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Canadian brings a spotlight to global environmental action to help developing countries

When environmental leaders from around the world gather in Vancouver for the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) Assembly from August 22 to 25, it will be a milestone event for Canada and a poignant moment for Tom Bui, Director of Environment at Global Affairs Canada.

The GEF is the world’s largest funder of biodiversity protection, nature restoration, pollution reduction and climate change response in developing countries. The Assembly is held every 4 years, bringing together representatives of 185 member countries, implementing agencies, UN conventions, civil​ ​society organizations, Indigenous peoples, academia and business leaders. ​This is the first time the event will take​​ ​place in a developed G7 country.

For Bui, ​who is also ​the elected co-chair of ​the organization’s governing body, ​the GEF Council, Canada’s hosting of the gathering ​is the next step in​ a career spent at the intersection of humanitarian, economic and environmental action.

Tom Bui speaks into a microphone as co-chair.
Tom Bui says his career is focused on creating solutions for people and the planet.
Credit : Angeles Estrada/IISD/ENB

“My public service life has always been devoted to solving problems,” he says.

A life journey about purpose

Born in Hue, Vietnam, Bui was put on a boat by his mother in 1981 at the age of 9, accompanied by an aunt​. He​​ ​came to Canada as a refugee two years later. ​Growing​ up in Vancouver​, he​​ ​studied business​ with a​​ ​specializ​ation​​ ​in finance​.​​ ​But rather than enter the lucrative world of investment banking​, he​ opted for a career in public service.

“Happiness comes when one is useful and works to deliver meaningful results for the most marginalized,” says Bui. “My journey in life has always been about purpose, to help create solutions for people and the planet.”

Bui worked in the field of international finance and debt relief in the federal government and ​at ​the World Bank, with a focus on developing countries. He was ​D​irector of ​R​efugee ​P​olicy at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, wh​ere he​ says ​he aimed​​ ​to “pay it forward for past human kindness I received over the years.” He joined Global Affairs Canada in 2009, serving in ​international development ​roles​ ​that included ​P​rogram Director for Vietnam, ASEAN and Indonesia. He came to his current position ​3​​ ​years ago, heading a team responsible for Canada’s relationships with ​global​​ ​environmental processes. This includes climate​ ​change policy, international biodiversity policy and programming, oceans programming and environmental integration.

​​​Bui points out that issues​ ​ranging ​from ​rising sea levels to​ desertification ​have the greatest impact on low-income​ countries. “If​ you think about it, who actually suffers the most from environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change? It’s billions of people who cannot afford air conditioning, who cannot afford to move around to get food,” he explains. “Their livelihoods get wiped out and some die of famine, some die of heatstroke, others lose their lands and their homes.”

Making a small contribution

The problem hits close to home. Bui’s mother ​still ​live​s​ in Hue​, along with his two brothers and their families​. With a heart condition and other health complications, she has been warned that the ever-higher temperatures in Vietnam make it dangerous for her to go outside during the day. “Her doctor told her that she can only leave her house during the night,” Bui says.

“When you see so many people—it doesn’t matter if it’s only your family—suffering, and if you’re in a position where you can make a small contribution, then you have to ask yourself, ‘Why not?’” Bui says. He sees an important link between climate action and advancing the Sustainable Development Goals agenda, because “you cannot reduce poverty without protecting the health of the planet.” That is especially the case as a lot of food comes from regions ​with forests​ and coastal waters, he notes. “Everybody depends on it.”

In addition to his position with the GEF, Bui sits on the board of the Green Climate Fund, which assists developing countries in climate change adaptation and mitigation practices. He​ is​​ ​especially attracted to solutions that have multiple purposes, such as the restoration of mangrove forests along coastlines, which allow local communities to catch fish to eat while acting as storm breaks for the land. “I call these ecological investments to protect the health of the planet but also the health of humans and communities and families.”

Tom Bui speaks leans toward William Ehlers and speaks to him directly.
Tom Bui speaks with William Ehlers, Secretary to the Council in the GEF Secretariat, at the meeting of the GEF Council in Brasilia in June 2023.
Credit : Angeles Estrada/IISD/ENB

He feels it​’s​ important to enlist the private sector in finding and implementing environmental solutions, such as eliminating the use of mercury in gold mining and preventing deforestation. He contributed to the development of the GEF’s first-ever Private Sector Engagement Strategy. “This is not about saying, ‘The public sector knows best​,​’​”​ ​says Bui. “​We should all work together. It’s about collective action and true partnership.”

He especially appreciates the GEF Small Grants Programme, which provides ​modest​ amounts of money to organizations taking part in environmental action. For example, ​the program helped​ the Women’s Union o​f​ Hoi An, an ancient city ​and​​ ​UNESCO World Heritage Site ​south of Hue, where Bui is from ​in Vietnam​.​ ​Through the funding, the group established​ a scheme for collecting, sorting and disposing of waste. This gave work to low-income women in the area, shifting the social fabric of the community and making them advocates for the environment.

A voice for women, Indigenous people and youth

​​According to Bui, women, girls and​ Indigenous people are the most affected by climate change and biodiversity loss, but they “often are not well represented” in the discussion of environmental issues. ​He says it’s important​ for such groups to be recognized as stewards of the Earth and to have a voice in what the GEF does.

He​’s encouraged​ by the activism of people like Greta Thunberg of Sweden and others who are “coming on board to contribute what they can to fight this existential crisis for themselves, for their families, for their communities and for all people. ​That gives me hope.”​

The father of two teenage boys, he’s concerned about the world that​’s being​ left to them—​though he worries​ ​more about children​ in developing countries.

“My kids are actually quite well-off,” he comments. “If you are thinking about the human family, then you want all kids to have a healthy home and planet and some sort of promising future, with as few worries as possible.”

Bui is proud of the leadership that Canada has shown on biodiversity and the protection of nature. The country was one of the founding members of the GEF in 1991 and is among its largest donors. Canada has also been influential in encouraging the organization to focus on its environmental priorities such as gender equality, youth engagement and including Indigenous people in decision making.

Bui notes the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) summit held in Montreal last December brought a landmark deal. It set up the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to protect species and ecosystems globally.

A gathering of the GEF family

At a meeting in Brasilia in June, the GEF Council agreed to create a new Global Biodiversity Framework Fund. That is expected to be ratified and launched at the GEF Assembly in Vancouver, Bui says, as is the use of the GEF to support a new UN High Seas Treaty.

A large group of members of the GEF Council sits in front of signs reading Global Environmental Facility.
The GEF Council in June 2023 agreed to create a new Global Biodiversity Framework Fund and use the GEF to support a new UN High Seas Treaty.
Credit : Angeles Estrada/IISD/ENB

The event will also be an “important gathering of what we call the entire GEF family,” Bui says. “You can call it an assembly of environmental brothers and sisters trying to work together to protect the health of the planet for all of us.”

Bui hopes participants will leave the event “re-energized and with new connections and collaborators for environmental initiatives.”

Asked if he’s hopeful that he ​can ​personally help to make a change, Bui says, ​“It’s too heavy​ for anyone to have the entire world on their shoulders.” Instead, he takes ​the following approach: “If I’​m able to make a small contribution at every task, every day, then I​’​m happy with that. I will keep my chin up, and then encourage others to do the same and go on the journey with me.”

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