Ep40: Naoko Ishii 'Global Environment Facilitator'

“What we really need to see is a total system transformation”: Naoko Ishii discusses her time at the Global Environment Facility and how she sees the role of University of Tokyo in solving the global tragedy of the commons.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Professor Naoko Ishii, Director of the Center for Global Commons at the University of Tokyo.

This is an abridged version of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Naoko, welcome to Cleaning Up. During this terrible pandemic, what have you been doing?


Naoko Ishii: I moved from Washington DC, where I worked at the Global Environment Facility for eight years, back to Tokyo.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) was established in 1991, before the first Earth Summit in Rio. Around that time climate change convention, biodiversity convention, and a little later the desertification convention were reached. The GEF was created to help developing countries to meet the obligations coming out of those three conventions. My duties as the CEO included raising funds from donor countries, around one billion per year, coming up with a program, distributing the funds, monitoring the implementation and reporting to the Board. However, for the last 30 years, not only my eight years, it become abundantly clear that this mechanism actually doesn’t work. You can see what happened in climate. Every year, we get hotter and hotter air. And in terms of biodiversity, we are losing the biodiversity at an unprecedented rate. And of course the desertification is ongoing. So we are basically not able to stop this global environmental crisis in any way. So that is my eight years.


ML: I think you're being a little harsh on yourself. Your eight years were 2012 through to 2020. So you saw, on the climate front, Copenhagen, and then Paris, and then you saw right the way through till, not quite to Glasgow, COP26, but you saw the impact that that was having with all these net zero pledges. So, you know, are you being fair by saying that it's just a complete failure?


NI: I’m not saying I am failing or the GEF is failing, I'm saying this entire system is failing, the mechanics is failing. And actually, I did my very best to try to transform this small institution, GEF to be up to the expectation. When I assumed that job in 2012, we had 1000 or 2000 projects, and maybe $10 billion had been distributed, a lot of good experience here and there. But the first question I was asked when I landed at the GEF was: those thousands of projects, do they really catalyze a systemic change which we need? And the answer is, unfortunately, not exactly, because every project has its own good thing. But we are not clearly able to bring those small projects to one systemic change, either to the decarbonisation of the energy system, or to transformation of the food system, or to change in the design of the cities.


ML: You've gone on this journey from, as you say, individual projects to understanding that essentially, you can do lots of good but you can't really solve the problem. So we failed, where you started our conversation, being very harsh on yourself. And now you're working on the whole system as the inaugural director of the Center for the Global Commons at Tokyo University. What’s your role? How are you addressing the problem?


NI: The President of the University and I share the belief that the University should be catalyst for social change: it shouldn't be seated in the campus. We have to really go outside and bring the business people, government officials and citizens, both as consumers and investors together and create a platform.  And of course the University contribution should be more like research or the intellectual leader. But then we are also trusted as a natural, maybe authentic or neutral player to bring those different stakeholders together. So the dream is big.

But the reason I established this Center for Global Commons is that I realize there is a limit to what this inter-governmental system can achieve. What we really need to see is a total system transformation: everybody from business to consumers and investors, a new Bretton Woods.

The other reason why I decided to come back to Tokyo and to create the Center of the Global Commons, is I want to  help  bring Japan back to international sustainable community, because during the last eight years at the GEF I have very rarely heard that voices from Japan.


ML: Let me challenge you on the name though: you've called it Center for the Global Commons and this  draws on the terminology, initially from Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons”, right? And the response always to the tragedy of the commons is, well, you need supra-commons, you need a level of regulation above the commons that allocates resources and keeps everybody in line and polices that. I prefer the tradition coming out of, you know, Elinor Ostrom and Robert Axelrod: evolution of cooperation, not top-down governance of the commons. But we think about the ways in which everybody's interests can align, I don't want to say naturally or automatically, because I think you have to work very hard at it. But through property rights, through clarifying incentives, making sure that people understand what they can and can't control that you end up with better outcomes, the commons get managed well. And I would argue that when you look at things like the Paris Agreement, it's much more Elinor Ostrom than it is Garrett Hardin.


NI: Elinor Ostrom really has shown us that within the local community, where people do understand who the other members of the community are, they understand the tradeoffs and they share the same interest, if they all cooperate together, then the outcome would be they’d better off. But the challenge is that when our economy has been globalized we really don't see this connection between our own deeds and their consequences. So I named the center a Center for Global Commons, because the objective or our dream, is to replicate this local model at the global level. And as you just said, we need a lot of work, but first we need to understand that there are consequences of our own deeds: maybe they show somewhere else in the global environment first, but they will come back to us later.


ML: Before we conclude, I want to ask you about one thing: I've been to Japan many times, and it's probably of all the business environments I've been in, the most male-dominated. I mean, I've been in the corridors of Japanese companies, where the women literally are bowing to the executives as they pass, and they're all men. And yet, you've had this stellar career. Did you always know you were going to succeed?


NI: No, not at all. To me, it's more like a day-to-day survival game. And so when I was very young, at the Ministry of Finance, which is really, really male-dominated society, to me, it's more like a survival instinct. So I never really talk about the gender issue and I completely ignore that entire kind of bias or the challenge, and then that by doing that too long, I somehow also forgot about this agenda… It really didn't bother me until very recently, for good or bad.

But then when I moved on to the international space, what I actually saw as the bigger challenge was not really the gender, it was my nationality. Because in Japan, it's really more like a hierarchical society. The top doesn't have to communicate with the bottom. When I moved to the World Bank or the GEF later, that there was a huge expectation at a senior level, or particularly the CEO level to communicate this mission, vision and the values to the entire institution. And that was very, very new to me.