A Reflection on World Environment Day: Is There Really A Silver Lining for Nature Amidst This Pandemic?

A Reflection on World Environment Day: Is There Really A Silver Lining for Nature Amidst This Pandemic?
June 4, 2020 5:38 pm Blog

By Edudzi Nyomi, WA BiCC Communications Specialist

In the early weeks of self-isolation and physical distancing, a few curious friends asked my opinion about the supposed positive environmental effects of COVID-19 stemming from us staying at home. The question remains legitimate even as countries around the world—including Ghana, where I live—have substantially eased restrictions on movement, because humans cannot totally go back to business as usual. Not yet, at least.

Thus far, we have seen China banning wildlife trade and the demand for oil dropping, among other “positive” signs of our natural environment thriving amidst the coronavirus. To some, it also appears as if we are unintentionally mitigating climate change, reducing land degradation, fighting illegal wildlife crimes, and filtering the air of all the unwanted gases. But is that really what’s happening? Is this even worth celebrating if true?

I will be the first to admit that the conservationist in me jumped at the mere thought of nature winning in these times; however, on second thought, celebrating now is too premature—if not totally misplaced. We are in the middle of a health and humanitarian crisis. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it, “Our human family is stressed, and the social fabric is being torn. People are suffering, sick, and scared.” Over 360,000 people have died so far, and that figure does not include the non-coronavirus patients who continue to be victims of overwhelmed healthcare systems. Over 40 million people in the United States have filed for unemployment since the pandemic forced a shutdown, and this narrative is mirrored in almost every part of the world. People’s livelihoods have come to an unpredictable and unprecedented standstill, leaving them with more questions than answers in these uncertain times. Political commentator, social activist, and Grammy Award winner Belcalis Almanzar emphasized this more aptly when she said: “We’re dyingggg!” That’s Cardi B, in case you missed it. So yes, we may be rejoicing, but at the wrong time. Inger Anderson, Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, rightly said, “Visible, positive impacts are but temporary, because they come on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.”

Temporary silver lining aside, the environmental effects of a global event are still worth noting for different reasons. First, to learn practical ways of making environmentally sustainable lifestyle choices post-pandemic. More importantly, for governments and industries to revisit, amend, and implement actions that could go a long way in conserving our natural environment. But actions aside, what do we know about pandemic-related environmental effects and shifts in 2020?

Let’s look at climate change, which is recognized by many as the biggest environmental, social, and economic crisis now and in the days and years ahead. Prior to the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, carbon emissions never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm) in 800,000 years. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, emissions have exceeded 300 ppm and are well over 400 ppm, leading to global warming, which continues to threaten our health, property, and the natural environment we rely on. The trend has changed since COVID-19, though. Many industrial activities have ground to a near-halt. Global demand for oil and coal has dropped. The United States has imposed lockdowns of different scales across different parts of the country, which means the second highest greenhouse gas emitter in the world has less industrial activity and fewer cars on the road. This might seem like good news since the transportation sector emits more greenhouse gas than any other sector in the United States. In total, global greenhouse gas emissions are expected to drop by as much as 8% this year—the largest drop ever recorded. A win on the surface, but nothing to cheer about on the back of deaths and job losses amidst a pandemic. Also, on the other hand, people are spending more time at home, which almost obviously means consuming more electricity, another major greenhouse gas contributor. Clearly, assuming a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is not as straightforward as many think.

Another note of caution is what impacts climate change may have on possible future pandemics, as forest habitats are impacted and we interact with potential vectors more and more. In addition, a net reduction in emissions now does not equate to a permanent reduction in the years ahead. The world needs to reduce emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade to meet UN targets of reducing emissions to safe levels. It will take deliberate actions by governments and industries to achieve more sustainable gains. The other option is to have a pandemic of this scale lasting our entire lives. We all know which one sounds less appealing.

A traffic jam on a freeway at night.
Transportation is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Credit: Pixabay

On other environmental issues such as wildlife and biodiversity, we have seen China publicly declare a shutdown of its wet markets after it came under heavy scrutiny for allegedly causing the current outbreak and other disease outbreaks in the past, although this kind of a sea change in human consumptive behavior will not happen overnight. Still, the voices of conservationists are louder than ever. Some have called for a permanent shutdown of all wildlife markets across the world. Others have suggested a more nuanced approach of ensuring that human interaction with wildlife is safe and minimal through regulated human activities. If events following past zoonotic disease outbreaks are anything to go by, including the catastrophic outbreak of Ebola here in my region not that long ago, the second group of conservationists has a more realistic and practical appeal.


Animals in a cage
Rodents at a wet market in Shenzhen, China. Credit: Daniel Case

We may not know the outcomes of these requests and suggestions, but one certain thing is that world governments have damaged economies on their hands, waiting to be fixed in the aftermath of this pandemic. The IMF revised global growth projections downward for 2020 and Sub-Saharan Africa could face a severe food security crisis, according to the World Bank.

Ecotourism—the financial backbone of conservation in many African countries—has ground to a halt, leaving us with the big question: who is paying for conservation now? The rangers protecting our plant and animal resources find themselves in a tight spot if they can’t rely on ecotourism to provide for their families right now. On a regular day, their lives are threatened by poachers and other criminals. In times like this, you could easily imagine some of them considering the other side—the lucrative illegal wildlife crime industry. The biodiversity threats assessments for Nigeria and other West African countries conducted by the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) program before this pandemic, highlight the grave reality of how natural resources are overexploited and trafficked in many parts of the world. Amidst a pandemic and with a stagnated stream of income in the ecotourism industry, more overexploitation is almost certain.

There is pressure everywhere, including pressure to accelerate growth by any means necessary. This could mean bad news for the environment. In one word: deregulation. Governments may be forced to loosen checks on human activities to accelerate growth, possibly to the detriment of our natural environment. There are reports coming out from Brazil and the US that this deregulation is not happening later; it is happening now. But just as deregulation is a choice, there is the option to swing in the other direction and rebuild economies on the foundation of green development. Governments have an opportunity to aggressively push for policies that incentivize a green energy transition and ensure sustainable development. Countries can better regulate the trade in natural resources, including wildlife, to protect our natural resources and to mitigate the possibility of another pandemic.

Restoring nature will take a lot more than a pandemic and its accompanying side effects. We miss the point of conservation if we think human activity should be at an almost standstill to restore environmental health. Pandemics and outbreaks of the past have taught me that environmental health and human health are not isolated—they go hand in hand. A pandemic of this scale does not magically solve our environmental problems. The perceived environmental benefits are temporary at best. Among other things, this pandemic gives us a reality check and clear reason to build a sustainable world for all, including elements of the natural environment. It gives us the chance to step back and factor environmental protection into our lifestyles and most importantly, in our governmental and institutional policies. That is more like the silver lining.



Edudzi Nyomi is an environmental scientist with a keen interest in using science communications to inform the public in an engaging way and promote behavior change. Edudzi earned an environmental science degree from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana before joining the West Africa Biodiversity and Climate Change (WA BiCC) program as an intern in 2017. Now a communications specialist and the program’s lead graphic designer, he covers issues related to biodiversity conservation and low-emissions growth in West Africa.

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