Will nature be the coronavirus silver lining we are all looking for?
“Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic” the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, Inger Andersen, recently told the Guardian. Lots of commentary has been written about how the virus is giving our planet time to breathe, a chance to recover from the onslaught of destruction that the human race has a habit of raining down on it. But how true is this? And how do we ensure that this crisis for humanity has sustainable long-term positives for nature?
In the short-term, many positives for nature are already apparent. We’ve seen crystalline waters flowing through Venice, levels of toxic nitrogen oxide produced by vehicles plummeting across cities in Europe and Asia and researchers at Columbia University have recorded 50% drops in carbon monoxide in New York City versus usual levels. Greenhouse gas emissions are also currently down, with one analysis reported on in National Geographic estimating that the reduction in industrial activity and air travel could reduce EU emissions by 389 million metric tons this year - more than the annual emissions of France.
Wildlife too seems to be benefitting, particularly from the lack of noise and disruption. It can be a bit chicken and egg here, i.e. is there more wildlife around because it is quieter or is it that it is quieter so we can hear more wildlife? Most likely a combination of the two, but it leads nicely to another short-term positive: appreciation. To quote the famous song, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. Social media is flooded with photos of the beautiful walks people are now taking in nature in countries like the UK where they are only allowed out of lockdown once per day. Perhaps this enforced physical disconnection from nature is actually translating into a stronger emotional connection, which can only be a good thing for conservation.
On the negative side, the virus has meant a halt or reduced operations in much of the proactive conservation work already going on around the world, including protected area management. Whilst on a small scale, here at the Forest Healing Foundation we have had to press pause on a new community reforestation project. This would help local smallholder farmers to plant income-generating trees on their land and simultaneously help to increase soil water retention and combat severe erosion issues, both currently causing significant issues with water availabilityin the area. And it feels utterly inappropriate to even think about fundraising when so many people are now out of work or struggling financially. Non-profits across the world may begin to have issues paying staff or funding projects if grants and donations dry up.
But, as always, it is the unknown of the long-term that is scary. There are reasons for hope: a clear link has been made between deforestation and the increased human-animal proximity in an ever more urbanised world. As approximately 75% of new infectious diseases come from animals, there is more consensus now that we need to address this issue. The WWF also just published the results of a survey undertaken in March of 5000 people in five markets in Asia, which found that 93% would support the closure of all illegal and unregulated markets selling animals from the wild and 84% were unlikely to buy wildlife products on open markets again.
The response to the virus also gives us hope. A professor from Stanford University estimated that approximately 77,000 lives were potentially saved in Wuhan through the drop in air pollution over the two-month lockdown period. Overall though, we have proof that it can be done. Significant change can be made with enough impetus (you’d think that the weight of global scientific opinion crying out that we are heading for a climatic catastrophe would be impetus enough but, alas, apparently not). It goes without saying that this change happened under horrendous circumstances that will hopefully never be repeated, but the fact remains that large numbers of us can work from home and do our jobs perfectly well, we can buy food from our local shops and we can reduce our consumption of “unnecessary” products without enduring any unbearable hardship. This knowledge will be key to rethinking how we travel, purchase and do business in the future.
Then we come to the reasons for concern. The first is simply the risk that we just return to business as usual. A few months’ respite will not stop climate change and if we go straight back to our old ways then really what difference will a break for nature have made at all in the long-term? And there is that most hated word: recession. Recession has historically pushed environmental concerns further down the priority list and the damage could quite possibly be made worse as countries race to get their economies going again. The UK Foreign Secretary has already said that the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference scheduled for November in Glasgow is not certain to go ahead and environmentalists have voiced concern that the significant groundwork put in before these conferences is likely to be disrupted by the virus. There is a huge opportunity to emerge from this with a pathway for a cleaner, healthier world but the risk of going the other way seems all too real. As before, we remain perched precariously on an environmental cliff edge.
So what can we do about it? Well firstly, not return to business as usual. We can make decisions as individuals and with our employers about how we take learnings from this period forwards to sustain a positive impact for the planet. And secondly, we fight on and make as much noise as possible. We can use our newfound digital connectedness, as well as the aforementioned stack of case studies showing that change is possible, to shout loudly for nature and climate change to be fundamental to the virus “exit strategies” governments will be drawing up. It is a horrible time for people around the world right now but, thankfully, there will be an end to it and, amongst the relief, grief and recovery, we will need to make the right decisions to protect the health of people and planet. Only by doing so can we prevent future generations from also having to endure such crises.