The Future of Environmental Protection after COVID-19

Editor’s note: this article is longer than usual. Expect a 7-8m read.

The COVID-19 pandemic is such a terrible event that it will definitively make it into the pages of history books. Saying that the virus is a good thing because it has decreased our impact on the planet is not just immoral but also premature, as we’re not yet sure how this outbreak is going to play out from an environmental perspective.

It would be unscrupulous and logically flawed to thank the coronavirus for having locked us all inside our homes and put on hold activities harmful to the environment. First, we would be unforgivably saying that the deaths of over a hundred thousand people, the tears shed by countless families tore apart by the virus, and the struggles of millions who have lost their jobs are acceptable compromises for a better environment. The social issues that this pandemic is causing are some of the very ones we are trying to avoid by advocating for environmental protection. Therefore, such argument would also be highly hypocritical, other than deeply unethical, especially if made by environmentalists. Second, we would be biasedly focusing only on the potential benefits of the current pandemic. It is difficult to foresee how the world is going to react once the pandemic is over and whether the environment will become governments’ top priority.

(Possible) long-term “environmental pros” of coronavirus:

1a. Spotlight on environmental issues. The current pandemic may teach us and remind us about the importance of looking after the environment. The link between habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, wildlife trade and the outbreak of infectious diseases such as HIV, Ebola and COVID-19 is in front of everyone’s eyes. These destructive human activities are hampering the ability of healthy ecosystems to mitigate the outbreak of new diseases, and at the same time are increasingly bringing people and wildlife into contact, consequently fostering the risk of disease outbreaks.

2a. Positive behavioural changes (e.g., smart working, less travelling). The government-enforced lockdowns have meant that many businesses had no choice but to allow their employees to work from home. This may open the door and pave the way for more smart working in the future, which in turn would benefit the environment in several ways, such as through reduced traffic and air pollution.

Short-term pros:

1b. Lower pollution levels. Aviation and traffic decreased, most industries shut down, and this year may rank as the one with the least greenhouse gasses emissions in the recent decades. However, there is a concrete risk that emission levels will spike once the lockdowns are lifted. For example, emissions decreased significantly during the 2008-09 financial crisis but then during the economic recovery that followed in 2010 they increased more than they would have otherwise done, and have continued to rise ever since1.

(Possible) cons:

1c. Environmental protection may be further overlooked. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a global economic recession unprecedented in the modern times. Governments across the world are faced with having to make huge economic investments and financial decisions to safeguard their people. Even when the lockdown period ends, countries will still be desperately trying to get their economies back on track. They may thus be even less willing to invest in environmental protection than they have been in the past, to prioritise other economic aspects – which would nevertheless be a myopic and self-destructive move as now more than ever we know that environmental protection is crucial to prevent social/health/economic crises. Even charities appear to be badly hit by the new coronavirus2, which may be an issue particularly for the environmental sector which relies heavily on the work of not-for-profit groups.

2c. Bans on wildlife markets could exacerbate the illegal trade issue. Scientists and organisations from across the world have successfully urged the UN to pressure the Chinese government to end once for all wildlife markets3,4. Whilst in theory such bans would reduce the risk of pandemics and help lessen our impact on the environment, in practice they may do more harm than good. “Typically, prohibition does not deter all traders in marketplaces. This would mean that trade in some products would likely continue illegally. Traders would be motivated by financial profits, with an increased risk of trade being controlled by organised crime”, explain four interdisciplinary scientists based at the University of Oxford5. “Rushing to indiscriminately ban all wildlife trade in response to COVID-19 would not eradicate the risk of animal-to-human disease outbreaks. It could also have a severe impact on livelihoods and biodiversity. Improved regulations that focus on health, if implemented well, would avoid these effects while ensuring a low risk of future disease outbreaks”, they continue.

3c. Rises in poaching levels. Since aircrafts have been stuck on land due to coronavirus, ecotourism has dropped, which has meant that many national parks and protected areas have lost one of their main sources of income. The longer the lockdown situation persists, the greater the risk that some park rangers will be let go, which would in turn lead to increases in poaching levels. More in general, especially in developing countries where fewer income-generating opportunities are available, people that lose their jobs may turn to poaching as a last resort. For instance, in Kenya, 7,000 people working in a flower industry lost their job as their company went under because of coronavirus. “Those 7,000 people, they’re going to be hungry. They’re going to be looking for things, and there’s rhinos right next door”, worries Matt Brown, Africa regional managing director for the Nature Conservancy6. A combination of decreased surveillance and poverty could be a fatal blow for the conservation of endangered species whose body parts are highly valued on the black market7.

4c. Halted research and policy efforts. Data collection has stopped for many scientists across the world, and it will not restart until the end of the lockdown, meaning that a lot of studies risk to be compromised. Similarly, international meetings and government negotiations discussing the next policy and legislative steps for biodiversity conservation and climate change, which were due to be held this year, have been postponed, such as the UN’s COP 26 climate change conference delayed to 2021. Especially in the middle of an economic crisis, such delays may affect the political momentum that built up recently on addressing environmental issues, and result in poorer conference outcomes.

Keeping in mind that we may not necessarily be heading towards better environmental protection following this pandemic is key to never lose sight of what the governments are doing and be critical. We cannot allow social and political attentions to shift away from environmental protection which, amongst other things, is fundamental for the good health, prosperity and wellbeing of the global and future generations. 

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References

  1. Peters, G.P., Marland, G., Le Quéré, C., Boden, T., Canadell, J.G. and Raupach, M.R., 2012. Rapid growth in CO 2 emissions after the 2008–2009 global financial crisis. Nature climate change2(1), pp.2-4. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate1332
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/16/charities-face-cash-crisis-as-virus-fears-hit-fundraising
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/24/calls-for-global-ban-wild-animal-markets-amid-coronavirus-outbreak
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/06/ban-live-animal-markets-pandemics-un-biodiversity-chief-age-of-extinction
  5. https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-why-a-blanket-ban-on-wildlife-trade-would-not-be-the-right-response-135746
  6. https://www.wired.com/story/coronavirus-lockdown-conservation/
  7. Duffy, R. and St. John, F.A.V., 2013. Poverty, Poaching and Trafficking: What are the links? Technical report. Evidence on Demand. https://doi.org/10.12774/eod_hd059.jun2013.duffy

Cover image credits: https://bit.ly/2Xxg5Tr

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