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COVID-19 and the biodiversity crisis

COVID-19 and the biodiversity crisis
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As the U.S. faces yet another peak of COVID-19 infections, it’s worth remembering how we got here. 

We have yet more evidence regarding the origin, emergence and impact of pandemics from a new report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Not only do novel zoonotic diseases pose an “existential threat to health and welfare” but without preventative strategies, we are likely to see even more outbreaks in the future. The report is unequivocal: “The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change.”

Given these clear links between viral disease emergence and wildlife and habitat destruction, one might expect a rush of funding commitments and policy changes from governments. In reality, while the U.S., Europe, China and others have spent trillions of dollars of stimulus since the COVID-19 pandemic began, very little of it is going to nature conservation or to halt the drivers of biodiversity loss.

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I recently led a team of scientists and economists to assess current recovery efforts, and unfortunately, these investments are not being used effectively enough to target the environmental mess we’ve made. Some countries have prioritized climate by allocating funds for low-carbon infrastructure and renewable energy, but while attention to climate change is necessary, it is not sufficient by itself.  

Only the European Commission and some member countries are making nature-based investments within their economic recoveries, and even there, support is generally under 10 percent of total funding. Other governments, including New Zealand, India and Pakistan, are proposing investments in jobs like ecological restoration, but only at very modest levels. 

Further, a number of states, including the U.S. and China, have allocated essentially zero stimulus or recovery funds to biodiversity. Some measures are even taking us in the wrong direction. Reducing green taxes, subsidizing harmful practices like overfishing and relaxing environmental regulations are all backwards steps currently being taken by countries from Australia to Vietnam. 

We don’t need to make these mistakes. In fact, there are a number of steps that would aid economic reconstruction while at the same time addressing many of the root causes of biodiversity loss. At the minimum, recovery packages should “do no harm” to ecosystems, and at their most ambitious, could transform the global economic system to support interlocked biodiversity, climate and wellbeing challenges.

We could, for example, prioritize bailouts to businesses that do not harm biodiversity and put restrictions on those that accept investment. For example, after the 2008-2009 automotive bailout, the Obama administration had leverage over car manufacturers to increase fuel economy standards. Businesses receiving COVID-19 stimulus funds should be required to have biodiversity risk mitigation plans or disclosures of impacts on nature, particularly for industries with the largest known footprints, including the agribusiness, apparel, mining and energy sectors.

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In another example, local budgets are currently under enormous stress as tax revenues have fallen, particularly authorities who cannot borrow or go into debt. This is forcing hard choices with long-term consequences: the mayor of New York City, facing a budget deficit of close to $9 billion, proposed a 10 percent cut to the city’s parks department budget, despite green space providing important physical and mental health benefits during lockdowns. 

Instead, to raise more money without cutting essential natural services, we could eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies. Globally, on average around $680 billion is spent per year on public subsidies for fossil fuel extraction that generate carbon emissions as well as water and land pollution at sites of extraction and processing. That money could be redirected to more productive and nature-conserving ends.  

One area for increased funding is government-supported work programs. Just as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was used during the Great Depression, restoring nature and expanding green infrastructure can be a source of both income and ecological benefits. Modest investments in ecosystem restoration can create numerous well-paying jobs that can be deployed immediately. Given current demands for increased racial justice, and the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color, such employment programs should be targeted to harder-hit areas.

Disruptive change has led to dramatic environmental transformations in the past. We currently have a unique opportunity to seize the moment to reconsider what the post-COVID-19 world should look like. Quick fixes to get economies back on track will fail to address the deep preexisting sustainability and inequality challenges we face. We must instead think about what kind of economy we want and need for a resilient and just future for people and nature, but that requires a bold vision that unfortunately few countries seem currently willing to undertake.

Pamela McElwee is an associate professor of Human Ecology at Rutgers University, and has served as a lead author scientist for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Global Assessment report published in 2019, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land.