One year ago, the world stood still due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the virus spread inexorably, and most of the world was in lockdown. As a society, those were traumatic and confusing days. The uncertainties regarding what was happening and what was going to happen were immense. In this context, we tried to find positive and comforting messages to calm our unsettling feelings. One of the first messages we heard in the media was ‘nature is healing its wounds’ and ‘the environment is having a break’. These messages were accompanied by images of animals freely roaming human spaces. We read about cougars, turtles, goats, deer, elks, and dolphins spotted in cities, roads, beaches, and canals. Moreover, we saw coloured maps going from red to green showing the decrease in air pollution worldwide. But what is left of it after a year of pandemic? It seems that it was just a mirage.
There is still an absence of scientific evidence of any environmental improvement due to the Covid-19 pandemic 1. Those wildlife images we saw in the media were only anecdotal observations. Studies that contrast this have yet to be completed or even undertaken. However, experts have pointed out some likely consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic that we should really plan ahead if we want to prevent the next pandemic and avoid worsening the already ongoing environmental crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a clear impact on our economic system. Among other sectors, tourism and hospitality have almost completely stopped. Global trade markets have reduced activities because of consumption contraction. Both have had direct effects on the environment. The first clear impact was the reduction of the consumption of fossil fuels and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions derived from travel restrictions. However, this reduction was only visible during the first half of 2020 while generalized strict lockdown measures were in place. Still, these numbers rose again during the second half of 2020. Globally, the reductions of CO2 in 2020 was only 6.4% 2 compared to the previous year. However, this demonstrated that if we want to tackle climate change, we should apply strict measures.
The reduction of tourism has also had direct negative consequences for wildlife. Tourism reduction has decreased the means of income for many people in the world; with fewer resources, there has been an increase in poaching, hunting, and logging. In Africa, tourism accounts for 50% of wildlife reserves revenue, without this income, poaching has become a source of survival 3. In addition, a substantial part of the resources directed to prevent illegal poaching comes from tourism revenues. In the Amazon, rainforest deforestation rose by 55% in the first four months of 2020 compared with the previous year 4. This is not to say that tourism is the most sustainable way to protect wildlife, but a sudden and unexpected drop in tourism revenues has had a direct negative impact on it.
Covid -19 pandemic also has implications for environmental funding and regulation. As well as the lack of tourism revenues that fund conservation programs, other sources of funding have been redirected to more immediate social and economic concerns. For example, the creation of green infrastructures has been halted or delayed due to the pandemic. Most environmental regulations are also shrinking; environmental regulation laws are already being relaxed in the United States, Indonesia, or India 1. The positive side of the pandemic is a temporary ban on the wildlife market by China and the possibility of further bans on wildlife trade by other countries. However, doing this without prior planning could also harm poor people that depend on wildlife for their livelihood and food.
Biodiversity plays a fundamental role in preventing the next pandemic. Most of the emerging diseases are zoonoses, caused by microbes that are transmitted from animals and jump to humans. The likelihood of this jump occurring increases with human activities such as land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption, which have led humans to come in contact with potential carriers of zoonotic diseases, thus increasing the likelihood of triggering the next pandemic. These underlying causes that could trigger the next pandemic are the drivers of biodiversity loss and climate change 5.
One year ago, the world stood still due to the Covid-19 pandemic; we have read many articles wishing for a green and fair recovery after the pandemic. Environmental organizations and social activists have seen the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink our economic model and our relationship with nature 6. It seemed that the pandemic could have helped us to revaluate our world’s economic and environmental trajectories. However, after a year of pandemic, it looks like we are returning to economic normalcy with even less regard for environmental issues than before. Therefore, we should urgently demand transformative changes based on scientific evidence that re-assess the relationship between people and nature, eliminate social inequality, reduce unsustainable consumption, and tackle the fundamental cause of biodiversity loss, climate change and pandemic emergence. The present and the future of our planet depends on it.
1. Bang, A. & Khadakkar, S. Biodiversity conservation during a global crisis: Consequences and the way forward. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 117 29995–29999 (2020).
2. Tollefson, J. COVID curbed 2020 carbon emissions — but not by much. Nature 24, 168–175 (2021).
3. The Nature Conservancy. A Global Crisis Reaches the Wild. https://www.nature.org (Aprile 2020).
4. Daly, D. C. We have been in lockdown, but deforestation has not. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 117 24609–24611 (2020).
5. IPBES. IPBES Workshop on Biodiversity and Pandemics. IPBES www.ipbes.net (2020) doi:10.5281/zenodo.4147317.
6. Pearson, R. M., Sievers, M., McClure, E. C., Turschwell, M. P. & Connolly, R. M. COVID-19 recovery can benefit biodiversity. Science vol. 368 838–839 (2020).