Sunday, 22 March 2020

Nature’s revenge and a new world order?

A comment on COVID-19, impacts for the nature conservation sector (and for the record)

22 March 2020

As if humans didn’t need another lesson in why not to mess with wildlife and trash the planet, people the world over are now being taught the toughest lessons of all as a new global disease pandemic takes effect and shuts down normal life. COVID-19, a Coronovirus, is thought to have originated from the trade and consumption of wild animals in China. The first case may have been a man from Hubei province; scientists think the virus originated in pangolins, which then passed it on to humans. Pangolins are illegally traded across the far east and in Africa for their meat and scales. As a new disease, humans have no immunity to it and the death rate (over 4% of confirmed cases in Italy) is significantly greater than from seasonal flu. In the UK, as in other countries such as Italy, the disease is overwhelming the healthcare system; a triage approach to intensive care is just one extreme measure proving necessary as medics choose who might be allowed to live. Over 60s will the short straw. (I'm 63.)

As I write, the UK is bracing itself for the prevalence of the disease to peak. Cafes, pubs and places where people congretate have been instructed to close, with increasing societal restrictions inevitable. London and other big cities are expected to lock down completely very soon. Many countries have imposed bans on international flights, closed their borders, or returning residents and visitors forced into quarantine for 14 days. As citizens are advised, increasingly forced, to stay at home, economic impacts are severe, with the prospect of many businesses, big and small, going to the wall. Public spending is rapidly having to adapt. The Government is handing out eye-watering quantities of cash to bolster the NHS, offer sick pay to people who cannot work and pay wages of all types of businesses. Panic buying has stripped food, cleaning products and loo rolls from the shelves as people prepare to be told to stay at home. The IPCC’s Fortress World scenario comes to mind - the current situation is a scary taste of things to come.

The economic impacts will undoubtedly rebound into the nature conservation sector. Just one example is that the National Trust and it’s country counterparts will be hit hard from the loss of income from visitors to its properties, but as investments evaporate, businesses go to the wall and people risk being made redundant, charity memberships for the RSPB, wildlife trusts and other organisations that own nature reserves and campaign for nature will be cancelled, donations and other income will decline. The government is having to to radically review it’s fiscal policy and recent budgetary decisions. More road building (£27bn was promised in March) will be an unaffordable luxury, for instance, but will promised expenditure on nature be clawed back? A plus point is that one major effect of the pandemic has been a rapid decline in greenhouse gas emissions, first seen in China as that country banned flights and restricted the movement of people - Britain’s skies and streets are now eerily empty. Fishing trawlers are also hauled up, their lucrative international markets, especially the restaurant trade, having dried up - fish stocks under pressure are being given some relief. Normal Parliamentary business, including the new Agriculture and Environment Bills are officially put on hold, as well as other minor legislation, including a Bill that will reduce protection for bats in churches. Work on new agri-environment agreements, such as Countryside Stewardship, that support nature- and environmentally-friendly farming can be expected to stop, as much of the Civil Service goes into hibernation. Completion of Brexit will, inevitably, be delayed and the autumn international climate talks, planned in Glasgow, could be put on hold.

The disease is expected to peak in the UK in late Spring, but it is unlikely to go away quickly. The long term impacts of the current pandemic will have many consequences for the UK’s nature conservation sector. Apart from the illegal wildlife trade, there are many aspects of the way we live which have contributed to the current ecological crisis. This includes unfettered international travel, unsustainable consumption and ecologically-illiterate farming - causing pollution of land, air and rivers , the creation of pesticide resistant weeds, habitat destruction and annihilation of pollinating insects vital for food production. The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake up call. Whether humanity will learn a lesson and link the current ecological and climate breakdown to humanities’ incessant and unsustainable meddling with nature is questionable. A new world order may arise from the current crisis, but what will it be?