Responding to Covid-19, Climate Change & Biodiversity Loss

Responding to the Covid-19 crisis informs how we deal with the dual challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.

I am writing this blog over an Easter Weekend like no other. In common with over half of the world’s population, I am with my family and under “lockdown” conditions due to the outbreak of the novel corona virus SARS-CoV-2, which has led to a pandemic of the Covid-19 disease that it causes.

I am one of the lucky ones – the weather is good, the sun is shining and I can enjoy the sound of birdsong and watch the emerging spring flowers in our small suburban garden. Many people around the world are not able to access the outdoors as easily or are in situations where isolating themselves is not practical or possible. As Europe counts the cost of its lockdown measures and begins tentative plans for gradually lifting restrictions over the next month or so, parts of the world still wait to find out how the pandemic will play out in their societies. 

In East Africa, where Carbon Tanzania works with three community-led forest conservation projects, the picture is far from clear. With less capacity to test for disease, and less ability to monitor and report health statistics, countries there may not know the full extent of the outbreak for many months. We feel very fortunate to have partner communities who bear the responsibility for protecting and managing their forest resources, and while our operations team is not able to visit the field at this time, we are nonetheless receiving regular updates with both images and video footage from the project managers on WhatsApp, emphasising the reality that many have experienced in the past month – that our modern internet connectivity is an enormous benefit, especially now that movement is so limited.

by focussing on the dual challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, we will be better protected from and prepared for future crises, whether they be infectious disease outbreaks or other shocks to the system.

Strange times indeed!

Carbon Tanzania’s projects protect community owned forests and the biodiversity that lives in them, and they do this while contributing to the global efforts to mitigate climate change. As the Covid-19 pandemic has taken hold of countries around the world, the response of governments, companies and individuals has been sudden, rapid and extreme. Policies have been introduced by governments who would have eschewed them in normal times, individuals have profoundly altered their daily habits and behaviour, and companies have been forced, often unwillingly, to adjust to either a lack of business, new business opportunities or temporary financial restrictions.

In this blog, which is longer than usual, I want to review some of the lessons that are being learned in the current crisis about how we might better deal with both climate and biodiversity risks, and to consider some of the opportunities there are to emerge from this global pandemic in a better position than when we were unwillingly, and mostly unwittingly, plunged into it. 

There is no way to diminish the seriousness of the crisis, or its impacts on individuals, companies and societies around the world. But the message of optimism that I see emerging is one that stems from the recognition that by focussing on the dual challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, as we at Carbon Tanzania have done, we will be better protected from and prepared for future crises, whether they be infectious disease outbreaks or other shocks to the system.

2020: The year for action on Climate Change and Biodiversity loss?

2020 has been promoted as the super year for nature and biodiversity, as well as the year in which action on climate change was expected to be significantly ramped up, with the now cancelled UNFCCC climate conference providing the focus for updating commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement. All this is now under threat due to the lack of ability of politicians, policymakers, scientists and activists to travel and to meet.

In the short term many commentators have pointed out that the crisis has been beneficial in reducing polluting emissions, with clean air and clear skies resulting from a lack of travel and industrial activity, while wildlife is also thriving in the absence of normal human activity. It is not all good news for wildlife though, and we are reminded that the lockdown, and absence of tourists in many wildlife areas, may create enhanced opportunities for poaching.

So despite the postponement of many meetings and negotiations this year, these issues will not go away, and the dramatic changes in industrial emissions and the improved state of nature brought on by the pandemic serve only to remind us that far reaching action is going to be needed to address them both in the long term.

This corona virus was not created in a lab, as many conspiracy theorists would have us believe, but comes directly from nature. And nature is in return giving mankind a very painful and costly reminder of the consequences of working against it rather than with it.

Deal with deforestation, and deal with disease outbreaks?

It is clear, and not altogether surprising to most ecologists, epidemiologists and conservationists, that our lack of regard for protecting and respecting nature is the source of many new zoonotic disease outbreaks. SARS in 2002, MERS in 2012 and the new corona virus can all be traced back to species of animals that are eaten by humans, or are being displaced, traded and trafficked by human societies. This corona virus was not created in a lab, as many conspiracy theorists would have us believe, but comes directly from nature. And nature is in return giving mankind a very painful and costly reminder of the consequences of working against it rather than with it.

Two problems: one big, one microscopic

Much has been written already about how the response to this crisis might shine a light on the tools and tactics that we should deploy going forward in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss. Many argue that this is the time to remake society and build a better future, rather than amplifying existing injustices, and that it is an opportunity to invest in economic activities that are sustainable and beneficial to wider society.

The comparison is being drawn between the way that governments have sprung into action to address this imminent threat and the similarly radical action that we know is needed to protect societies from the longer term, less immediate threat of a changing climate that will alter and disrupt the very systems on which human life has thrived for the past 10,000 years. As with the related challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, an effective response to the current pandemic relies on global solidarity, but we are all too often still seeing widespread disunity in global action even when faced with a single, fairly well characterised opponent.

The similarities between the two challenges are however striking. If we recognise that similar strategies are required to address both, then there is a chance that lessons learned in this unprecedented and worrying time may be remembered as the world prepares to restart economic activity with some, frankly, eye-wateringly enormous stimulus packages.

Global challenge – The first shared characteristic of the two issues is that they are truly global. Despite efforts to contain it and minimise transmission, the virus has reached virtually every corner of the world, reminding us that the actions of a small part of society in one country can impact all of our lives. Climate change is the same, we really are in the same boat and it is leaking below the waterline. Just because some of us are further from the place where the water is coming in does not mean that we are safe from its eventual effects!

Everyone is affected – The second key shared feature of the crises is that we are only as safe as the most vulnerable in the system. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, was recently admitted to hospital and spent a few nights in intensive care, demonstrating just how democratic this disease is. Similarly we are all going to be affected by climate change, whether directly through flooded homes or indirectly through shocks to the financial system that affect our investment portfolios or insurance premiums. The less comforting similarity between climate change and the corona virus is that both have a disproportionate effect on the poor and vulnerable in society, revealing inequalities that must be dealt with by all governments and societies.

Listen to science – A third important message that unites our efforts to deal with these two challenges is the need to support and finance, listen to and respect, science and scientific advice. In 2015 Bill Gates gave a TED talk that made it clear that we knew that a pandemic disease outbreak was likely, and that the world was not ready for it. And many scientists and experts around the world have clearly identified this risk over the past 20 to 30 years. With both climate change and potential pandemics, we have very closely modelled, measured, and understood the risk posed by these phenomena, but governments and policymakers have routinely kicked the decisions down the road to avoid painful and difficult political choices.

Address the cause, rather than relying on a cure – The fourth similarity speaks to the economists, to the financial system, and to those who make decisions about how it works and evolves. It is without doubt cheaper to invest early on in technologies, policy interventions, behavioural change and societal practices that address the cause of the problems (emissions, wildlife and nature mismanagement) than to wait for the bomb to drop and then to bear the cost of curing the disease or attempting to address the consequences of runaway climate change. All analyses show that it is going to be cheaper and less costly to the economy in the long run and less traumatic for society to keep warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, rather than to allow it to rise above this and then try to deal with the resulting issues, but it has been hard to convince people in power, often put there by fickle and demanding electorates, to make these tough decisions. But the old adage holds true for these global issues as much as for day to day personal practice – hard choices today, easy life; easy choices today, hard life. In this respect the economic system that has been in place for the past century has consistently failed to accurately assess long term risks, and has failed to price real world costs of investments and decision-making into economic models.

Look to nature

It is of course important to recognise that the key difference between dealing with the corona virus and dealing with climate change and biodiversity loss is that the speed of behavioural changes and action is directly proportional to the imminence of the threat. Climate change and biodiversity loss do not seem to be an imminent threat, and they feel far away from many of us both geographically and in time. But the fact that the mistreatment of nature has in this case lead directly to a globally catastrophic outbreak of a pandemic disease must give us pause for thought when we are next faced with a seemingly difficult choice between changing or modifying our behaviour today in order to save money and lives, and safeguard our economy, in the future.

One of the first radical “greens”, William Wordsworth never tired of reminding us of the importance of nature, for both our societal and individual mental health. He agitated and advocated for the recognition of nature as fundamental to human health, and for the formal protection of natural spaces. His thinking and activism were a significant factor in the creation of one of the world’s great national parks, the Lake District in northern England at a time when the Industrial Revolution was at its peak. As the world emerges from this current predicament, we must not let short term thinking continue to dominate our economic, social and individual strategies and behaviours. In this endeavour we should heed Wordsworth’s lines from his famous poem, written on the banks of the River Wye above Tintern Abbey:

“In nature and the language of the sense 
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, 
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul 
Of all my moral being.”

Written by Carbon Tanzania Director – Jo Anderson

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