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Climate Change and Other Problems Urgently Need Attention, Says Top Public Funder of Global Environmental Protection Projects


Naoko Ishii, CEO of the Global Environmental Facility, speaking at the eighth Hitachi lecture. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

From climate change to biodiversity loss, the environmental problems our world is facing are reaching critical levels or tipping points. An additional three billion people are expected to join the middle class in the next 20 years, putting even greater pressure on natural resources. The problems are so large, that investing billions of dollars in projects to address them is just “a drop in the ocean,” said the CEO of the world’s largest public environmental grant-making organization.


“The challenge keeps getting bigger and bigger, but our resources remain small. We need to have a bigger impact,” especially during this “make-or-break decade,” which will decide the outcome of these problems, said Naoko Ishii, CEO of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) before a full auditorium at the AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., on 14 May. Ishii’s talk was the eighth in a series of lectures at AAAS sponsored by Hitachi Ltd.

The world is already passing the safe operating limits scientists estimated for carbon dioxide levels and the loss of biodiversity, and it is quickly approaching others, such as ocean acidification and nutrient cycles. “If we don’t do anything, we will be facing a very different world in two decade’s time,” Ishii said.

The GEF was created by the World Bank, the UN Development Programme and the UN Environmental Programme to pay for the costs of adding work to existing development projects that would lead to global environmental benefits. Now, the GEF is trying to have an even larger impact by getting at the root causes of environmental degradation, Ishii said.

For example, one of the GEF’s new proposals is to take a supply-chain approach to deforestation. Food production is currently a major driver of forest loss, Ishii said. Farmers clear forest to grow crops and graze cattle, which reduces habitat, increases fresh water use, increases carbon dioxide emissions and contributes to land degradation and water pollution. Palm oil production creates some of the most extensive environmental damage of any crop, including clearing of tropical forest, loss of carbon sequestration, and destruction of biodiverse habitat, so the GEF decided to try to work directly with all of the players in that supply chain.

The GEF has identified large agribusinesses, small growers, oil processers, manufacturers and retailers, some of whom have already begun developing more sustainable practices. “We asked how the GEF could provide incentives to do the right thing, and disincentives for doing the wrong thing,” Ishii said. It has proposed providing grants for training, financial support for small-holders, asking governments to regulate traders better, and educating consumers about the importance of choosing sustainable products. “At each part of the supply chain, we will have incentives to take the deforestation out” of the process, Ishii said. “We know it’s possible to protect resources while ensuring economic growth.”

Palm oil production and overfishing are two important causes of environmental degradation. [Wikimedia Commons]

The Global Environment Facility was created as a pilot project in 1991 to manage grants for environmental projects. After the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it became an independent institution charged with distributing grant money to carry out work agreed to under the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The GEF has since been selected to also manage funds set aside under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (in 2001), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (2003) and the Mercury Convention (2013). It has now distributed $11.5 billion in grants, and created $57 billion in co-financing for more than 3,215 projects, primarily in developing countries.


Since its inception, the GEF has used grants as leverage to secure additional funding and broaden the impact of its efforts. One example is the “50 in 10″ campaign, which aims to have 50% of the world’s fisheries sustainably managed in 10 years while at the same time increasing the economic benefits provided by those fisheries by $20 billion annually. The GEF is providing $50 million in grants for the effort, and has secured another $270 million from public and private partners including the Food and Agriculture Program of the United Nations, the World Bank, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Conservation International.

The goal was established by a collaboration of industry, government, and non-governmental organizations, spurred by the recognition that 80 percent of the world’s fisheries are currently being exploited or are under threat, Ishii said. The goal is also important for food security, since seafood is an important source of protein for much of the world, including herself. “Being Japanese, I really want to continue to eat fish,” she said.

The 50 in 10 goal is a stretch, according to the group of academics, advocacy groups, and government and industry representatives that established it. But, it can be met if governments have the political will to enforce proven management tools—such as catch quotas, fishing permits and marine protected areas where fishing is limited or banned—and if the fishing industry and consumers participate in the effort, Ishii said.

“We are determined to do our part, but we are really facing a huge challenge of how to bring people’s awareness and policy makers’ attention to this important issue,” she said.


Kathleen O'Neil

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