started in the school playground when I was 12. A kid offered me a chocolate bar, I accepted it even though I never asked for it, so about 20–30 children gathered around me, begging me to give them the chocolate bar instead. 

Among the screaming children was my best friend; I thought I could either give it to her or to one of the popular kids and cash in on some social capital.

I ultimately chose loyalty and gave the bar to my best friend; she unexpectedly threw it to the ground and stomped it into pieces. We all gasped. She explained that this particular chocolate brand had a poor human rights and environmental record, therefore we should all be boycotting the brand. Most of the kids had moved on to another area in the playground at this point, but I stayed intrigued, eager to learn more. 

This was also the same year that the teen series The O.C. aired; I recall the character Sandy Cohen (a lawyer) fighting to protect the local wetlands from property developers from building on the land, which would increase traffic and, consequently, air pollution. He and Chris Martin (lead singer from Coldplay) were two famous people from my childhood using their platform to raise awareness of sustainability and social justice.

From then, I spent the rest of my teenage years studying Geography, starting a ‘Fair Trade Club’ at school and pushing my deputy headteacher to introduce recycling bins to make our school more sustainable. At 23, I successfully applied for an apprenticeship within the environment team at the Mayor of London’s Office. It was there that I developed my passion and expertise on air quality, public health and equity issues. I was also fortunate to collaborate with C40 on sustainable finance while at the Mayor’s Office – this collaboration led to me working at C40 a few years later.

What’s an accomplishment that you are proud of in your work with C40?

I joined C40 in 2018 to launch the global Air Quality Network. Collaboration is at the heart of the network, which provides cities with a platform to share best practices, challenges, knowledge and solutions. I’m proud of growing the network to 50 cities in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, North America and Oceania. 

My priority is integrating data and people-centred solutions with sustainability; I enjoy encouraging our cities to align their climate, air quality and public health goals with social justice objectives. I do this by connecting them to each other, but also by cultivating strategic, values-aligned partnerships between the cities, academia and the private sector. 

Dolly and C40 Air Quality colleagues
Dolly and C40 Air Quality colleagues

I’m particularly proud of connecting cities with each other, and with stakeholders such as Google, Microsoft, NASA and several universities over the years. These connections have helped 35+ cities to expand their air pollution monitoring, and several cities have announced their interest in implementing impactful policies such as a Low Emission Zone. 

An issue I would like to be more involved in is sustainable buildings, specifically the inextricable link between housing, health, indoor pollution and the cost of living crisis.

What upcoming initiatives is C40 working on that you are excited about?

C40 is a great organisation to work for as there are always many exciting initiatives happening. I perhaps feel this more deeply than others as air quality is cross-sectoral by nature, therefore, I’m constantly interested in what our transport, energy and buildings, campaigns and communication programmes are delivering to see if there is an opportunity to mainstream air quality and health across their projects.

I’m currently interested in C40’s new ‘Zero Emission Area [ZEA] Mission’. Zero Emission Areas are people-centred interventions that improve air quality by promoting walking, cycling and public transport, reducing the overall number of vehicles and ensuring all remaining vehicle trips are zero emission. The ZEA Mission is a joint effort between multiple programmes across C40, together we are supporting cities to implement zero (or low) emission zones to prioritise public health. I love how the Mission is overcoming siloed structures to improve the service we offer to our cities.

Another initiative that I am excited about is an advocacy project I’m leading in collaboration with the organisation Eurocities. Together, we are supporting cities within the European Union to push for legal amendments to the European Air Quality Directive, which sets the clean air laws for the EU. Our goal is to advocate for legal changes which help cities, regional areas and national governments to tangibly improve air quality.

How do you balance your personal and professional life?

Prioritising my mental health is important to me. A great mental health day will usually  include either cycling, pilates, tennis (watching and playing) and a Netflix thriller (I’m currently obsessed with Money Heist). 

I also lived another life before embarking on my air quality/climate career; singing and dancing is my first love. I did a lot of musical theatre growing up, so I look for any opportunity to sing and dance, even if it’s just around my living room.

Dolly practising pilates

There’s no perfect way to 100% balance my personal and professional life, as I’m also involved in addressing air quality, public health and social justice outside of C40.

I’m a Board Trustee at Parks for London, which works with local authorities and landowners to protect and improve London’s green infrastructure. 

I’m also a member of the Southwark Land Commission (London’s first land commission). I collaborate with a panel of experts, community groups and major landowners to develop action-based, measurable recommendations for how Southwark’s land can be freed up for the public good. 

Lastly, I am a guest lecturer at Imperial College London. Once a year I teach the university’s MSc Environmental Technology course, specifically the Urban Sustainable Environments Module.

World Vegetarian Day is 1 October; a plant-based diet is healthy for most people and a sustainable option for the environment. What inspired you to go vegetarian, and what’s a go-to recipe you love to cook?

The best friend I mentioned from my childhood actually inspired me to become a vegetarian at 12. At first, it was because I had a habit of copying anything she did, but after a couple years, my desire to be a vegetarian became rooted in animal welfare and environmental issues, and I’ve stayed a devout vegetarian ever since.  

I would be lying if I said I enjoyed cooking every day; I mainly survive on rice/pasta, vegetables, cereal and ice cream. However, I love hosting! For a few years, I invited friends to my place for a dinner party. My go-to vegetarian recipe was Ottolenghi’s sweet potato gratin – you can substitute the double cream for homemade cashew cream to make the dish plant-based.

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