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Environment and poverty during the Coronavirus crisis: a lesson for global collaboration
By: Alexander Antonarakis
Last updated: Wednesday, 10 November 2021
One of the most pronounced effects of the pandemic, since government lockdowns began, has been the stark decreases in air pollution and carbon emissions. For example, NO2 and PM2.5 have seen falls throughout major UK cities, China and Northern Italy, sometimes by as much as 40-50%, resulting from a decrease in transport and industrial emissions. Similarly CO2 emissions have been slashed in heavily affected areas, and throughout the world due to an unprecedented drop in airline emissions. In the short-term, these drops also positively feedback to the pandemic as there is a probable connection between poor air quality and critical coronavirus cases.
Another claim at the heart of this pandemic has been that novel zoonotic diseases are a response of human encroachment into and destruction of natural habitats. True or not, this has resulted in international organisations and governments seeking to introduce moratoria on wildlife trade and consumption of wild meat. This could be a blessing for natural habitats and biodiversity in the months and years to come. Reduction in transport and activity on land may also provide a boost to birds and insects. Off the land, biodiversity in water may be improving during the lockdown in areas with diminished sea transport, or due to a fall in fish demand and international trade.
Forestry has also been affected, although tracking land use changes over this short time period is difficult. Forestry changes have mainly been manifested by a decrease in the construction industry and international trade, hampering timber production. For non-sustainable and illegal timber production, this is a blessing. For legal and certified wood production, environmental benefits may come throughout the supply chain, from reduced particulate emissions during sawing, reduced emissions from manufacturing and transport, reduced toxic chemicals from wood treatment, reduction of wood waste, as well as ecological and habitat benefits.
Conversely, the Coronavirus pandemic is resulting in worsening poverty and the hampering of many livelihoods across the world. Publications and news on the subject abound. Th World Bank states that 24 million people will be stopped from escaping poverty in East Asia. In the USA and UK, unemployment may reach levels similar to the Great Depression causing amongst other factors, a mental health fallout. In Latin America the pandemic hits rich and poor unequally, threatening high levels of extreme poverty. The World Bank, and richer governments will also need to create pre-emptive measures to protect those that are furthest behind in areas where the virus has not hit hard yet, e.g. Africa.
Overall, 2020 will certainly be a year of economic recession, with 80 countries already asking the IMF for help. Yet, disturbingly, there may be a potential surge in environmental destruction and stall in climate action in response. For example, Brazil states it will scale back environmental enforcement in the Amazon, which will result in increased deforestation. Indonesia is also taking steps to reduce legal timber rules. Air pollution and carbon emissions are also projected to increase after the pandemic is over due to large economy recovery efforts. This effect is similar to our work published this year showing increases in air pollution directly following financial crises. Furthermore, climate action and green energy transition may be threatened as economic recovery will be at the heart of a post-coronavirus world. In our recent work, this inverse in poverty increase and environmental improvement have also been shown to exits globally when countries are hit by financial crises.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could improve livelihoods and lift people out of poverty without threatening our environment? Could this Coronavirus crisis present opportunities to work on these goals together? For the first time in the non-war era, governments have shown how fast they act once they come up against the hard facts of a crisis, and how strong their response is. For example, never before has the UK government agreed to pay wages to those risking unemployment. Never before has the globe worked together and taken similar actions to combat a global crisis. Our vulnerability to the current health issue may be the catalyst for action and legislation on health and against high industrial and transport emissions. The vulnerability of those furthest behind to the virus, linked to inequality and job losses, may result in more sustainable economic stimulus packages and targets to reduce inequality.
The recovery from this pandemic can be both a transition to poverty reduction and climate action through exploiting new technologies, making industries and businesses cleaner, and pave the way for a secure, resilient, and sustainable economy. Globally governments should not be reactive, but proactive. It is the right time to move away from poverty and inequality of millions. It has become time to move away from environmental destruction and a high-carbon future. It is a time that is leading us from our primal competition for resources towards a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us on a global scale.
Written by Dr Alexander Antonarakis, Senior Lecturer in Global Change Ecology in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Alexander's research is centered on the interface of terrestrial ecology, land use and climate change, in relation to forest ecosystems.
Find out more about Alexander's Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) project 'Financial Crisis and environmental sustainability'.
This blog is part of the
SSRP Forum: the Pandemic and Sustainability
This forum aims to contribute to the analysis of the impact of the pandemic on sustainability and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to offer policy recommendations on how to respond to this unprecedented challenge.
The spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) presents us with an unprecedented challenge. We see losses of human life around the world, while one can hardly think what will happen if and when the pandemic reaches poorer countries with weaker economic and health structures. We see countries shutting down their economies to avoid the spread of the virus, as well as employing unprecedented measures of social distancing and population lockdown. We see whole economic sectors and households entering the intensive care of public financial support. In less than a month, the pandemic has redefined the priorities, parameters and boundaries of ‘what is possible’ in much of the world that we constructed since the Second World War.
The most urgent question is how to deal with the humanitarian crisis currently evolving and prevent it from getting out of control at a global scale. But a question we must also face is how the currently unprecedented mobilisation of public resources will be used to support our transition to a sustainable future, rather than a return to a socio-environmentally unsustainable past. One can hardly overstate the urgency of both these tasks. We in the Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) community aim to contribute to this ‘mobilisation’ effort by setting up this Forum which aims to bring together experience, knowledge, ideas and recommendations to inform public responses to the pandemic and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at both local and global levels.