Gabriela Blatter is responsible for international environmental finance at Switzerland’s Federal Office of Environment, and represents seven countries – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan – on the Global Environment Facility’s governing body, the GEF Council. In an interview, she shared how her love of science and nature led her to pivot from teaching chemistry to focusing on the environment, reflected on the power of collaboration across countries and cultures, and voiced her hopes for upcoming negotiations on biodiversity and climate change.
How did you get into this line of work?
As a young student, I decided to study chemistry, because I was fascinated about nature and wanted to understand the science behind it. Following my master’s degree, I decided to train to become a chemistry teacher. I really liked to teach science, because it allowed me to interact with teenagers and young adults and share my fascination with science and nature with them. I later ended up working first for a small NGO in India in the field of education, health, sustainable agriculture, and environmental protection. This was the first time that I directly experienced challenges related to water scarcity and realized that urbanization is one of the major drivers of environmental degradation.
With the support of the Mercator Foundation, I was able to deepen my knowledge about urban environmental challenges and then work at the Asian Development Bank on climate change mitigation and adaptation in cities, with a focus on urban environmental services and water projects. Thanks to this international work experience and my scientific background I was then hired by the Swiss Environment Ministry to work in the team for international environment finance. I’m very happy and grateful to have had these opportunities to work with so many inspiring and motivated people around the world and to make a contribution for the benefit of the global environment.
Is there a GEF-supported initiative that is close to your heart?
Due to my long-standing activity for our GEF Constituency I have also had the chance to visit several GEF-supported initiatives in the field and see the impacts of these projects and programs on the ground. Personally, I’m very excited about initiatives where boundaries are pushed and new instruments are tested, such as the recent launch of the first Rhino Bond. Building on the World Bank’s experience with sustainability bonds, and with GEF funding tied to conservation outcomes, these new bonds represent an innovative new financial instrument that can advance biodiversity protection.
Is there someone you have met through your work who has had a lasting impact on you?
Yes, there were several people who influenced my work and who have had a long-lasting impact on me. I think we all learn from each other. Along my way, female role models – such as Sonia Chand Sandhu, the head of the Green Cities Program, Amy Leung, my division director at ADB and Doris Leuthard, the former Minister for Environment – have been very inspiring to me. They all worked in a male-dominated working environment and showed me that it is possible to build a career as a female, and how important it is to lead by example.
Most of all, I have learned from my negotiating partners in developing countries about the importance of being persistent, staying true to one’s values, and engaging in a direct and honest manner. Another important lesson is to never forget the human being behind the negotiator – we need to maintain strong relationships regardless of our different views and positions. Only when we listen to each other and work together will we be able to find solutions for the global benefit of nature and people.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work?
Thankfully, I have personally been able to continue my work all through the pandemic. But as an international negotiator, COVID-19 shifted my work entirely into the virtual space. It took more than two years until we could again meet and negotiate in person. During this period, I very much missed the personal exchanges with my international counterparts, such as the other GEF Council members. Unfortunately, many crucial decisions related to climate change and biodiversity were delayed due to the virtual mode of work. While this was disappointing, I hope we can now find ways to continue to make progress and not lose sight of the global environmental challenges. I’m very much looking forward to the many international environmental meetings scheduled this year and hope we can make significant progress and continue to raise the global environmental ambition.
Environmental issues are very often complicated and concerning. What gives you hope?
I believe that the younger generations are growing up with a different and more conscious understanding of the values of nature. Movements such as Fridays for Future make me hopeful that our children and our grandchildren will be able to take the bold decisions that are necessary to address the world’s many environmental challenges, which we unfortunately have not yet been able to take.
What changes do you hope to see in the world by the time you retire?
I hope that by the time I retire, we will have achieved the net-zero greenhouse gas emission target globally, have significantly reduced the species extinction rate, and have addressed many other global environmental challenges such as the large amounts of plastic in the ocean in an integrated and holistic manner, taking into account the economic and social differences across the globe.