Supporting innovation for transformation: GEF’s new Impact Programs to tackle the drivers of environmental degradation in an integrated way

Posted on: October 19, 2018

Director of Programs


The Impact Programs on Food Systems, Land Use, and Restoration; Sustainable Cities; and Sustainable Forest Management collectively address key drivers of environmental degradation and offer the potential for the GEF to contribute to systemic change

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) faces a demanding yet seemingly attainable task: to help countries foster a transformation in how individuals, communities, and businesses use and protect the natural word. But nothing less will suffice if we are to meet pressing environmental challenges and safeguard the global commons.

Since its inception the GEF has organized its efforts within several largely independent focal areas, including biodiversity, climate change mitigation, and sustainable land management.  But it has become increasingly clear that not only are those challenges closely intertwined, they are also linked in numerous and complex ways to questions of economics, governance, health, equity, and many others.

While some problems can be best addressed with a relatively narrow focus — for example, improving protected area management and infrastructure to ensure the conservation of biodiversity and other natural assets — many others cannot. We have no realistic hope of improving the lives of people, especially those who are poor and often hence most directly dependent on natural resources, unless we consider how ecological factors shape their health, access to energy, and the availability of productive land.

Systemic solutions are needed, as isolated sectoral interventions can be annulled by what is happening in other sectors.  For example, we know that food production will have to increase to meet growing demands of larger and progressively wealthier population. But if we focus solely on this objective, in the long haul the problem will worsen through the depletion of soils, wasteful management of water, loss pollinators, and increase desertification and deforestation.

Hence, there is no other way than to integrate both our thinking and how projects and programs we finance get designed, with the added benefit of generating multiple global environmental benefits across all focal areas.

The original GEF2020 strategy argued that achieving the objectives of multilateral environmental agreements would have to require that GEF support to country priorities be aimed at tackling the drivers of environmental degradation – and not just the symptoms - in an integrated fashion.  For this reason, the focal area strategies for the Seventh Replenishment Cycle (GEF-7) have created opportunities for countries to participate in Impact Programs and other programmatic approaches. Of relevance are the Impact Programs on Food Systems, Land Use, and Restoration (FOLUR); Sustainable Cities; and Sustainable Forest Management. These three Impact Programs collectively address key drivers of environmental degradation and offer the potential for the GEF to contribute to systemic change.

The Impact Programs are designed to help countries pursue holistic approaches to transformational change in these key systems. The Impact Programs will also allow enable countries to engage with a wide range of stakeholders, including the private sector, enhance knowledge sharing and learning, and ensure a more effective use of GEF resources.

Food, Land Use and Restoration

A healthy planet requires food systems that serve multiple roles. They must obviously provide nutritious and affordable food, but at the same time they must be designed to protect natural resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and strengthen the resilience and prosperity of rural populations.

That is a complex task, but the goal is within reach. A key to achieving the kind of transformational change that will be required is tackling land use planning in a comprehensive way. We are already seeing the potential because businesses are willing to invest in improving food and land use systems – both because it is the right thing to do and because it opens tremendous opportunities for growth. Achieving sustainable food systems globally could generate 80 million jobs and create an additional $2.3 trillion in productive growth by 2030

Given the fact that increasing demand for food is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss, land degradation, and depletion of water resources, this Impact Program will support efforts to ensure that productive lands are embedded within landscapes that provide ecosystem services as well as protect the natural ecosystems and soil on which they depend. Achieving this transition will require a holistic, system-wide approach integrating both horizontal (land and natural resources) and vertical (food value and supply chain) dimensions.

In order to accommodate differences between countries with respect to opportunities for leveraging GEF financing, the Impact Program focuses on three interrelated priorities: promoting sustainable food systems to tackle negative externalities in entire value chains; promoting deforestation-free agricultural commodity supply chains; and promoting large-scale restoration of degraded landscapes for sustainable production and ecosystem services.

The Food, Land Use, and Restoration Impact Program seeks to transform food and land use systems and help countries reconcile competing social, economic, and environmental interests by moving away from unsustainable sectoral approaches. GEF support will help countries meet the growing demand for increased crop and livestock production while eliminating the risk of further expansion of farmland into natural high-biodiversity habitats and forests, erosion of genetic diversity, overexploitation of land and water resources, overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and inefficient practices that lead to greenhouse gas emissions.

Sustainable Cities

Humanity, for the first time, has become an urban species. The number of people living in towns and cities has grown more than fivefold since 1950 and a decade ago overtook those living in the countryside. In a world with 7.5 billion people, over 4 billion reside in urban agglomerations, occupying only 3 percent of the Earth’s land, but with a global ecological footprint. Urban demographic projections estimate that between 2014 and 2050, another 2.5 billion people, mostly poor, will be added to the world’s cities, predominantly in Asia and Africa.

In much of the developing world, urban growth is characterized by sprawl—cities are expanding their territories faster than their populations. Further, the scale of conflict- and climate-induced displacement are pushing even more people towards cities. Globally, 65 million people were displaced and 60 percent of all refugees—19 million people—settled in cities. The scale and pace of the challenge is so large that Mayors and local governments are struggling to respond. Land use is poorly planned and unstructured, and motorization rates are increasing rapidly, as is pollution. The mega-trends are converging in cities with negative environmental impacts both locally and globally.

Yet urban areas also offer large opportunities to cut emissions. Moreover, many of the low-carbon measures that could be deployed in cities could generate significant benefits ranging from new jobs to cleaner air.

The Sustainable Cities Impact Program will support cities as they pursue sustainable urban planning through spatially integrated solutions in energy, buildings, transport, urban food systems, management of municipal solid waste, and utilization of green space and infrastructure. The Impact Program will further strengthen the GEF’s catalytic impact by enhancing the Global Platform on Sustainable Cities, which promotes innovative climate actions across 28 cities in 11 countries.

The Impact Program will continue to expand the early work in GEF-6 to bring cities and global expertise together and provide a forum where cities can tap into best practices for sustainable urban planning, and also share their experience with others. This will help cities better capture opportunities to increase the productivity of existing urban infrastructure, and incorporate innovations with the potential to revamp how cities are developed and operate across a range of areas, including evidence-based spatial planning, decarbonizing urban infrastructure, building resilience, cascading financing solutions for urban sustainability, green infrastructure and nature-based solutions, and conservation of globally important biodiversity in urban landscapes.

Sustainable Forest Management

The GEF has long been a key supporter of developing countries’ efforts to sustainably manage their forests and help with their restoration, funding over 400 forest projects and programs with more than $2.7 billion in GEF grants. In GEF-7, the Sustainable Forest Management Impact Program will sharpen its focus from a project by project basis in individual countries to addressing the long-term health of three  high priority biomes: the Amazon, Congo Basin, and some important drylands landscapes, where comprehensive sustainable forest management is both feasible and necessary to preserve these ecosystems and their services to humanity.

These key transboundary biomes are major integrated ecosystems and perhaps the last places where a concerted Sustainable Forest Management approach focusing on their ecological integrity and functioning can truly transform the course of development and produce multiple benefits for biodiversity, climate change, and land degradation. The Impact Program’s interventions will focus on designing and implementing collaborative approaches to productive and conservation land uses that provide for livelihoods while preserving the ecological integrity and global environmental value of ecosystems. Taking a comprehensive, sustainable approach to restoring forests and landscapes can help address interlinked issues, strengthen food security for a rapidly growing population, and improve millions of livelihoods of those who are particularly dependent on agriculture.

Together, the three Impact Programs are projected to contribute to a significant share of total GEF-7 global environmental benefits across the biodiversity, climate change, and land degradation focal areas.

The Impact Programs will contribute to other global environmental benefits as well. Chemicals and waste issues, for example, have been integrated into the design of the proposed Impact Programs. The Sustainable Cities Impact Program alone would account for 18 percent of the GEF-7 target for the reduction or avoidance of emissions of persistent organic pollutants to the air.

We have seen great progress in recent years towards development and growth that seeks to end poverty and increase prosperity, while safeguarding the global commons. But incremental steps will not get us all the way to that goal. The GEF’s Impact Programs are another tool to support transformational change and achieve impacts on a broader scale than ever before.

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