To save us from future pandemics we must save nature

World leading scientists alert: the world has entered an ‘era of pandemics’, and unless we halt the destruction of the natural world, pandemics like COVID-19 will be more frequent, more deadly, more costly and spread more rapidly. Laura Hildt reports.

The emergence of COVID-19, like almost all pandemics, has been entirely driven by human activities, despite its origins in microbes carried by animals, highlights the Pandemics Report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), released last Thursday. Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop explained: “Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

It is not as if we did not already have enough reasons to change the way  we interact with nature. We depend on healthy and functioning ecosystems for food (think pollinators), clean air (think forests), medicine (think genetic resources and herbs), wellbeing (think birdsong), climate mitigation (think carbon-storing peatlands) and climate adaptation (think floodplains reducing flood peaks) – to name just a few.

Yet, with the prospect of more lockdowns, more economic hardship and more pandemic deaths, the sorry state of Europe’s habitats and species, where over 80% of protected habitats are in poor condition, may suddenly feel more tangible and real. It becomes ever more evident that unsustainable farming, forestry, urban sprawl, pollution and the climate crisis are not only threatening the species and habitats protected by our nature laws , but also our very own species.

The IPBES Pandemics Report, one of the most scientifically robust assessments of current knowledge and evidence on the links between biodiversity and pandemic risks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, is an important reminder of the close connection between human, ecological and planetary health, and raises awareness of the need for a One Health approach.

A strategy to save Europe’s biodiversity 

Hopefully, these findings will help spur the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which should trigger the transformative change that is needed to put biodiversity, and with that our pandemic resilience, on a path to recovery. The strategy includes commitments to protect 30% of EU’s land and sea area – a third of which under strict protection – set legally binding restoration targets, turn 25,000 km of rivers into free-flowing rivers, and transform 10% of agricultural land into high-biodiversity landscapes, as well as committing to the full implementation of existing nature, water and marine legislation.

As our governments have unanimously committed to fully implement the Strategy in October, a range of steps must follow – especially regarding protected areas and ecosystem restoration, which will also help prevent pathogen spillover and thus lower pandemic risks, as highlighted by the IPBES workshop experts.

First of all, the European Commission must follow with timely and ambitious details on the commitments of the Strategy, defining key terms such as ‘strict protection’, ‘old-growth forest’ and by developing an ambitious proposal for a new law setting binding restoration targets, in line with the scientific knowledge on the needed steps to put nature on a path to recovery.

National governments, civil society and all affected parties must cooperate in this process and prepare at national, regional and local level to put their commitments into practice. Most importantly, member states must practice what they have repeatedly pledged and invest in transformative change that mainstreams the protection of biodiversity across all sectors. It is also time to prioritise long-term benefits over perceived short-term gains, including by setting aside land for nature to recover. And it is time to comply  with long-standing obligations and fully implement EU nature and water laws after decades of insufficient efforts

In addition, the Commission must significantly step up its efforts in enforcing existing obligations, investing financial and human resources as well as political will, and holding governments accountable. Major gaps in the enforcement of key environmental legislation are not only threatening the ecosystems these laws are designed to protect, but also the rule of law.

Turning the EU Biodiversity Strategy into reality and restoring nature also requires adequate funding and this need must be reflected in all EU funding instruments.

The elephant in the room

When it come to Europe’s efforts to protect and restore biodiversity, there is the elephant in the room: it is the controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which currently incentivises a destructive agricultural system, making agriculture the number one driver of habitat degradation and land use change globally responsible for the emergence of more than 30% of diseases reported since 1960.

If the European Commission is serious about the commitments in the Biodiversity Strategy and respecting its own ambitions, it must initiate a fundamental reform of the CAP. This means withdrawing its 2018 CAP proposal and putting forward a new one that is consistent with the European Green Deal, the Biodiversity Strategy, the Farm to Fork Strategy and the EU’s obligations under the Paris Agreement. One that supports farmers who implement the Biodiversity Strategy and those transitioning towards more sustainable practices, rather than funding a system that destroys nature, drives the species extinction, fuels the climate crisis, and ultimately contributes to increasing the risk for pandemic.

A natural solution

The IPBES Pandemics report makes it clear that “the underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change”. Such outlook can sound depressing, but it also provides reasons for hope, as it means the same solutions will help us tackle these interconnected crises.. 

The large-scale restoration of carbon-rich ecosystems such as peatlands, old-growth forests and coastal ecosystems will provide major benefits in terms of biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation, and also socio-economic gains, including sustainable jobs and recreational benefits.

The same is true for the strict protection of old-growth forests, the measures to make our cities greener and more livable, and high-diversity landscapes on agricultural land – to name just a few solutions that our governments have already committed to pursue as part of the Biodiversity Strategy.

On top of these gains, addressing the drivers of pandemics to prevent future outbreaks is also a matter of cost effectiveness, as the economic impacts of responding to pandemics are 100 times the estimated costs of prevention – especially once we factor in the economic costs of inaction and the tremendous social and human costs to current and future generations.   

While ‘crisis’ has been a commonly used word to describe the state of our climate and ecosystems for a while – it still felt like an abstract concept to many. Covid-19 has made ‘crisis’ real. It has shown us that a crisis can quickly and unexpectedly unhinge life as we know it.. It is now a political choice whether we go back to business as usual – heading straight into planetary and ecosystem collapse with more pandemics along the way – or whether we consider this the last straw, and finally embrace the transformative change needed for our health, wellbeing and future.