It Was the Best of Times; It Was the Worst of Times*
* Check the suggested readings below!
The world has turned into a very different place in a few unprecedented weeks, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe. Human activity went into a near stop in several countries and sectors. Global patterns of production, consumption and social interaction changed dramatically. Everyone’s attention became focused on the social and economic impacts of the virus and the measures used to fight it, fearing the loss of lives and a looming global recession. Such level of sudden disruption is more common in “catastrophe scenarios” than in those normally used to discuss policy, economic and climate goals. Nonetheless, we were suddenly in a new reality.
The breakdown in international transportation, reminded how modern society depends on vulnerable global supply chains, external energy sources and cheap labour elsewhere. At the same time, the disruption to daily work-home commuting and business travel intensified the digitalisation of modern life: remote work and online schooling, shopping or medicine are now a fact of life. How is this going to impact the environment and our societies?
Energy consumption and global carbon emissions have simply… plummeted, as detailed in this Bloomberg Green article. As factories, airlines and mass transit stopped their daily flows, water and skies in major cities became wonderfully clear in a few days. The drop in air pollution was measurable from space, the Himalayas are visible again after 30 years, and animals venture back into urban areas. Of course, there are fake news too and humorous “Nature is healing” memes 🙂
As Scientific American explains, the drop is less than could be expected, but it also shows how a car-free future could look like in terms of air pollution, lowering related health issues that affect hundreds of millions around the world. We might have only a temporary glance: as industry and traffic resumes, things will revert just as quickly. In any case, the current pandemic will not stop the ongoing uptrend in global yearly emissions of CO2 / greenhouse gases and will not affect the huge amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere. These also need to be reduced actively, by lowering human emissions by at least 7,6% every year between 2020 and 2030 (UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2019), and by promoting ways to capture carbon for longer periods in the soil, biomass and other natural reservoirs, ideally through solutions we already have.
The climate discussion and the global push to restore ecosystems faded for a while but is back, even stronger. One of the main messages: “use all the stimulus/rescue money to build the future instead of perpetuating the past”. As governments worldwide prepare massive financial measures to avert a global recession, there are strong calls to use the opportunity for a green transition and for a fuller inclusion of climate measures in financial tools (the BIS even coined the “Green Swan” term to describe disruptive climate-linked financial impacts).
Some of the impacts we are seeing now have been a feature of climate risk scenarios. In addition to stopping the loss of biodiversity and reduce risks from extreme climate events, the pandemic added another reason to safekeep ecosystems: a higher risk of new out-of-control pandemics. A lot of the destruction and encroachment takes place in tropical forests, increasing the potential exposure to new virus (as detailed in Nature or, a bit lighter to read, in Bloomberg Green). As National Geographic reports, wildlife trade might be one of the “fortunate victims” here. Given the association with the outbreak in Wuhan, more chinese people push for an immediate ban on wildlife trade and the official policy of support seems to have shifted.
In several parts of the world, countless people in lockdown mode have discovered how valuable a nearby park or forest actually is, both for physical and mental health. A great article in Yale Environment 360º details how immersion in nature improves our overall health, and how findings from research are leading to changes in economic models, urban planning, education and healthcare provision. Even virtual video visits to the Amazon rainforest, like our video suggestion above, has positive effects! For many, the current situation has created a powerful moment of (re)connection to nature, which is personal but also shared across the globe. This might give a huge boost to urban greening, environmental restoration and related climate-change initiatives, where people feel more directly invested in the process and results.
Of course, not all is positive. The desire to quickly restore economic growth might lead to solutions that damage the environment further or reverse restoration gains, particularly in developing countries rushing to generate funds out of their natural resources. The current sate of emergency in many countries allows governments to take decisions with long-term impacts, while avoiding public scrutiny and debate. In addition, the pandemic creates a useful distraction from ongoing environmental crimes: in the Amazon, Reuters reports, illegal logging and harmful political moves benefit from the lack of attention; in Papua New-Guinea, as reported in Mongabay, a palm oil plantation almost twice the size of London is about to be created in the heart of Asia’s largest intact rainforest, in a process full of question marks.
In the developing world, people whose daily subsistence has been impacted by a lockdown or economic freeze have to turn to the forests nearby for their immediate food and fuel needs. The pressure in the surrounding environment is immediate, increasing ongoing destruction or reversing recovery work. Nature parks and reserves are particularly vulnerable as well. The collapse of tourism and the loss of income from nature-based activities directly affects the protection work developed by many NGOs or park workers and also the income options for local populations. As reported by National Geographic, this is already leading to an increase in wildlife poaching, illegal timber extraction. Long-term changes in the travel industry seem likely but the reliance on tourism to fund nature conservation is a delicate point, since it depends on a constant inflow of international visitors and is all too often associated with animal suffering, as covered in Nat Geo’s Wildlife Watch. On the other hand, a stronger commitment to the green transition might bring good news in terms of carbon credits and other direct mechanisms. The current crisis will likely cause a shift in funding models, which can be an opportunity for establishing better solutions.
For now, the forced break in human activity has shown how a “cleaner nature” can look like, that a dramatic shift is indeed possible, and that we might like the alternative. However, this type of shock is not a recipe for a sustainable transition, and restoring ecosystems is a longer work. As even The Economist recognizes, the damage is immense and there is much work ahead of us, even calling it a “challenge without precedent”.
We should bear in mind that, although forests might be vanishing more slowly in the last years, the planet has still lost 178 million hectares of forest since 1990. In the meantime, some large forests are now emitting more CO2 than they absorb, a sad change that will push global levels even higher. There is also a real risk of reaching tipping points, where ecosystems shift into a different stable state – without a return ticket. Scientists have been warning about these for a long time and we might hit global climate tipping points sooner than thought. Research just published in Nature indicates that large ecosystems, considered more resilient because of their size, might actually collapse in a couple of decades. It’s not simply a matter of alarmism: if the Amazon rainforest turns into a savannah, it would affect the water cycle in the whole of south America and climate patterns throughout the world. We are part of a larger system.
On the positive side, there are signs that ecosystems can partly recover in a matter of decades – with enough commitment – as observed with marine ecosystems. Looking at forest ecosystems, our main focus, there is also strong public support for restoration initiatives and nature-based solutions. However, we need to remember that restoration is a complex effort. This recent article in Science gives a very good idea why restoration is more than simply planting a tree. For practitioners, the WRI and partners have developed an useful Sustainability Index for Landscape Restoration (see also our suggested reading below).
The “Lockdown suggestion”:
- Remember that all our Forest News editions are available here. Good videos, useful links and food for thought for when you can’t go out.
- Or check our collection of suggested videos, for adults and kids. We are happy to receive suggestions too!
- Sustainability Index for Landscape Restoration, World Resources Institute (Free PDF, English/Spanish, 68pp): this manual presents a field-tested tool for measuring the impact of restoration efforts and accelerate progress, offering easy-to-use visual metrics to measure the health of a landscape through biophysical and socioeconomic indicators, and how to use them to guide the dialogue among the various stakeholders that need to be involved.
- A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens (free eBook at Project Gutenberg or free audiobook at Librivox, both public domain): the phrase above is from the famous opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …” Always contemporary and always a good read!