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Charting next steps for the GEF's journey

July 9, 2020

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Photo: nickeverett1981/Shutterstock

Over Naoko Ishii’s eight years as CEO and Chairperson, the Global Environment Facility has dramatically shifted its focus to tackle the root causes of environmental degradation instead of just their symptoms.

As the former Japanese Deputy Finance Minister nears the end of her tenure, several of the GEF’s key partners came together to discuss how the international community can learn from and build on this drive for systems change at a critical time for a world in crisis.

Ishii, who has led the GEF for eight years, said the severity of the world’s environmental challenges, and their interconnectedness, required a much larger-scale response than individual projects could provide.

“The only way for us to prosper within the planetary boundaries is through systems change,” she told a webinar about the GEF’s evolution over the past decade, hosted by the World Resources Institute. “The fundamental solution to COVID-19 is to accelerate this transformation.”

Pointing to the progress made under Ishii’s leadership, WRI CEO and President, Andrew Steer encouraged participants to read the new GEF publication prepared for the event, Delivering Transformational Change: The Journey of the Global Environment Facility.

The GEF was established nearly three decades ago to tackle the planet’s most pressing environmental problems – many of which have become even more challenging in the years since. It has provided more than $20 billion in grants to help 170 developing countries meet their international environmental commitments, mobilizing more than $112 billion in co-financing in the process.

Ishii said to scale up impact, it was necessary to keep engaging new stakeholders to tackle challenges that the environmental community cannot solve alone – such as how modern agriculture and food systems are exacerbating land degradation, climate change, and biodiversity loss. This was especially critical in a time when governments are under fiscal pressure from the COVID-19 outbreak, she said.

Costa Rican Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, who will succeed Ishii as GEF CEO and Chairperson, told the webinar that her efforts to support transformational change – such as through new Impact Programs on sustainable forestry, land management, and cities, and partnerships on oceans and the circular economy – had moved the institution to the heart of problem-solving for what ails the planet.

“I see myself as part of a relay race, where I take the baton from you and continue the work you have done to upscale and amplify it,” he said, warning that the world had only 10 years left to remedy the unsustainable production and consumption patterns that are destroying the nature that life depends on.

“With climate change and biodiversity collapse, there are no peaks – there are points of no return,” Rodriguez said. “The pandemic is the byproduct of this human-nature confrontation. It is evident and we need to address that in a comprehensive, holistic manner.”

Other environmental leaders participating in the webinar, including Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa President Agnes Kalibata, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research Director Johan Rockström, former Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira, World Economic Forum Managing Director Dominic Waughray, and former Unilever CEO Paul Polman agreed the GEF’s interconnected approach to solving environmental crises was the right path, as environmental risks are now material threats to human well-being in the future.

“We can’t have healthy people on an unhealthy planet,” IMAGINE Co-Founder and Chair Polman said, adding it was very important that countries invest in a green recovery from the pandemic rather than return to business-as-usual with carbon emissions and nature depletion. “If we blow this opportunity it will be very sad as we’ll put ourselves on an unsustainable path we can’t get off of anymore. COVID is our last warning,” Polman said.

Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, said support for green cities and investments in nature-based solutions offered “a virtuous cycle of sustainability, jobs, and revenues” that both the private and public sectors ought to take heed of. “This is a revenue-earning, sustainable way to do well and do better,” she said.

Rosina Bierbaum, chair of the GEF’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel and moderator of the webinar, said that science tells us that to get the planet’s health back on track, “we also have to flatten the curve on greenhouse gas emissions, on land degradation, and on biodiversity loss” through the systems change the GEF has been pursuing in recent years.

“A firm foundation is needed to build a great and enduring edifice, and in the last eight years Naoko you have put that foundation in place to achieve that transformational change,” she said.