Environmental Losses During a Global Pandemic

by - April 08, 2020

My last post gave three examples of positive environmental outcomes of the COVID-19 global pandemic (available here). Social media has been crawling with shares over declining emissions and seeing lockdown as a rest bite for the planet. But is it all good news? Is a lockdown good for the planet?
I'm trying to balance my stance from the previous post. Yes, there are environmental wins due to Lockdown. But there are also losses, and potential for even greater losses in the future. I'm going to focus on three.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions
I think it is fair to say that the data will reflect that yes, lockdown is good for the planet regarding greenhouse gas emissions. However, this is potentially only going to be true in the short term. Following the end of lockdown, it is possible that things will either go back to normal, or get worse. Governments are likely to want to jump-start their economies again, and so we can expect an industrial boom. Following the 2008-9 financial crisis, emissions increased by 5% for the same reason. 
More theoretically, I worry about what lockdown will do to people's attitudes regarding tackling climate change. The idea that this (lockdown, social distancing, isolation) is what it looks like to lower emissions does not sit well. State-mandated lockdown is not fun for anyone: it's affects people social lives, freedoms, and incomes. If this is what tackling climate change looks like, do we want it?
Of course this isn't what tackling climate change should look like or needs to look like, but I worry that the more we shout about how good this is for the planet, the greater negative association we build between our actions and benefitting the planet. Resentment thrives in such settings: why do we have to suffer for the environment to win? 

Many countries are currently in lockdown. Poachers, are not. The number of poaching incidents is expected to spike during this time. Some reserves may have less staff, as staff may have chosen to isolate with their families. Income for reserves will be dramatically lowered. A lot of reserves rely on visitors and tourism to make money, all of which will have ceased during lockdown. Therefore, they may not be able to afford to continue the same level of anti-poaching work and protection as they would normally. In general, lockdown is a silver platter presented to poachers to take full advantage of. 
Meat poaching is bound to increase as people also have limited access to food during a lockdown. Stocks in stores globally are down, and shopping is limited. Poaching may be the only way, or the easiest way, for people to feed their families. 
Poaching of endangered species, such as rhino of elephant, is also bound to spike with less security. This could have catastrophic impacts for these species, many of which do not have the numbers to survive a sudden decrease in their numbers. 

Chinese Wet Markets
In my last post I said that China has banned wildlife trade due to the links found between Chinese wet markets and COVID-19. Many believe such markets in Wuhan are the origin of the virus. At these markets, thousands of animals are kept in cages, sold, and some are slaughtered there on site. Animals are sold for traditional medicine, for example lion bones, and for food. This is linked heavily to the poaching of endangered species discussed above. These animals are kept in close proximity to one another, and passed from human to human. Viruses thrive in such an environment, and can pass from species to species and cross the barrier to humans. It is likely this is what happened with the coronavirus, and that is why these markets were closed. 
Just a month after closing these markets China has begun to re-open these markets, ignoring international pressure and pleas not to. Medical and conservation professionals worldwide are urging them not to stay closed. Reopening these markets is incredibly dangerous, and reflects a apathetic attitude by the Chinese government for the countries currently fighting with everything they have to beat this virus. 
Conservation wise, closing these markets was a big win. This win lasted a month. If these markers cannot stay closed when human lives are in danger, how can we ever expect to keep them closed to protect wildlife?

My blog tends to look at things through an environmental lens because that's how I look at things. But it is impossible to look at anything these days purely from the perspective of the environment, because everything is intertwined to an irreversible extent. The impact, positive and negative, this virus is having on the environment shows us that: lions and rhinos in the most remote regions of Africa are being heavily impacted. Our shrinking and connected world means that everything we do trickles down to every corner of the earth and every creature in it. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as separated from nature. 
Continuing the winners/losers metaphor, we shouldn't have to lose for the environment to win. In fact, I think effective policy and change to beat global warming and protect endangered species, is a win for us both. A lot of major changes necessary (e.g. switching to renewable energy, minimising global waste) will be positive steps for people too. Cleaner air, job creation, financial incentives: all these things help keep the environment thriving and keep us thriving too. 
Coronavirus has demonstrated to the world a harsh reality: business as usual was not okay. The disregard we have for wildlife and the environment has come back to bite us on the arse. But we only care to do anything about this when we are in the firing line. 
This cannot go on. 
We cannot win while the environment continues to lose.

We either both win, or we both lose. Our choice.

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