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'My hope is to see international action match the critical need'

August 24, 2021

Richard Bontjer standing in a mountain landscape
Photo courtesy of Richard Bontjer

Richard Bontjer is Director of the Environment, Oceans and Biodiversity team with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and also represents Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Korea on the Global Environment Facility’s governing body, the GEF Council. In an interview, he reflected on how Australia being an ocean nation and host of many of the world’s biodiversity hotspots has shaped its international environmental and development priorities.

How did you get into this line of work? 

Like many, my path to this role has been circuitous. I grew up with a keen interest in and connection to the land, due to a combination of drawing on values of indigenous Australian culture and a passion for the outdoors. My background is economics and public finance, which took me to international development, working with international multilateral organizations including the IMF, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank, and a diverse range of countries spanning the Pacific, Central Asia, and Africa. The recent events in Afghanistan have been personal, and I have been reflecting on the impacts on friends and colleagues.

When I returned to DFAT nearly ten years ago, I was given the opportunity to focus on environmental and climate change issues in the Pacific, which ultimately took me to cover global environmental issues. The team I now lead covers a broad range of environmental matters including multilateral climate and environment funds; international oceans; biodiversity; and oversight of a range of development projects as well as UNESCO World Heritage listings. It has been nothing less than a privilege to combine my passion for the environment with a depth of development experience and bring this to my role on the GEF Council.

What are Australia’s top priorities when it comes to the environment?

As an ocean nation and host of a number of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, Australia treats the environment with the respect and priority it rightly deserves. We have a strong focus on integrating action across the interconnected issues of climate change, biodiversity, and the ocean. Nature-based solutions are also central to addressing climate change and biodiversity loss and improving human well-being. Examples of our work include the Savanna fire management initiative in Botswana, projects to conserve and restore coastal blue carbon ecosystems and coral reefs, efforts to protect the world’s forest systems, and expansions to our marine protected areas. Cutting across all these areas is a commitment to the inclusion of women and girls, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity we are focused on working with other member parties to ensure the Global Biodiversity Framework is ambitious and achievable to safeguard global biodiversity for future generations. As a member of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People and the Global Ocean Alliance, we support a global target to protect the world’s land and oceans. We are establishing two new Australian Marine Parks around Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands, in the Australian Indian Ocean Territories. Once established, they could increase the percentage of protected Australian waters from 37 up to 45 percent, part of our commitment to protect our ocean and contribute to global targets.

Richard Bontjer portrait
Photo courtesy of Richard Bontjer

Being surrounded by ocean, we recognize the importance of a healthy ocean for a sustainable economy, particularly in the context of climate change. Consistent with countries in our region being particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, over 70 percent of Australia’s climate finance has been focused on adaptation. Our environmental diplomacy in the ocean space includes our leadership and membership of a range of international initiatives. Prime Minister Morrison is a member of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and has committed to sustainably manage 100 percent of our ocean through a sustainable ocean plan by 2025. We also share scientific, management, and policy knowledge and expertise through the International Partnership for Blue Carbon and the International Coral Reef Initiative.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected these priorities, if at all?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the risk of zoonotic diseases will increase if we do not care for our planet and protect our precious ecosystems. We need to ensure we consider climate and the environment in our international programs and not see them as separate to development objectives. At a practical level, the pandemic has forced us to shift some of our on-the-ground work online. A silver lining is that in some cases this has enabled us to develop more enduring training products and tools and involve more people.

Is there a GEF-supported project or program that is close to your heart?

A GEF project that I am particularly interested in is the Ridge to Reef initiative in the Pacific Islands, which is focused on integrating water, land, forest, and coastal management in support of multiple benefits for nature and people. The ability of Small Island Developing States to manage their resources and ecosystems in a sustainable manner while sustaining livelihoods is crucial to their social and economic well-being.

In addition to our core Global Environment Facility funding, Australia has contributed AU$12 million over 10 years to support the GEF Small Grants Programme’s first dedicated small-scale community-based adaptation activities. These projects focus on reducing the vulnerability of local communities to the impacts of climate change, while supporting livelihoods and addressing poverty as well as empowering women. For example, a small community in Palau started noticing jellyfish disappearing from a popular tourist spot and UNESCO site, Jellyfish Lake. Through the program, academics worked with the community to monitor the lake, gaining insights from policymakers, tour operators, and other key stakeholders. These actions helped improve management of the lake ecosystem by reducing tourism and anthropogenic pressures on the lake.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

It is hard to imagine too many other roles that can have such a profound contribution to addressing global issues that will have such a manifest impact on how future generations will live. It’s been a privilege and huge responsibility to be involved in the work of the GEF. It’s great to be engaging with colleagues who are just as committed to these issues and collectively seek to make a difference. I have seen this depth of passion and commitment shining through in many GEF Council discussions.

What changes do you hope to observe in the world by the time you retire?

Over the past decade we have seen a gradual but profound shift in broader community understanding about the impacts of not taking action to protect our environment. This has been stark in Australia with catastrophic bushfires that wreaked a scale of environmental and social damage that we’ve never seen before. This has been coupled with a series of coral bleaching events to the Great Barrier Reef, shining a spotlight on the tangible impacts of climate change. My hope is to see international action match the critical need. This includes meeting the Paris Agreement commitments, as well as seeing broader action on valuing and protecting global biodiversity, our precious water resources, oceans, and inspiring more sustainable behaviors globally.