World Resource Institute

WRI Annual Report 2020-21: A Conversation with Manish Bapna

A Conversation with Manish Bapna

With the departure of Andrew Steer from WRI in April 2021, Manish Bapna was named as Interim President and CEO. Following is a conversation with Manish on the state of WRI and the road ahead.

Q: You’ve been with WRI for more than a decade. What changes have you seen?

A: WRI has gone through a radical transformation over the past decade. We have become a truly global organization. We’ve moved from having 250 staff mostly in Washington to over 1,400 staff, the majority located outside of the U.S.

This is in no small part a response to the diversification of economic and political power in the world.

Our motto is Count It, Change It, Scale It! We’ve always been very good at the Count It and Change It. In recent years, we’ve focused more on Scale It—how to reach tipping points, the role of coalitions and the need for system change.

We also increasingly recognize the importance of tackling poverty and inequality, especially as the world recovers from the COVID pandemic and economic crisis. We won’t realize a sustainable future if people and equity aren’t at the heart of our goals and strategies.

You grew up shuttling between Chicago and Udaipur, India. How has that experience informed your work?

My childhood was a tale of contrasts. I spent my early years in a middle-class suburb outside of Chicago. But I also spent summers with my family in Udaipur, a beautiful city surrounded by lakes, near the desert in western India. In Udaipur, growth and development led to rapid deforestation and industrial pollution. Year after year, I saw water become scarcer and air dirtier. I also saw how this affected the rich and poor differently—and how different this all was from my experience in Chicago during the school year. The issues of poverty, equity and justice and how connected they are to a healthy environment really stood out to me from a young age.

WRI tackles huge, complex issues. Progress can feel slow. What gives you hope?

This is hard work. We focus on some of the most challenging problems facing society. But, at the same time, it can be very rewarding. We have seen some huge shifts over the last decade. When it comes to the climate or nature crises, the question is no longer why we should act or what we need to do, it’s about how we make it happen on the ground. It’s about moving faster and at scale.

What gives me hope? When you step back, we have made exceptional progress, even in the five years since the Paris Agreement. Who would have thought that the majority of large countries would have made commitments to net-zero targets? Who would have thought 1,200 large companies would commit to science-based emissions targets? And this goes beyond climate, as people are talking about a nature positive future, and a future where extreme poverty is eradicated. Now, we need to add teeth to these commitments and translate them into near-term action.

This has been an exceptionally challenging year. But, what, if anything, might you want to carry forward?

First off, the past year has been brutal for so many. And, it’s not over. The pandemic has revealed how inextricably linked we all are. To address a global challenge like the pandemic, we need a collective response. This is even more true for climate change, and related challenges such as food security, biodiversity, air pollution and ocean health. We also need a fairer response. A response that isn’t inclusive won’t be durable. We must not only build back better, but fairer, greener, and together. We need to carry these ideas forward, even after the pandemic has ended. If we do, we can get closer to achieving the world that we want.