Our new Executive Director Leena Ylä-Mononen joined the EEA on 1 June after extensive experience at national and European levels, working on a wide range of issues. We talked about her childhood fascination with nature and her studies to her rich career and hobbies.

Leena Ylä-Mononen
EEA Executive Director

Why a career in the environment?

I have always been interested in nature and what people are doing in it and to it. I grew up in the Finnish countryside, surrounded by animals and nature. I started studying biology but I wanted to know more about what it meant for people, so I switched to environmental studies and Helsinki University. In the 1980s, environmental studies were quite new: there were only 15 of us starting that year. It was also multi-disciplinary and aimed to prepare us for Finnish environment administration which started growing around that time. 

My focus on chemicals came later in my Master’s degree and my first positions, as a trainee at the Finnish Ministry of Environment and the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE). But even then, I felt that I worked on cross-cutting environmental and environmental policy issues.

After years of Finnish public service experience, what made you shift to EU institutions?

International policy dimension has always been an integral part of my work in Finland. First, it was through Nordic cooperation or UNECE conventions, such as the one on transboundary air pollution. Then, as Finland was moving towards EU membership, closer cooperation with EU institutions and alignment with EU legislation became a bigger part of my work portfolio.

While working at SYKE, I got the possibility to be seconded to the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Environment, where I later got a more permanent post. It was a thrilling experience to see how new EU legislation was initiated, drafted and proposed or how the European Commission prepares for international environmental agreements and negotiations.  

I got to contribute to the Commission’s work on the new biocides legislation and on persistent organic pollutants, namely to the Stockholm Convention and the UNECE Protocol on Persistent Organic Pollutants. It was also the time when the REACH Regulation was being prepared — a major step for chemicals policy in Europe. In this context, it was decided that the new EU agency on chemicals would be established in my hometown Helsinki. I could not resist when asked if I would be part of the team setting up the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).  

I held different positions over the 11.5 years at ECHA. Initially, I was responsible for setting up the scientific committees foreseen under the REACH regulation. It was essential to have a good transparency and stakeholder engagement policy from the start. Later, I was responsible for the REACH evaluation chapter. It was a very specific task and entailed setting up internal processes and building up the network with Member States’ competent authorities. 

What made you take up a new challenge?

After working on few, specific topics for a long time, I wanted to widen the thematic scope of my work. An great opportunity to do that came up at the national level. My responsibilities at the Ministry of the Environment covered a wide range of topics, including climate change, air pollution, industry, circular economy, waste and a bit of chemicals – just what I wanted!

It was a great 4+ years, starting with the Finnish EU Presidency and a new governement. The climate change issue had become more and more prominent, especially thanks to the youth movement. The work in my department was heavily driven by EU legislation, including its implementation, and the European Green Deal was closely aligned with Finnish ambitions. At the Ministry, we were drafting and revising the national climate law, circular economy strategy and participated intensively in the negotiations on the EU legislation.  

I have had the opportunity and the privilege to work both at the EU and national level. It is a very enriching experience to see how legislation comes into being and is then implemented on the ground. This interaction between the national and the European levels has been there throughout my career.  

I was on holidays, at our summer cottage with my son when I saw the job announcement for the EEA. That day we both decided to apply for a new job. 

What do you think will be the biggest challenge in the months ahead?

Although I worked in another EU agency and in the Commission, the EEA is still a new organisation to me. I know its strategy and mandate but I still need to learn and understand how the EEA and its networks with member countries and the cooperating countries actually work in practice, what all our tasks are in more detail and how we deliver them. The staff perspective and internal issues are equally important for me.  

What would you consider a success at the end of your first year?

We are about one year away from the European Parliament elections, which will kick off a new EU policy cycle. At the end of my first year, I would be happy if we can have the feeling that we have positively contributed to the next policy cycle. Our knowledge should help shape future EU policies. The goal of achieving impact through our work was something both Vice President Timmermans and Commissioner Sinkevičius of the European Commission have emphasised during our bilateral interactions. 

In this period, there will certainly be other challenges we will have to address. Whatever the challenge may be, I will do my best to help the EEA adapt and evolve as needed to continue supporting Europe’s sustainability transition.  

And lastly, what do you like to do in your free time?

In addition to spending time with my family and friends, I really enjoy being outdoors. I would say, I need a daily connection with nature. I usually try to incorporate that into my daily routine, on my way to work for example. In addition to reading and listening to audio books and podcasts, history — medieval history in particular — has been one of my free time interests. I also sew clothes by hand, which is really slow, and which I find very calming. 

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