Last reviewed 30 April 2020

The world is in lockdown and, for the first time in years, nature has breathing space. But will it last? And are pandemics more closely linked to nature and climate change than we thought? John Barwise has been finding out in the first of a series of articles on the subject.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day took place on 22 April this year. In any other year, this would be the time when millions of people around the world gather to show common cause in the fight to save the Earth. Not this year.

Stadiums and parks booked for the event remained empty. Instead of getting out there to plant trees and salvage discarded plastic, people stayed at home and watched “virtual teach-in” programmes online to hear about climate emergency, biodiversity and ways to protect the planet. Lives treaming nature walks were hugely popular, so too was the artwork created by people in their own backyards.

But it wasn’t the same. There were no mass rallies and little media coverage as the world focused almost exclusively on the coronavirus pandemic.

Nature’s resilience

Meanwhile, outside in the clean air, a cacophony of bird song announced the start of spring with more tell-tale signs that this was no ordinary spring. The lockdown is liberating wildlife, with many species showing positive signs of recovery after decades of relentless human pressure on the Earth’s natural ecosystems. Fish-eating birds have returned to the much cleaner waters around Venice, wild boar have been seen roaming the deserted streets of Bergamo in Italy, while the now famous feral goats of Great Orme have been seen wandering the streets of Llandudno.

Accessing nature is proving more difficult, however, as conservation bodies close their nature reserves and wildlife parks as part of the Government’s lockdown measures. The RSPB has closed all its bird reserves, while the Wildlife Trust has also closed most of its nature reserves. Holkham national nature reserve in Norfolk is expecting higher nesting of shoreline birds and has already recorded new sightings of sparrow hawks, stoats and deer, as wildlife finds new territory in areas now closed to the public.

Air quality improves

Along with nature’s temporary respite, air quality is also improving. COVID-19 restrictions have forced the closure of much industrial activity and reduced road and air transport movement. Air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have fallen significantly. UK data shows nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution has declined by about one third to a half in London, Birmingham and Bristol, with a 10–20% fall in the other cities. Particulate matter (PM2.5) has also fallen by around one third to a half in English cities, with similar falls in Scotland and Wales.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions are a major greenhouse gas and both NO2 and particulate matter are a major health problem, causing serious respiratory illnesses and affecting those with heart and lung conditions.

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has confirmed large decreases in air pollutant concentrations across all Member States, largely due to reduced traffic and industrial activities.

Globally, improvements in air quality are even more impressive, with some of the world’s most polluted cities experiencing clean air for the first time in years. NASA’s Global Modelling and Data Assimilation programme shows concentrations of some pollutants fell drastically after the lockdown, with atmospheric NO2 levels about 30% lower on average across some areas.

Fossil fuels and the global economy

Demand for fossil fuels, the primary cause of greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution, is also at an all-time low. As events unfolded on “virtual” Earth Day, global oil demand was reported to have fallen to about 29 million barrels a day from around 100 million barrels, according to the World Economic Forum. US oil fell into negative territory for the first time, underlining the industry’s disarray as the coronavirus decimates the global economy and world trade.

Existing stocks aren’t being used and land storage has reached capacity, with some producers leasing tankers to store excess capacity at sea until the crisis passes and prices start to rebound. “If you are a producer, your market has disappeared, and if you don’t have access to storage you are out of luck,” Aaron Brady, vice president for energy oil market services at IHS Markit, told The Times newspaper. “The system is seizing up.”

The dramatic fall in greenhouse gas emissions in recent months may well be good news for public health and for those supporting climate action. But what it also tells us is that the global economy is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and that any attempt to decouple the global economy completely from fossil fuels may still be a long way off.

Cause and effect

The COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy on a global scale and will continue to have a negative impact on the world for years to come. Right now, countries are focused on damage limitation and lockdown as scientists work relentlessly to find a cure and eliminate this global contagion altogether. But what are the root causes of viruses like COVID-19 and could it happen again?

We have been here before. Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, are caused by germs that spread between animals and people. It is estimated that around 60% of infectious diseases originate from animals and 70% of newly emerging infectious diseases originate in wildlife.

Marie Quinney of the World Economic Forum (WEF) argues that nature provides a buffer between humans and disease, and emerging diseases are often the results of the destruction of ecosystems in favour of expanding human activity.

In a recent WEF article, Quinney said: “We have lost 60% of all wildlife in the last 50 years, while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years. It is no coincidence that the destruction of ecosystems has coincided with a sharp increase in such diseases.”

Recent UN research shows that human activity has altered almost 75% of the earth’s surface, squeezing wildlife and nature into an ever-smaller corner of the planet. Deforestation, for example, has increased the rate of malaria infection in the Amazon, while land clearances in Africa have been linked to outbreaks of Ebola and Lyme diseases.

The spread of human activity into wildlife territory brings us into much closer contact with wildlife that often carry infectious diseases. AIDS, for example, which was first recorded in humans in the 1950s, is thought to have come from chimpanzees.

The SARS coronavirus has been linked to bats and first infected people in Guangdong, southern China in 2002, before spreading to more than 20 other countries in less than a year. The viral respiratory disease MERS is a novel coronavirus linked to dromedary camels and bats. MERS has been reported in 27 countries since 2012.

Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, claims that about 1 billion cases of illness and millions of deaths occur every year from zoonotic diseases and that the problem is made worse by the continual exploitation of wildlife.

Speaking a recent UN conference Andersen said: “illegal wildlife trade and illegal wet markets are not infrequent causes of such diseases.  And of course, there is the urgent need to tackle the illegal wildlife trade, the fourth most common crime committed worldwide.”  

The new normal

COVID-19 has created a world health crisis and severely disrupted the global economy. World leaders are desperate to find a vaccine to treat the virus, so that life can get back to normal. But can we really go back to normal?

Just like MERS and SARS, new drugs will be created to treat and eventually eradicate COVID-19 altogether. But this won’t be the last pandemic. To return to “business as usual” in our interconnected world, and with a total disregard for nature, means new strains of coronavirus and other diseases will continue to find their way into human life.

The world needs a new “normal”, where nature is seen as an essential part of sustainable growth for the long term. The latest New Nature Economy report, published by the WEF and finance group PwC, is a timely reminder of just how dependent the global economy is on nature. According to the report, approximately $44 trillion of economic value generation is dependent on nature.

The report goes on to warn that about 25% of plant and animal species are threatened by human actions, and such losses would significantly disrupt global industrial output. Celine Herweijer, Global Innovation and Sustainability Leader at PwC UK, described the report as “a wakeup call” for businesses.

Commenting on the report, Marco Lambertini, director-general of WWF International, said: “Business can play a critical role in reversing nature loss by adopting sustainable practices — which make sound business sense. Governments must make ambitious decisions and adopt a New Deal for Nature and People in 2020 for the future of our economies and society.”

The coronavirus crisis is a stark reminder of just how vulnerable our socioeconomic systems really are. But things are beginning to change as we come to terms with global reach of this pandemic. Businesses are adjusting to home working and restrictions on international travel. Webinars and online conferences are becoming the new normal and may well become standard practice in the future.

Looking to future economic growth, investors are already divesting stranded assets like fossil fuels in favour of more stable renewable energy investments, while production and supply chains, particularly in agriculture, will no doubt take account of future forecasts outlined by finance groups like PwC.

There will be renewed global pressure to end the trade in wildlife and illegal wet markets, the likely cause of this pandemic. And, as governments realise the scale of economic dependency nature’s assets, new mechanisms of public–private collaborations to reverse biodiversity loss will begin to emerge.

COVID-19 and climate change are linked. Dealing with the underlying causes of the virus now reduces the risk of more pandemics in the future and will help slow the devastating impacts of global warming.

Welcome to the new normal.