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GEF CEO: 'We need to protect our one common home'

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Naoko Ishii is CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility, a multilateral trust fund whose $1 billion annual work program helps developing countries address the drivers of environmental damage and degradation. In an interview, she reflected on the root causes of the coronavirus outbreak and the message the pandemic is sending us about the way we live.

What does the coronavirus outbreak mean for international action on the environment?

The COVID-19 virus has affected the whole world, in ways I would not have imagined just a few months ago. The virus’ fast spread across borders and indiscriminate infection of people from all walks of life has shown how small our planet is, and really drives home how connected we all are.

The crisis has also revealed just how vulnerable we are. It is now clear that we cannot take our current way of life for granted and that we need to find better ways to work together to solve the global challenges we have delayed confronting. Confronted with COVID-19, there's a stronger collective sense of what we stand to lose – now more than ever, we must look after one another and our common home.

For the sake of our planet, we need to address the causes of the coronavirus outbreak, which at their deep roots are the same as the drivers of climate change, environmental damage, and biodiversity loss. Our modern economic development has been so powerful and driven human systems too close to the natural ones, which has made it easier for pathogens to travel from wildlife to humans, then spread around the world through a global network of trade and travel. We are living beyond the carrying capacity of our planet, putting human systems and natural systems on a collision course: COVID-19 is manifestation of this fact. The fundamental cure and prevention for this will be to change how we live.

As we pull together to combat today’s medical crisis, we must strive for systems-level changes (i.e. a smooth energy transition, sustainable food system, resilient cities, and circular economy) that will also safeguard the Global Commons – a stable climate, clean air and water, healthy forests, oceans, biodiversity, and other natural resources we all share and rely on for life. I hope that we will emerge from this crisis with more awareness than ever about the need to fundamentally address the stressors on our planet, equipped with new models of cooperation and governance for issues of global concern.

A short time ago we expected 2020 to be a ‘Super Year’ for nature. Has that changed?

Yes and no. We began 2020 with high expectations, as we felt that nature had finally captured the political imagination as well as the public’s attention. I was among those who were feeling upbeat about the potential to translate this new urgency into ambitious international agreements about biodiversity, climate change, oceans, and more. Unfortunately, the coronavirus outbreak has caused a postponement of the key negotiating conferences needed to reach those deals.

But the added time may help us, in a way. With several key conferences rescheduled for 2021, we have additional available time to accelerate our work and ensure that next steps on the environment incorporate the insights we have learned from COVID-19 and support a more sustainable model for the whole of the economy. We also need to act with urgency in the near term to support a coronavirus recovery plan that is informed by this knowledge. We should not rebuild our economy as in the same way as it was abruptly suspended. We need to work around the clock to help make sure that both economic recovery plans and new environmental agreements are well-designed to bring human systems and natural systems in harmony.

Is the COVID-19 crisis affecting developing countries differently, in terms of the environment?

I am very concerned about how the pandemic will impact the developing countries and small island states where the GEF funds environmental programs and projects. Smallholder farmers, subsistence fishers and miners, slum dwellers, and other vulnerable people risk being very exposed in this crisis – to the virus, and, also to the risks of lost livelihoods, poverty, hunger, lack of education, and more. The entire global supply chain has been affected by this, and the biggest burden will be felt by the weakest link of the value chain. This is a major concern and it will impact our approach to building up the environmental resilience of developing countries.

We need to take great care in this time of crisis to support the guardians of nature – the park rangers, community leaders, and others on the frontline working to protect wildlife and nature in rainforests, wetlands, drylands, and coastal communities. We will ensure that relevant GEF-funded projects will continue to enable those heroic individuals to do their important jobs and that the original purposes of environmental projects will not be undermined. Those working to safely manage waste and reduce exposure to dangerous chemicals also need our ongoing support. We will work together to mitigate the pandemic’s knock-on impacts “downstream” in waterways, protected areas, and other vital areas.

What kind of partnerships do we need to succeed in this effort?

COVID-19 strengthens our case for transformative systems change; to make sure human systems are in harmony with natural ones. Towards this goal, multi-stakeholder coalitions among governments, both national and sub-national, businesses, civil society, and academia are essential. On our side, the GEF has been promoting those partnership around cities, oceans, and commodity supply chains, as well as the community in the Global Commons Alliance for a larger collective impact across our project portfolio.

It is also critically important that we break down silos between disciplines. While scientists had been warning for years about rising risks of zoonotic diseases, the world was largely unprepared for the COVID-19 outbreak. We can and must learn from this. Building on this, we are looking to bring together a new taskforce of scientific experts from across the health and environment disciplines to focus specifically on new steps we can take to prevent infectious diseases and fortify human health as we work to support necessary environmental action. Introducing a stronger public health voice to the table will help us emerge from today’s crisis and avert those ahead.