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COVID-19 Is a Symptom of a Bigger Problem: Our Planet’s Ailing Health

6 minute read
Inger Andersen is the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.
Rockström is the chief scientist at Conservation International and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The COVID-19 outbreak is a global tragedy. Hundreds of thousands have died, healthcare systems are buckling, and the future is uncertain for millions of people whose livelihoods are collapsing. It is absolutely right that the focus today is on saving lives here and now. In the same spirit of doing what we can to safeguard people’s wellbeing, we must not content ourselves with containing the acute crisis. We must also look ahead to what we can learn from this crisis to prevent future risks. COVID-19 is a reminder of how vulnerable even our modern, technologically advanced societies are.

The biggest lesson is that COVID-19 is more than an illness. It is a symptom of the ailing health of our planet. Humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature has caused this wider disease. Understanding this root cause is critical, if we want to rise stronger after the crisis. COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus—meaning it spilled over from wild animals to humans—and evolved into a pandemic due to the now well-established risk cocktail of the 21st century: ecosystem destruction, species loss, global warming, colliding with risky human behavior like illegal wildlife trade. All of this has played out in a globalized network of trade and travel.

COVID-19 is not an isolated event. Research shows that 60% of all known infectious diseases in humans and 75% of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. As we move into natural habitats, and exploit ever more wildlife, contact between humans and disease-carrying species increases.

Zoonotic diseases aren’t the only symptom of poor planetary health. Climate change is an even more serious crisis; it potentially poses existential risks for future generations, and is already having real-time impact on millions globally, for example through extreme weather events such as cyclones and floods. Changes in climate have a multiplier effect, leading to other problems, from ecosystem stability to food production and human conflict. Ecosystem and biodiversity loss are threatening the planet’s ability to provide goods and services –deforestation for example, disrupts our weather patterns and the water cycle, contributes to climate change, and destroys the habitats of important species. Chemicals and waste are polluting the air, soil and water, killing millions each year.

All of these symptoms make clear that the planet’s health, and therefore our health, is deteriorating rapidly. And nature, just like a human, can only take so much before things reach the point of collapse.

We have known for a long time that we face a climate crisis and an ecological crisis. And now we are in the midst of another crisis, a tightly interconnected pandemic. It is not enough to focus only on economic recovery. Building resilience based on a whole-system approach is fundamental. This means the protection and sustainable management of our global commons—such as our atmosphere and the earth’s rich diversity of plant and animal species—must be center-stage of priority-setting in our societies.

This year was meant to be a “super year for nature,”—the world was due to agree on a global plan to protect and restore biodiversity beyond 2020. The next global climate meeting was scheduled to take place in Glasgow, with natural solutions to climate change a key issue for discussion and countries expected to propose new commitments to lower their emissions, in line with the Paris Agreement. The international community was also due to set out a framework for better management of chemicals and waste.

COVID-19 has made it crystal clear that we must deliver on these agendas. They are the means to form a blueprint for an economic and societal future that factors nature into everything we plan and build, from homes to cities to food systems.

But we cannot effectively address common global concerns, such as the environment, individually. The spread of this virus has proven once and for all that, in this globalized world, there are no local problems—pollution and pathogens know no borders. Faced with the multifaceted impacts of COVID-19, multilateralism has to evolve. Governments, businesses, the UN, international organizations, scientists and individual citizens need to unite as a single global community to safeguard people from avoidable risks.

After COVID-19, nothing will be the same. But life can be better. We have had a moment to think and reflect. Perhaps we don’t need as much stuff as we thought we did. Perhaps we can fill our lives with closer relationships, with moments, with creativity. Perhaps we recognize what really counts in our lives: being safe and being free. When we overcome COVID-19, we should not risk what we have won. We should do what we can to stabilize our environment, our support system. We need to think about how we can restore nature by living life differently.

One thing is clear. We cannot just develop a vaccine for COVID-19, call it “job done” and rev the economic engines back into the red. We need to use the reboot to incentivize sustainable innovation and green investment. The credits and subsidies that many governments are handing out so generously in this moment are not just a necessity—they are also a chance to direct economic progress towards sustainable development. This is an important insurance policy to avoid future pandemics.

To stabilize the climate, we have the Paris Agreement on keeping global temperature from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. This translates into reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. For biodiversity and ecosystem stability, we need a similar binding target to halt the loss of biodiversity. Of course, setting targets alone does not do the job. Governments must work hard to achieve them. However, we have an important window right now, thanks to the bailout programs and financial stimulus packages arising from the COVID-19 crisis. Coupling science-based targets on climate and nature with these recovery mechanisms is a key strategy we need to deploy now, to win twice: we build resilience against future shocks and we create healthier economies. Because investing in sustainability is not something we do for nature or for the climate. We do it for us.

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