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Chizuru Aoki portrait at COP13 for biodiversity
Participating in a working group at the Convention on Biological Diversity COP13. Photo: IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon

Chizuru Aoki leads the Global Environment Facility’s engagement with international conventions and oversees its climate change work, including through the Least Developed Countries Fund and Special Climate Change Fund. In an interview, she reflected on her career as an environmental engineer, researcher, manager, and negotiator, and shared candid insights from her family’s experience with COVID-19.

What does your role at the GEF entail?

I wear two hats at the GEF. My first role is managing the GEF’s strategic engagements with the five environmental conventions we financially support – on biological diversity, climate change, desertification, and toxic chemicals including mercury and persistent organic pollutants.

I typically spend several weeks a year at Conferences of the Parties (COPs) and other large environmental meetings. Many people think of COPs as high-profile events full of media and VIP engagements. While I get to see some of that, my time is mostly spent in negotiations related to finance, technology transfer, and other topics. This work entails listening to and responding to government representatives, presenting the GEF perspectives, commenting on draft decision texts, and so on. Sometimes, these sessions stretch until 4 or 5 in the morning.

My other role relates to climate finance. I manage the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF), Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF), which provide urgent support to increase developing countries’ climate resilience, and the Capacity-building Initiative for Transparency (CBIT). I work with great colleagues in the GEF climate adaptation team to develop and implement our programming strategy, engage with countries to understand their needs and priorities, manage project reviews, and organize the LDCF and SCCF Council meetings, which bring together representatives of both donor and recipient countries.

How did you get into this line of work?

I studied environmental engineering because I wanted to understand solutions to tackle real-world problems like pollution and resource scarcity. To this day, I am fascinated by technological innovations and how they can support social and economic gains as well as environmental improvements.

After a stint working as an engineer, I spent several years at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) focused on advancing cleaner production in developing countries. I then went to MIT to get a Ph.D in Technology, Management, and Policy, and continued as a researcher. I was fortunate to work on an integrated program on urban, regional, and global air pollution, under the leadership of Dr. Mario Molina and Dr. Luisa T. Molina. Mario was a Nobel laureate committed to using science for the benefit of the environment and society. My work focused on how air quality improvements in Mexico City could be achieved by the introduction of cleaner cars and fuel, and the role of industrial and environmental policy in Mexico in influencing the pace and timing of technological change.

Eventually, I returned to UNEP where I led a program in southern Iraq to rehabilitate the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which was on the brink of destruction. This was the first occasion for me to work for Monique Barbut, and I learned so much from her laser-sharp focus on delivery and accountability that became her hallmark as GEF CEO and Executive Secretary of UN Convention to Combat Desertification. With a team of dedicated people from UNEP and in Iraq, we managed to turn the situation around with the applications of phytotechnologies (today, these are called nature-based solutions), other environmentally sound technologies, and community engagement. It was one of the largest post-conflict UN programs on the environment, considered as a model of sustainability. In 2016, the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as a mixed cultural and natural site. Dr. Ali Al-Lami, who was my counterpart in Iraq, put his life on the line for our project in the post-conflict period. The project’s success owes a great deal to his courage and commitment.

I joined the GEF in 2010 to work on technology transfer for climate change mitigation. Soon after arrival, I was asked to coordinate the climate change mitigation focal area and then also managed the whole climate and chemicals team on an acting basis. Since 2015, I have been serving in my current capacity.

Chizuru Aoki speaking to a group of people at the COP25 climate conference
Chizuru Aoki (center) speaks to a group of delegates at the COP25 climate conference in 2019. Photo: IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

What stands out about the GEF’s approach to climate change?

To me, what sets us apart is the flexibility with which we work to enable countries to address their climate priorities, ranging from focused, single-sector interventions to more integrated, systemic initiatives. Countries are the primary decision-makers on their climate action, and the GEF is here to support them through financing, innovation, and partnership, with a special focus on resilience-building for those vulnerable to rising climate risks.

Another unique aspect is the GEF’s support for enhanced transparency around climate action. The Paris Agreement requires all countries to be open and accountable about their progress made on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and building climate resilience, and about the support they receive and/or provide. By increasing capacity in these areas and by supporting new reporting requirements, the GEF is helping the international community to have a more accurate picture of how the Paris Agreement is being achieved.

In the adaptation financing space, the LDCF is unique as it is 100 percent dedicated to supporting the needs of Least Developed Countries. The LDCs and their people are profoundly impacted by the negative impacts of climate change, yet they did the least to contribute to the climate crisis. Having a dedicated fund to support their needs is an important responsibility. Our priority is leaving no country behind. Our team is working hard to reach out to every eligible country, so that all 46 LDCs will have support to implement adaptation action on the ground by the end of the current GEF funding cycle, in June 2022. I am optimistic we will achieve this goal.

The SCCF complements this work, with a broader focus on innovation that can help developing countries bolster their adaptation. This fund has recently focused on private sector engagement, including through the Challenge Program for Adaptation Innovation, and supporting projects in small island developing states. Recent SCCF projects have done an excellent job of providing timely, flexible support for climate risk mitigation and informed policy-making. One SCCF project I am excited about is focused on the valuation of nature-based infrastructure. It is helping investors and policy makers directly compare nature-based solutions versus conventional ones, including both costs and environmental benefits. I am hopeful that this approach can help countries make wise decisions as part of a clean, resilient, green, and blue recovery from COVID-19.

Frankly, I think we may have been a bit too modest to date in sharing the impacts the LDCF and SCCF are having in vulnerable and developing countries. I also see enormous potential to offer increased support to countries through both funds and I look forward to working on scaling up their impact with our CEO Carlos Manuel Rodriguez.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your approach to work?

My family is just emerging from our own COVID crisis. We became part of the statistic of 140 million people worldwide who have contracted the novel coronavirus. We were fortunate to have mild cases and are all getting better.

The experience has given me a reality check about the pandemic and my work.

When your entire household has COVID, your priorities and circumstances change dramatically. Because of the need to self-isolate, for the most part, it falls on the shoulders of the less sick to take care of the more sick. There is a clear human toll from this crisis. Access to health care and social safety nets is critically important – I truly appreciate my family’s access to health care, sick leave, and work flexibility. Also, it was a personal reminder that functioning systems and contingency plans can quickly become ineffective when crises strike. We could not rely on the carefully balanced school, childcare, household, and work system we had built to cope with life in the time of COVID.

For me, the experience brought home the importance of understanding the immediate needs and priorities of those in the midst of emergency and offering appropriate support. When you are worried about shortness of breath, it is difficult to engage in a policy discourse about the future. What you need is a pulse oximeter. While I am still processing what happened, I feel that the experience offers me a humble work lesson: to listen to our partners about their urgent and changing realities and to support practical solutions now, while working together towards long-term global sustainability.

What are you most looking forward to in 2021?

Pre-pandemic, I often contemplated how multilateral negotiations would be organized in 100 years, imagining that technology may enable virtual engagements to replace some in-person, physical meetings. Like many others, I also wondered about the sustainability and longer-term viability of large meetings that mobilize 25,000 plus participants.

The pandemic forced the world to switch to virtual engagements in a matter of weeks. We have important COPs coming up this year for biodiversity and climate change. I am looking forward to working through these meetings for strong and ambitious outcomes, and I am curious to see how the global discourse could advance virtually and in-person, under the evolving pandemic circumstances.

Also, 2021 is an important year where the GEF replenishment and strategy negotiations for the LDCF and SCCF take place. I am looking forward to a busy and engaging year of dialogue with countries in support of scaled-up action on the environment and climate change.

Personally, as a mother, I would like my children to regain some semblance of normal physical human interactions beyond family this year. Our 2-year-old toddler has spent half of her lifetime in the pandemic. Her world at this point consists of about 10 people. I want my children to appreciate the world out there with people to see, nature to admire, cultures to appreciate, and lessons to learn.

Finally, 2021 is the year of the Olympics in Tokyo. I am so excited to be going home to watch the games with my family!