Last week I read an article published by Forbes titled ‘Climate Activists Missed The Real Threat’. The article argues that most countries will now be able to claim a reduction in carbon emissions for 2020 but this will not be the result of planned climate action, instead it’s a consequence of measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The author of the article states: ‘The enormous tragedy of the climate change movement is that, in their noble concern about an existential threat far into the future, they missed the one that actually hit us.’ I think there are plenty of people that could point to the impacts if climate change happening now, and to suggest that the threat is ‘far into the future’ is somewhat misleading.
Few people would deny that climate change is a reality and I fully support the campaigning that we’ve seen over the past few years; but I also can’t help thinking that we’ve diverted our energies from the bigger problem of biodiversity loss.
In the days and weeks following the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, commentators quickly pointed to the legal and illegal trade in wildlife as the cause. David Quammen author of ‘Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic’ (2012) wrote recently in the New York Times ‘We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.’ He then lists 11 viruses, since the 1960s, that have led to significant numbers of deaths in human and can all be traced back to animals – known as zoonoses.
Let’s for one minute consider whether we would still be in this position had the world been focused on biodiversity loss for the past 30 years. And I don’t mean the type of biodiversity loss commitment (or lack of it) that we see in planning policy, I mean a real concerted effort and full appreciation that losing biodiversity would harm the human race. And I say 30 years because it was in the early 1990s that world leaders met at the first UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
In this utopian scenario could we imagine a robust global policy against the illegal trade of wildlife with commensurate penalties for governments that failed to legislate? Would we have witnessed the forest fires in the Amazon last year? Would we take a different approach to the built environment that has caused the squeeze on wildlife that forces species to live in unnaturally close proximity – considered to be one of the causes of zoonoses?
Would we still have a laissez-faire attitude to the use of plastic and how it is disposed? Would we allow our soils to be drenched with a cocktail of lethal chemicals several times a year, killing wildlife and disrupting the food chain? Would governments be forced to focus on sustainable food systems to feed their nations, rather than encourage intensive agriculture that excludes wildlife, or turn a blind eye to illegal trade of what we might term ‘bush meat’?
Would objectives to restore biodiversity loss shift global economic priorities that benefitted people, the environment and the economy? I think so.
Quammen concluded his article: ‘We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.’
Covid-19 should make us all realise that we share one planet, and it’s pretty small. Actions, human actions, in one part of the world have ramifications in places many thousands of miles away. Palm oil, soy, coffee, beef, chicken, cobalt, lithium, cotton and many other products we take for granted come at an ecological price. The world is in ‘environmental debt’ and until we start to reverse the problems we’ve caused we can expect the consequences of our actions to bite back.
World leaders appear to ignore the monetary value of an untouched natural world (natural capital) but we can be sure that the financial cost of Covid-19 will be felt for years with current indices pointing to what is being described as the sharpest dive in the economy since the Great Depression.
So, if we really want to measure success by GDP then perhaps it’s time to invest in biodiversity.