Feature Story

The opportunity of the commons

July 12, 2016

GEF logo with SDGS surrounding it
The GEF, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has so far spent some $14.5bn – and leveraged an additional $75.4bn – for nearly 4,000 projects in 167 countries.

Naoko Ishii, CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility, tells Geoffrey Lean of new priorities for her organisation and the world economy that conform to the sustainable development goals

We know about the “tragedy of the commons”, but how about the opportunity it presents? The crisis facing the ultimate global commons – the very conditions that make human civilisation and economic prosperity possible – confronts us with the necessity of making our societies and economies more sustainable and less inequitable.

One who is determined to exploit the opportunity to achieve transformational change is Ms Naoko Ishii, the CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). She is starting with her own organisation – the world’s largest public funder of international programmes to benefit the global environment – aiming to “develop a new way of doing business” through the GEF’s annual $1bn disbursement to bring about “system change”. And she wants to use the momentum of last year’s adoption of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and agreement in Paris on combatting climate change to make the green economy a priority for finance ministers.

Ishii herself moved from a finance ministry to take on the GEF leadership in 2012, from being deputy vice minister of Finance in Japan and executive assistant to its prime minister for Global Environmental Finance. She had previously served as the World Bank’s country director for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and had split a 30-year career between the Japanese government and international financial institutions. An economist, she has published many papers and two award-winning books.

When considering whether to stand in the first open election for the post outside the environmental community, she set out to convince herself of what the GEF could do, and to find a mission that would “appeal to non-environmentalists like finance ministers and investors who had not yet been converted”, she told Our Planet.

Lord Stern, the British economist and authority on climate change, persuaded her to fly to Sweden to meet Prof Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and developer of the concept of “planetary boundaries” to the biophysical processes that determine the stability and resilience of the Earth. Rockström warns that these boundaries are being pushed to the limit: several, including the climate and the integrity of the biosphere, have already been transgressed.

“This was exactly what I was reaching for,” Ishii says, “something really convincing, which clearly tells us that total system change is needed, and is not just for a small environmental circle”.

So she advocated using the “incredible potential of the GEF”, she says, to preserve the essential global commons of the Earth’s operating system, within planetary boundaries. Once unanimously elected – partly for her “well-articulated view on the institution’s future role” – she set out to re-order its priorities.

The GEF, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has so far spent some $14.5bn – and leveraged an additional $75.4bn – for nearly 4,000 projects in 167 countries. These have a high success rate: more than 80% of completed projects during the last funding replenishment cycle received at least a moderately successful outcome rating, exceeding the 75% international benchmark. British and Australian government assessments demonstrated that the GEF delivered value for money invested. But only about 20% of the projects showed evidence of achieving benefits at a system-wide scale.

“The GEF was producing numerous, small projects in a fragmented or isolated way without in total really shifting the needle in the right direction or triggering transformational change,” says Ishii.

She therefore concentrated her first two years in office on producing a long-term strategy – the organisation’s first – to switch the focus of its operations to addressing “the drivers of environmental degradation”, rather than merely its effects, and to supporting innovative and scalable activities that “deliver the highest impacts, cost-effectively”.

She found the “planetary boundaries framework well suited to the GEF’s mission” since it showed that everything in the global commons of the Earth’s operating system is interrelated, so that different parts of it cannot be addressed in isolation. “Everything is connected”, she explains. “If one area is in deep trouble it will affect others and lead to disruption to the whole planetary system.” So the GEF is now concentrating on moving “entry points” into tackling situations “from consequences to causes” so as “to produce the maximum impact for the amount of money spent, bringing many benefits at once”.

This change of focus naturally met with some resistance because “many people are more comfortable operating in silos”. Also, some countries feared that their own natural resources might be treated as global commons.

But increasingly the new integrated approach has won support. One pilot project to implement the new way of thinking sets out to address the underlying causes of land degradation and food insecurity in 12 dry land African countries. By helping smallholder farmers to improve their soils, receive drought-tolerant seeds and maintain and increase the diversity of their operations, it aims both to bring 10 million hectares of productive land under more sustainable agriculture and prevent the emission of greenhouse gasses equivalent to between 10 million and 20 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, while also realising benefits for biodiversity, land restoration and resilience.

Initially she recalls, there was “scepticism about whether this integrated approach would work, but it was mostly African countries who stood up one after the other and said this is the programme we need on the ground. This gave us a huge sense of assurance.”

“Our new way of doing business is gathering some momentum.” Similarly, another pilot programme – to promote urban sustainability in a more integrated way – has been enthusiastically embraced by mayors all over the world. A third pilot concentrates on holistically tackling deforestation in supply chains for soy, beef and palm oil from smallholders and plantations to consumers, and has led to farmers’ associations being formed to implement it.

“So our new way of doing business is gathering some momentum and we feel that what we are doing makes some sense,” says Ishii. “We hope to do more of this going forward.”

In the meantime she is exploring how to catalyse international action on the global commons in the wake of the Paris Agreement and the adoption of the SDGs – which, she says, have a “huge commonality” with the planetary boundaries approach. She is planning a series of events over the next year to try to create the necessary momentum.

She has written: “Shifting to a low-carbon and resilient trajectory will require coordinated, integrated solutions to catalyse the transformation of three key economic systems: energy – how we power our homes, offices and industry, and move goods and people; urban – how we live in cities and build new ones; and land use – how and where we produce food, and what we eat.

“It will be a journey not just to avoid disaster, but to build lasting prosperity. Operating within the planetary boundaries is not just the only way to ensure healthy economies, but has the potential to provide much greater and better-shared growth.” That’s the opportunity of the commons.

Geoffrey Lean, the editor of Our Planet, serves on the advisory committee of the GEF’s Global Environmental Commons – Solutions for a Crowded Planet project.

This article first appeared in the May 2016 edition of UNEP’s Our Planet magazine, The Environmental Dimension of the 2030 Agenda