SUSTAINABILITY | 06.05.2020
Coronavirus and the environment, more closely related than we might think
In 1974, the United Nations (UN) declared June 5 as World Environment Day. Despite the fact that 46 years have since passed, we are still mistreating nature, so it never hurts to spend a few minutes reflecting on the world that we want to leave behind for our children, and the importance of caring for our environment and promoting sustainability in our lives. Sometimes, much more than we think; and the situation we are currently experiencing, the fight against the pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, is no exception to the rule.
World Environment Day 2020 is dedicated to biodiversity. For those not familiar with the term, it simply refers to variety of life on Earth. The more animal and plant species, the greater the biodiversity or biological diversity. And if we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the environment that sustains us.
Have we stopped caring about the environment?
Our lives suddenly changed from one day to the next. Headlines revolved around a single topic and government agendas were determined by the coronavirus. Environmental movements like the one led by Greta Thunberg, Fridays for Future, were forced to retreat and go exclusively digital. Of course, it is not always easy to get noticed online and even less so at times like this.
Bill McKibben, an environmentalist who publishes a newsletter about climate change in The New Yorker, believes that digital activism is rarely as effective as face-to-face activism. His hope is that nonviolent actions of protest will resume when the pandemic ends — and he is not alone. Those people who were already genuinely committed to recycling, sustainability and responsible purchasing decisions are likely to be just as involved. However, it is quite possible that their choices have been restricted in the current circumstances, as we will see when we talk about plastic consumption.
How has the coronavirus affected pollution?
Obviously, we are not talking about a direct impact. Human beings currently hold the greatest influence on the environment. We are the species that is most heavily polluting nature and we are affecting our environment and the lives of other species in many ways. Inevitably, the lockdown experienced in many countries triggered a major halt in both industrial activity and in terms of people traveling by any type of vehicles.
National Geographic España explains some of the effects produced by the partial freezing of our activity. Satellite images released by NASA show evidence of a significant decline in air pollution in the triangle between the cities of Wuhan and the very heavily populated Beijing and Shanghai. Improvements have also been seen in the atmosphere above Barcelona,
Madrid as well as cities in northern Italy; while in Venice the most noticeable thing has been the increased quality of the defining feature of this pearl of the Adriatic: its waters.
However, many experts have warned us not to get too carried away with this. The vast majority of these improvements are temporary and are probably already returning to previous levels with lockdown ending in many countries and things starting to return to normal. According to NASA, these reductions in CO2 emissions would have to be sustained over time to have any real impact on climate change.
Some things have temporarily improved. Others, meanwhile, have deteriorated: Plastic consumption, the harmful environmental effects of which are well known, has increased. This is happening in hospitals, where it is used in the manufacture of personal protective equipment, like masks and other things — which by their very nature must be disposable. It is also happening in our homes. We are all using masks, an expense that adds to our other non-refillable and non-reusable items. We must hope that this effect will also be temporary and that we can start to reduce it as soon as possible.
Biodiversity, our best ally against the coronavirus
“We have seen that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the environment, but the opposite is also true. The state of our ecosystems—and the decline in biodiversity, in particular—has had an adverse effect, making us more vulnerable to pandemics, like the current one, happening again in the future. Again, the damage that humans are inflicting on the environment is key in the chain of the virus spreading.
Popular science writer David Quammen thinks that looking after nature is an investment; it acts as the best vaccine to protect us from viruses that currently affect wild animals, with which we are increasingly coming into contact due to us destroying the ecosystems where they live. The key is provided for us by Fernando Valladares, Research Professor in Biology at the Spanish Center for Scientific Research (CSIC): the protective role of biodiversity. The existence of over a million species is threatened by human actions, and with every species that we lose, the dilution or dampening effect in terms of the spread of infections from an animal species to humans decreases. These diseases transmitted from animals to humans are known as ‘zoonoses’ and already account for 70 percent of emerging infectious diseases worldwide.
We end this brief journey where it began, at the United Nations which highlights that, in addition to helping provide a protective barrier against future pandemics, there are other benefits that taking care of biodiversity can offer: clean water and air, nutritious food, sources of medicine and knowledge, and, among many others, mitigation of climate change.
It is certainly worthwhile dedicating this year’s World Environment Day to promoting the protection of biodiversity.