By Claire Warmenbol. Whilst the world eagerly awaits a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, there is currently no better cure than prevention. Water and hand hygiene, physical distancing and mask wearing; all are central to stem the further spread of the virus. These reactive measures are saving lives, yet more proactive measures could no doubt have saved many more.
As we mark World Environment Day (WED) on 5 June, reflection shows us to heed warnings and take them seriously. And that is no different for environmental alarm bells. Dramatic facts abound on biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and climate change. Facts which we can not turn a blind eye to any longer. Under the banner of ‘Time for Nature’, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which organises WED, calls for people to recommit to protect the environment which we rely on for our health, water, food, medicines, clothes, fuel, shelter and energy. Being proactive, rather than reactive, in safeguarding our natural environment is by far the safer and cheaper option.
Just like global health, our environment is in crisis. We are losing species at a rate 1,000 times greater than at any other time in recorded human history. Ecosystems are being destroyed in exponential numbers, with wetlands disappearing three times faster than forests, and already we have lost a third of the planet’s forest cover. Marine life and fisheries are increasingly threatened as the ocean loses oxygen driven by climate change and pollution. The world's protected areas are degraded by poaching, expansion of agriculture, intensification of farming, and infrastructure. Warning signals go on unabated, with recent climatic records revealing the hottest April worldwide since data collection began.
We are living in exceptional times, times in which nature is reminding us that to take care of ourselves, we must take care of the environment which sustains us. People retreated more to nature and green spaces in cities during the COVID-19 pandemic as they provided coveted refuges and boosters for mental health. Mayors from the world’s leading cities have made calls the world cannot return to 'business as usual' after the pandemic.
The hashtag #BuildBackBetter is gaining much traction, for cities and anywhere else. Led by the US Green New Deal, the Build Back Better campaign aims for the economy to be rebuilt based on fairness and decarbonisation. In April 2020 the European Parliament called to include the European Green Deal in the recovery programme from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Positive signs emerge such as from Paris which is rolling out 650 km of "coronapistes" (projet RER Velo), and Milan which has a similar programme dubbed 'Il boom della bicicletta'. A slowing down of the meat industry’s output headlined in the New York Times last week. With animal agriculture recognized as a leading cause of global warming and forest loss, this shift can only be seen as a positive outcome. Likewise with global transport accounting for around a quarter of CO2 emissions, the Economist foresees a drastic reduction in the daily commute with working life entering a new era, bidding farewell to BC (Before Coronavirus) and welcoming AD (After Domestication) referring to major workplace transformations.
Nature underpins our economy. Already battered by the consequences of the pandemic, more than half of the economy's global goods and services – valued at roughly US$44 trillion - is dependent on nature (WEF). When ecosystems are damaged, from peatlands to mangroves to tropical rainforests, we not only destroy the habitat of species who call it their home, we destroy the foundation upon which our society and economy is built.
In the water sector, southeast Asia’s hydropower boom grinded to a halt as COVID-19 stalled projects. Amid possibly the worst drought in the Mekong region in four decades and the worsening impacts of climate change, observers say the virus-driven impacts have further put the viability of large scale hydropower projects in question. With reduced energy needs comes the opportunity for funds to be redirected towards better wastewater management, imperative for tackling pollution and improving public health. At the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, scientists are currently using wastewater to analyse samples in order to detect the COVID-19 virus before the disease is diagnosed clinically.
The pandemic has made the connection between environmental stress and human health much more apparent. Scientists who have analysed the link between viruses, wildlife and habitat destruction have warned humanity’s “promiscuous treatment of nature” needs to change or there will be more deadly pandemics. In the quest for remedies and vaccines, nature is an essential source of drugs used in medicine. Plants, animals and microbes enable the medical community to research remedies and treat diseases. Four billion people today rely primarily on natural medicines and 70 per cent of cancer drugs - whether natural or synthetic - are inspired by nature (WHO).
In our previous blog, we explored similarities between the climate crisis and the COVID-19 crisis. We concluded that for providing safe water and thereby improving people’s health, working across scales and systems will help in achieving more sustainable water management. It is no different for environmental management; the “new normal” needs to integrate business, politics, civil society, and nature.
As we have seen during the pandemic and its aftermath, international cooperation and joint efforts are key in dealing with planetary emergencies. Early and swift measures are critical but so is the need for inclusiveness and addressing social inequalities. COVID-19 exposed major gaps in countries' social and medical safety net, research suggests that those from lower economic backgrounds are more likely to catch the disease, and die from it. So too for environmental degradation and poverty: the lower your income, the more likely you will be exposed to toxins, the harder it will be to afford healthy food, and the more vulnerable you will be to environmental catastrophes.
Recent research by the World Resources Institute estimates that flooding will affect double the number of people by 2030, worsening the impacts of infectious diseases, as well as disproportionately affecting the poor often living in cheaper floodprone areas (hurricane Katrina being a point in case). Yet relocations or expensive concrete walls and dikes need not be the answer. Nature-based Solutions exist to abate flooding, such as leaving floodplains and wetlands intact to absorb the excess water. Doing so allows nature to continue performing its other ecosystem services, such as wetlands filtering pollutants and floodplains replenishing groundwater. A recent webinar on mobilizing NbS can be accessed here.
In quarantine, many people adopted earth-friendly habits that, if we can keep them, could make a difference in the long-run. The Washington Post listed five habits we should keep as we re-enter the world: 1. Keep zooming, walking and biking; 2. Keep making grocery lists; 3. Make meat the exception, not the rule; 4. Keep avoiding needless spending; and 5. Trust science.
As the IUCN Acting Director General, Dr Grethel Aguilar writes in her WED Statement: 'Transformative change is not just possible – it is the only choice we have that will ensure a sustainable future'. Warnings are ample but solutions exist and behaviour change is possible. If the world can be as dedicated to protecting nature as it was to flatten the curve, World Environment Day 2020 might just really do its tagline justice: Time for Nature.