We knew it was important, but not this important: why nature matters in a pandemic

03 Apr 2020

A blog from Deborah Long, LINK Chief Officer. 

Today, more than ever before, we need to focus on the essentials for everyone: good living and working conditions, clean water and air, a thriving natural world, a safe climate for the next generation, and strong and functioning democracies that will continue to protect us in times of need. Today, we also need hope: hope that the future, once we emerge from the current crisis, will be a better one for us all. Focussing on this may help us now.

We now know that the two hugely important UN environment summits in 2020 have been postponed: the Climate COP26 hosted by Glasgow will now take place in 2021 and the date of the October Nature COP15 in Kunming, China, is being adjusted. When the rescheduled Climate and Nature COPs get underway in 2021, they need to deliver on the world’s priorities.

This was the only decision that could have been made at this juncture and it is the right decision for the wellbeing of our international society. We are in the midst of global pandemic where governments, health workers and communities across the world are putting all their resources and mental and physical energy into combatting this pandemic as it continues to kill thousands of people across the world. Our NHS workers are doing an amazing job. They need the reassurance that we learn the lessons of this pandemic so we prevent future ones but have in place the structures for a better response if needed.

However, 2020 had been seen as a year of hope for the environment: there was the explicit acknowledgement from governments, with the Scottish Government a welcome early leader, of the climate emergency and the nature crisis. With Scotland playing a key role in both COPs, we had high hopes that government and society were finally seeing the environmental impacts we were having across the world as the truly unsustainable impacts they were. We must not lose the hope, however, that when we start to come out of the current crisis, we move forward into a sustainable trajectory – one that counters dangerous climate change, restores nature and builds just societies. Nature sustains us and the interconnectedness between healthy ecosystems and healthy people has been underlined by the pandemic. One is simply not possible without the other.

If anything, the current pandemic, shines an unflinching light on the unsustainable ways the world has been operating. Professor Josef Settele from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, co-chair of the IPBES Global Assessment Report, noted: “Despite some questions remaining, the global state-of-the art in science undoubtedly shows: The conservation of intact ecosystems and their characteristic biodiversity can reduce the emergence of infectious diseases. Humanity depends on functioning, diverse ecosystems. By destroying ecosystems we are also destroying our livelihoods, as the coronavirus epidemic is showing. That is why we have to join together and commit to transforming our society to protect our foundations of life.”

UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen has summed it up: “There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give,” she added. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”

Over the last week, countries are launching stimulus packages to support SMEs, citizens who have lost their jobs or income sources, and the health sector. They are doing this amidst calls to bail out airlines, cruise ship companies, the fossil-fuel sector. We cannot afford to forget that what we spend today will define the future, so we should spend it wisely. Our decision-makers face difficult choices, and it is fundamental that these are carefully considered, that funding decisions are transparent, and that they are conditional on delivering public goods. We cannot afford to allow losses to be nationalised and profits to be privatised as has happened too often in the past.

Under the pressure to act, governments are looking for blueprints for the ideal recovery stimulus package. We would do well, despite Brexit and whatever that brings, to look at the ‘greenprint’ of the European Green Deal. Although not perfect, the framework it offers has the potential to become a truly transformative agenda, driving the decarbonisation of our economies while creating millions of secure jobs and shifting from linear resource-intensive production models to more sustainable circular ones that seek zero waste. This will improve the resilience of our economies. It needs to include effective mechanisms to halt biodiversity loss and resource over-extraction. And to be successful, it must support the resilience of our ecosystems and strengthen our communities. The current crisis has underlined not only the importance of human health to us all, but also the fundamental importance of natural systems with space to function. A framework like the European Green Deal has the potential to put wellbeing of people, built on the wellbeing of nature, at the heart of policies.

In Scotland, work on updating the Climate Change Plan in light of the ambitious emissions reduction targets adopted in September last year has understandably been paused too. However, it is vital that when the grip of this pandemic has eased that attention quickly returns to this necessary update to put us on track to net-zero. Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham’s statement that the Plan will now contribute to “a green recovery for Scotland” is a welcome sign that the environment will be viewed as central to economy going forward.

For today, and in the coming weeks, we face a choice. It is far from guaranteed that our response to the crisis will be one that bounces us forward to a more sustainable future, and not undermined by responses that prop up polluting activities and that risk creating more problems in the future. The truth is it would be dangerous to return to business as usual after the Covid-19 virus because business as usual gave rise to many of the dangers we still face, not least climate breakdown, catastrophic loss of biodiversity and global plastic pollution. That’s why LINK and our members have been calling for a just transition to a green economy, which values the welfare of workers and our communities and is founded upon healthy and fully functioning ecosystems on a resilient planet. We are looking for a better immediate future for us and a better longer-term future for our children.


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