The world faces a more serious climate crisis after Covid-19 lockdowns have started easing and economic activity begins. It is feared harm to biodiversity and its catastrophic effects could be even worse when life returns to normalcy after the pandemic ends in few months.
In fact, the coronavirus and emerging infectious diseases in humans are being linked to human impact on the environment. The virus has killed hundreds of thousands of people and shrunk the global economy by trillions of dollars and the damage could be more serious if the climate crisis is left unaddressed. According to the UN Environment Program (UNEP), human impact is increasing the risk of emerging infectious diseases in humans, over 70 of which originate from animals, mainly from wildlife. Plans for post-Covid-19 recovery, and specifically plans to reduce the risk of future epidemics, therefore, need to go further upstream than early detection and control of disease outbreaks. They also need to lessen our impact on the environment to reduce the risk at its source, it warned.
On this year’s World Environment Day on June 5, the United Nations drew links between the health of the planet and human health, while highlighting the importance of protecting biodiversity, the system that supports life. “At least 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases such as coronavirus, are crossing from the wild, to people, and transformative actions are urgently required to protect environment and human rights.
It urged countries to take urgent action to protect the environment and stop climate disruption, biodiversity loss, toxic pollution and diseases that jump from animals to humans. In his message, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, “Nature is sending us a clear message. We are harming the natural world, to our own detriment. Habitat degradation and biodiversity loss are accelerating, climate disruption is getting worse. To care for humanity, we must care for nature.”
The world population has doubled over the past 50 years, and the global economy grew fourfold over the period and it disturbed the delicate balance of nature, creating ideal conditions for pathogens, such as coronavirus, to spread. As countries open up, and governments approve stimulus packages to support job creation, poverty reduction, development and economic growth, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), is urging them to “build back better”.
It involves capturing opportunities for green investment such as renewable energy, smart housing, green public procurement, and public transport guided by the principles and standards of sustainable production and consumption. A failure to do so, warns UNEP, and an attempted return to business as usual, risks seeing inequalities rising even further, and a worsening of the degradation of the planet, at a time when one million animal and plant species are on the brink of extinction.
In its manifesto for a better recovery from Covid-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said,” The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet. Any efforts to make our world safer are doomed to fail unless they address the critical interface between people and pathogens, and the existential threat of climate change that is making our Earth less habitable.”
Currently, over seven million people a year die from exposure to air pollution – 1 in 8 of all deaths. Over 90pc of people breathe outdoor air with pollution levels exceeding WHO air quality guideline values. Two-thirds of this exposure to outdoor pollution results from the burning of the same fossil fuels that are driving climate change. At the same time, renewable energy sources and storage continue to drop in price, increase in reliability, and provide more numerous, safer and higher paid jobs. Energy infrastructure decisions taken now will be locked in for decades to come. Factoring in the full economic and social consequences, and taking decisions in the public health interest, will tend to favour renewable energy sources, leading to cleaner environments and healthier people.
Several of the countries that were earliest and hardest hit by Covid-19, such as Italy and Spain, and those that were most successful in controlling the disease, such as South Korea and New Zealand, have put green development alongside health at the heart of their Covid-19 recovery strategies. A rapid global transition to clean energy would not only meet the Paris climate agreement goal of keeping warming below 2C, but would also improve air quality to such an extent that the resulting health gains would repay the cost of the investment twice over.
According to the WHO, diseases caused by either lack of access to food, or consumption of unhealthy, high calorie diets, are now the single largest cause of global ill health. They also increase vulnerability to other risks – conditions such as obesity and diabetes are among the largest risk factors for illness and death from Covid-19. Agriculture, particularly clearing of land to rear livestock, contributes about one-fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and land use change is the single biggest environmental driver of new disease outbreaks. There is a need for a rapid transition to healthy, nutritious and sustainable diets. If the world were able to meet WHO’s dietary guidelines, it would save millions of lives, reduce disease risks, and bring major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.
The way the global crisis of environmental degradation has started affecting the world population and wildlife, it will become the biggest challenge ever faced by humans in few decades. Global heating puts pressure on resources, as extreme weather, including heatwaves, droughts, floods and fiercer storms, grows more frequent and devastating. Socioeconomic risks could increase significantly for those living in urban areas of Pakistan and India by 2050 as heatwaves push up against the limits of human endurance and survivability, the McKinsey Global Institute warned in its report. Hot and humid countries, like Pakistan, are expected to become significantly hotter and more humid by 2050. It would impact workability in urban settings, and the report expects an average ten-percentage-point loss in annual share of effective outdoor working hours in heat-exposed regions between today and 2050.
Environmental degradation now affects our lives in ways that are becoming impossible to ignore, from food to jobs to security. The irony is that most countries, which are worst affected by climate change, like Pakistan, have not contributed to the problem. They are paying the price for the greed and reckless policies of the advanced countries. The world’s leading climate scientists have warned that our current actions are not enough for us to meet our target of 1.5C of warming. We need to do more to save the planet and ourselves.