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Climate change and epidemics. Are we close to the point of no return?

We are not just experiencing the covid-19 emergency, we’re also in an environmental crisis. The real challenge is rethinking our development model

Paola Michelozzi, Manuela De Sario, Francesca de’ Donato

Department of Epidemiology Lazio Regional Health Service (SSR) Rome 1 Local Health Authority (ASL)

By December 2020December 17th, 2020No Comments
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

According to the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded on our planet, which is higher than the record temperatures logged in 2016. The melting of the glaciers is happening increasingly faster and this year the Antarctic Peninsula experienced a wave of extreme heat. Global warming is modifying the largest group of glaciers of the planet. California is still experiencing devastating fires, causing thousands to evacuate, and during the last summer season in Australia, between the end of 2019 and the start of 2020- the so-called “bushfire season”- the wildfires destroyed 17 million hectares of vegetation, killed or injured different people, demolished houses and buildings and, on top of this, caused the death of half a billion wild animals. Extreme weather events have been occurring relentlessly and unpredictably during the months of lockdown: floods and landslides in Europe, America, Indonesia and India, tornados in the United States, sandstorms in China, extreme drought in many countries. These phenomena were often background news to the updates on the new pandemic.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [1] states, in one of its most recent reports, that global warming is likely to reach +1,5°C above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052, with risky consequences in terms of health, food security, safety of the populations, water sources and economic growth. If we don’t manage to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to this changing climate we will be facing serious events that will impact our society and economy.

Furthermore, it seems increasingly difficult to make up for the delays of the actions to fight climate change. “I am disappointed with the results of the COP 25. The international community lost an important opportunity to show increased ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance to tackle the climate crisis” [2] stated Antonio Guterres, the General Secretary of the United Nations, at the end of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) that took place last December in Madrid. More than 190 world countries participated to this conference, which aimed to find solutions to one of the most important points of the Paris Agreement on climate. A mechanism outlined by article 6 allows the countries that pollute less to “give up” their quote of greenhouse gases to the countries that pollute more so that these can have an easier transition towards the general objectives. The COP 25 was also supposed to define binding agreements with the individual countries around their respective plans to reduce the necessary greenhouse gas emissions, as outlined by the Paris Agreement objectives in 2015. Today those objectives seem so much further away. In addition to this fiasco the twenty-sixth UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), that was meant to take place this November in Glasgow, was pushed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The link between SARS-CoV-2 and climate change

Several parallelisms can be made between the climate and the Covid-19 emergencies. Climate change is an extremely powerful threat multiplier for the environmental threats that affect our planet. The same thing applies to the Covid-19 epidemic in that it can amplify a series of risk factors that negatively impact the health, the economy and the environment. The coronavirus impacts more significantly certain population subgroups that are vulnerable due to age, health or worse economic conditions. These same groups are more at risk of environmental events such as air pollution, which in the long term causes irreversible damages to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and alters the metabolism. The term used to describe this is “environmental injustice” because the most vulnerable and those with fewer resources are more exposed to pollutants and suffer the worst consequences. These same people are also very likely to experience the worst effects of the Covid-19, given their poor health conditions.

A recent article by the Environmental European Agency [3] suggests there might be a link between the SARS-Cov-2 virus and the man-made environmental degradation. SARS-Cov-2 stems from a zoonotic disease that is caused by the virus spreading from animals to man. These phenomena are more likely to happen when human activities damage natural areas, for example with intensive animal farming or hunting wildlife. In the past fifty years [4], globally the average amount of meat consumed per person has nearly doubled. The FAO itself, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, had raised the alarm on the growing number of meat consumers increasing the risk of new pandemics, particularly in Asia and Africa where exotic animals are one of the main sources of meat and income.

 

The priority measures in the agricultural, forestry and rural sectors to limit global warming to 1.5 ° C.
Source: Global biodiversity outlook 5.

 
According to the “Global biodiversity outlook 5”, published by the Convention of the United Nations on biological diversity published by the Convention of the United Nations on biological diversity [5], and the “Living planet report 2020” by the WWF [6], the rate at which the global level of biodiversity is declining is alarming, and so is the important negative impact on the natural systems in terms of resilience, productivity and their ability to adapt. For this reason, if we want to protect ourselves from the risk of future pandemics, it’s essential that we protect, preserve and restore natural areas globally, promoting sustainable food chains in order to reduce the risk associated with zoonotic diseases and at the same time improve the health of populations in the medium and long term.

It is necessary to extensively rethink our development model and make radical changes to the energy, transport and food sectors towards greater environmental sustainability.

The article of the Environmental European Agency [3] emphasises that countries are able to act rapidly and decisively to fight the pandemic, managing to overcome the difficult challenge of changing people’s lifestyles. One of the observed effects of the lockdown was a global reduction in CO2 emissions [7] that reached its highest value (-17%) at the beginning of April 2020. However, the reduction was only temporary. It is necessary to extensively rethink our development model and make radical changes to the energy, transport and food sectors towards greater environmental sustainability.

The pandemic provoked a public health crisis and a deep economic crisis. The national gross domestic product is predicted to drop by 11% in the United States and by 13% in Europe. The European Union and the Member States will have to put in place economic recovery plans to cope with this. According to an article written by the epidemiologist Andrew Haines and colleagues [8] the winning model is the one that aims to provide an integrated economic response that can put health and sustainability first. The post-Covid-19 policies that should be sought are those that create new jobs and overcome our dependence on fossil fuels at the same time.

The winning model is the one that aims to provide an integrated economic response that can put health and sustainability first.

Is the post-pandemic period a new opportunity?

The economic recovery cannot mean going back to pre-pandemic conditions, but it should make us rethink of our development model. This will be the real challenge.

Some scientists believe that this dramatic global crisis should also be viewed as a unique opportunity to put the numerous failures of climate change management behind us and to move forward with more determination towards the 17 sustainable development goals [9], which should be reached by 2030. These objectives require overcoming global issues such as ending poverty and hunger, reducing inequalities and putting an end to global warming.

The future success will depend on how much people, companies and entire organisations will actively participate to steer political decisions towards ambitious goals like the fight against inequalities, a green economy and a sustainable consumer model.

In the same way you would build anti-seismic houses after an earthquake, sustainability is intended as a priority in the reconstruction phase. It would be a mistake to wish for things to go back to normal, given it is our pre-pandemic economic model that caused the current climate emergency. The future success will depend on how much people, companies and entire organisations will actively participate to steer political decisions towards ambitious goals, like the fight against inequalities, a green economy and a sustainable consumer model.

We can confidently say that we are highly likely to defeat the pandemic; meanwhile, if we do not take advantage of this current opportunity for change, the fight against climate change and environmental degradation could go on for a long while and cause permanent damage to the environment and to global health. What will we tell young generations when they ask us why we did not act in time?

References
[1] Masson-Delmotte V, Zhai P, Pörtner HO, et al. IPCC, 2018: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.
[2] Secretary-General’s statement on the results of the UN Climate Change Conference COP25. Un.org, 15 December 2019.
[3] Bruyninckx H. Towards Europe 2030: resilient nature, sustainable economy and healthy lives. Eea Newsletter, 16 September 2020.
[4] Arora NK, Mishra J. Covid-19 and importance of environmental sustainability. Environmental Sustainability 2020;13:1-3.
[5] Secretariat of the Convention on biological diversity (2020). Global Biodiversity Outlook 5. Montreal.
[6] WWF. Living planet report 2020 – http://www.ipcc.ch/sr15
[7] Le Quéré C, Jackson RB, Jones MW, et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the Covid-19 forced confinement. Nature Climate Change 2020;10:647-53.
[8] Guerriero C, Haines A, Pagano M. Health and sustainability in post-pandemic economic policies. Nature Sustainability 2020;3:494-6.
[9] United Nations. The Sustainable development goals: our framework for covid-19 recovery.

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