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Recognising UN World Habitat Day during COVID 19 and that cities must provide a safe haven for everyone this Oct 5th
By Jessica Tinkler MSc Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation Graduate (Ethical Team Intern Associate)
This year’s UN World Habitat day is, unfortunately, falling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and shrouded in uncertainty for many people around the world whose lives have been interrupted and destabilised. As interventions have forced the global population to stay at home, the reality is that many people live have inadequate accommodation and are homeless. Before the pandemic, 1.8 billion people were living in slums globally or informal settlements. The need for safe housing for the nearly 8 billion inhabitants of the planet has never been more apparent.
In fact, the message of COVID-19, here in the UK at least, has been “Stay home, Save Lives.”. For this message to be successful, it requires millions to stay home. But for those inhabiting overcrowded spaces, tower blocks, unstable and inadequate housing, this has been a trying time. Coupled with the impending economic crisis threatening the livelihood and security of many, living through the pandemic has been hard.
Insufficient housing has further widened the gap and pushed millions to the brink of poverty globally. Controlling the transmission of coronavirus is dependent on social distancing and hand cleaning, without these facilities slums, high-rise tower blocks and informal settlements have become potential COVID 19 breeding grounds among the poor.
“Housing for All: A Better Urban Future”
The theme for the 2020 World Habitat Day is “Housing for All: A Better Urban Future”, which promotes housing as the foundation of equality, sustainability and wellbeing for every person.
The demand for adequate housing would require the equivalent of 96,000 housing units being built every day to meet global population growth and develop slums and informal settlements. Currently, 55% of the global population live in urban areas, and this is projected to increase further to 68% by 2050. This anticipated expansion could have devastating environmental consequences in terms of both land-use change and climate change unless dramatic policy decisions are taken. The climate change agenda demands improved urban areas and renewed housing to reduce the considerable emissions from urban areas. This could have a dual benefit in the future, in that adequate housing can reduce a person’s vulnerability both to pandemics and to climate change.
In terms of equality, urban development must also account for the distribution of these changes; population growth is anticipated to increase most dramatically in low- and middle-income countries and among the poor globally, so these areas face the most pressing challenge to sustainably source housing, infrastructure and amenities for millions more people.
The links between the destruction of nature and habitat loss and the development of COVID-19 have been made explicitly clear. While modern urbanisation must prioritise vulnerability reduction, it is also important for ecosystem disturbance to be kept to a minimum. Protecting and conserving the natural areas which remain and integrating nature-based solutions into cities will reduce the vulnerability of people to climate change. It will also reduce the urban heat island, the impact of flooding, shelter communities from extreme events, and allow nature to thrive, supporting our food systems, regulating the climate, and providing clean water and wellbeing.
How will cities adapt post COVID?
Clearly, there are many factors to be considered with to ensure sustainable urban development; the environment, adequate health interventions and equality of provision. Sustainable urban growth is possible if sustainable urban planning is underpinned by integrated and collaborative working across different sectors to reach mutual goals and provide better urban areas for every single person. A utopian dream?Read More »
COVID-19 immobilised the world, but emissions barely changed, so what’s the problem?
By Jessica Tinkler MSc Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation Graduate (Ethical Team Intern Associate)
During New York’s Climate Week the city’s skyline was illuminated in green. As one of the planet’s most celebrated and influential annual climate gatherings, the great and good of the world ‘sustainability-bubble’ have been debating and reflecting on our climate emergency and how the planet might navigate through it.
COVID-19 has delayed climate negotiations worldwide, including COP26, the annual conference of parties, which will be held in Glasgow in November next year. Understandably, these cancellations are having a significant impact on the development of climate change policy and subsequent legislation so we mustn’t be complacent about our uncertain future.
Businesses, government, celebrities, and even aristocracy have raised a clarion call about the impending severity and urgency of climate change. At the virtual opening of New York climate week Prince Charles issued a galvanising message that the climate crisis “will dwarf the impact of coronavirus”. On the second day, Tesco joined the corporations pressuring the UK government to meet the target of 100% zero-emission vehicle sales by 2030. And China has revised its climate ambitions as President Xi Jinping announces that China seeks to be carbon neutral by 2060. After a busy first few days, perhaps with this surmounting pressure, the coming year might be the turning point to tackle climate change. We’ve waited a long time for any sort of real global change, so what will it take to accelerate a paradigm shift.
It’s time to stop talking about economic growth which is fundamentally incompatible with environmental sustainability.
A recent study found that the reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions throughout the COVID-19 lockdown will have a minute impact on the temperature change by 2030; only 0.01℃. This signals what momentous lifestyle and systematic changes are in fact required throughout the world to sustain reduced emissions and minimise the temperature increase. The decrease in emissions (a decline of around 30%) is mostly attributed to the immobilisation of the global population, so what else must change long-term?
New studies prove that the most drastic adjustments must be made in developed countries. Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute found that the wealthiest 1% of the global population produces more than twice the emissions of the poorest 3.1 billion people, consuming 9% of the global carbon budget. Not just a result of high dependency on transport and high carbon modes like air travel, but also down to overconsumption.
Researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of New South Wales affirmed in June that the intrinsic precedence of economic growth is incompatible with environmental sustainability. Technological innovation alone will not halt or reverse climate change, not until the idolisation of affluence and consumption are addressed. As emerging economies, including China and India, move to traditional Western models of consumption, global emissions are skyrocketing. Tackling “culture” in this way is a monumental feat for climate activists and governments and brings in the inevitable conversation of climate justice, who is responsible, who must change and who should pay.
“Earth-overshoot Day”, the annual date at which we would have used our 2020 allowance of planetary resources passed most of us by on August 22nd. Although a little later than predicted because of the pandemic and the reduced pace of life, each year, Earth Overshoot Day moves earlier and earlier. The delay this year has not come about by deliberate intervention or strategy but by a global disaster. Should we wait with bated breath for the end of Climate Week 2020 for any tangible commitments to addressing climate change or will it be another set of false promises because as human beings we’re very good at making commitments we just can’t keep?Read More »
Sustainable growth: It’s all about where we live and how we live
By Jessica Tinkler MSc Climate Change: Impacts, Adaptation and Mitigation Graduate (Ethical Team Intern Associate)
The appearance of COVID-19 is the culmination of decades of environmental misuse and unsustainable livelihoods. Far from escaping the challenges fought throughout the 20th century, civilisation faces new and exacerbated threats of climate change, pandemics, and population growth. This World Population Day, we need to turn to our population challenges which cannot be overlooked any longer.
Sustainable growth: It’s all about where we live and how we live
Celebratory messages and images seep into the media mix and tales of success stories pour from nations like China which have spent decades improving living standards for their populations, although this success is now overshadowed. These media tales share a cherry-picked selection of the realities of poverty worldwide, which many academics anticipate to rise in the coming years following the shocks of coronavirus and climate change. Philip Aston, Australian academic, blames so-called “misplaced triumphalism”, wasting precious time over the past decade which could have built global resilience to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has been another set back to the eradication of poverty, forcing 250million people to starvation and dashing hopes of the 2030 end to extreme poverty.
Discussing “population” cannot simply be an arbitrary conversation of demographic trends and changes but must scrutinise how people live today and the quality of life endured by many.
Where we live.
The disconnect between urban conglomerations and the environment on which they depend is becoming increasingly disparate. We anticipate 68% of the global population will live in urban areas by 2050. With this growth, which could be as many as 2.5 billion additional people, there will be an increased demand for energy, transportation, housing, water and food provisions. To avoid further catastrophic environmental degradation, urban policies must focus on sustainable urban growth, and crucially, build conjoint urban and rural agendas.
How we live.
With nearly 8 billion people now inhabiting an increasingly overcrowded Earth, we are quickly reaching the carrying capacity of our planet, exploiting the resources which we require to sustain us. Advances in technology, maximising yields, increasing efficiencies and extending planetary boundaries has enabled us to optimise the current carrying capacity. But, our destructive nature of deforestation and degradation, overfishing, climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution are depleting the planet’s natural resources at a quicker rate than ever before. Few countries in the world still retain an ecological surplus, capable of sustainable utilisation and unsurprisingly most western countries have an ecological deficit.
While the global population is growing exponentially, the real challenge is the relationship with the planet. It’s well known that reproduction rates decrease with economic development and therefore, population growth is reduced in developed nations. However, the environmental impact of each individual is far in excess of those in developing nations; a child born in America will have the same environmental impact as three children born in India. So perhaps, the real challenge is not the number of people on the planet but the means in which those people live.
So what can we do?
COVID-19 draws attention to the challenges of where and how we as a species are living with our planet and the rise in zoonotic diseases is just the symptom of decades of unsustainable growth, of wildlife exploitation, climate change and land degradation. We have a unique opportunity here to realign our development agendas to create a future living within our planetary boundaries.Read More »
Racial justice and climate justice; unlikely allies?
Climate change is unfair, it’s unfair to nature, it’s unfair to the planet and it’s unfair to people. Some ecosystems are affected more severely than others, and in the same way, climate change will disproportionately impact certain regions and particular groups of people. Until now, race and climate change have rarely been linked, but with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement inciting more conversations about race, the commonalities of the climate emergency and racism, and their solutions, are uncovered. The parallels between environmental challenges and racism could be perceived as tenuous, but they’re not.
Why are some people more affected by climate change than others?
Future climate projections show the uneven distribution of hazards. While the global ambient temperature will increase, the changes will be most significant in polar regions. Similarly, the global hydrological cycle will be intensified and sea levels are rising however, this will result in extreme flooding events in some cities like Mumbai, Accra, Jakarta and Bangkok, while others will escape these challenges.
However, while the prevalence of and exposure to these climate hazards might increase, the vulnerability of communities and therefore the impact of a hazard, is dependent on additional composite factors. Fundamentally, the vulnerability of a system is entirely dependent on the conditions of the system. Vulnerability, while a contentious concept throughout climate change research, amalgamates the social and economic background of a population in relation to a climate hazard. These non-climatic factors could broadly include indicators such as poverty, access to resources or livelihood diversity. The IPCC (2014) states, with high confidence, that vulnerability also results from multidimensional inequalities driven by uneven development. They clarify further that people who are marginalised in any capacity (politically, culturally, socially etc) are more vulnerable to climate change.
However, as discussed, vulnerability is a composite measure, and cannot be based on a singular factor. More often, vulnerability is the result of compounding social pressures which can include racial discrimination. These pressures can lead to income and socioeconomic inequalities, exacerbating the impacts of climate change. Marginalised groups therefore have the least means to adapt to and prepare for climate change and are likely to live in areas more exposed to climate hazards.
What does justice have to do with climate change?
Climate justice is a relatively new concept which examines climate change through a human rights perspective, knowing that climate change has different outcomes for different groups of people. The impacts can differ based on gender, affluence, age and race. With the understanding that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups are marginalised in society, we can acknowledge the potential vulnerability of these groups to climate change, now and in the future.
Already, the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 evidences the vulnerability of the BAME community to external forces; in the UK a black man is three times more likely to die with COVID-19 than their white counterpart. Just as, historically, environmental disasters impact BAME groups more significantly than others. Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans impoverished and displaced swathes of primarily black people, already living in precarious and exposed locations. The devastation for these communities was a result of their exposure but also a governmental oversight of their communities, with a lack of evacuation procedures, resilient infrastructure and flood defences for these groups. Racial oppression led to the elevated vulnerability of black Americans in New Orleans, where white communities were entitled to and supplied with safer conditions. This story is not unique to New Orleans, marginalisation consistently leads to vulnerability of BAME groups to climate change, but we can still change this.
The likes of Greta Thunberg and the “School Strike for climate” movement have highlighted the intergenerational inequalities of climate change, but when will there be a movement shining a light on the racial inequalities? Racism is systemic and entrenches climate vulnerability within communities. Until racism is tackled, and core injustices addressed climate justice cannot be attained. We need to take this opportunity to create a cohesive and inclusive climate change movement. In doing so, we can simultaneously tackle the greatest inequalities and prejudices of society and create resilient communities.
Next year, if extreme rainfall causes flooding in both Miami and Dakar, which city will be given the most attention? It’s time to start talking about racial justice for climate justice.Read More »
COVID-19: A clarion call to rebuild our cities greener and finally put nature centre stage.
Most of us know our current relationship with the environment is broken. In fact, it compromises our own long-term survival as a species. As governments and big business continue to exploit the planets finite natural resources, we can only standby and witness the acceleration of climate change and the deterioration of the environment. This is the new public health emergency alongside the existing climate emergency.
Recognising the need to sustain Rainforest but also the crisis in our biologically impoverished cities
This week coincided with World Rainforest Day. Deforestation and the removal of natural vegetation reduce the Earth’s capacity to sequester carbon and naturally regulate the climate.
Deforestation and land-use change, however, are not exclusive to the rainforests, as it is often portrayed, but are also prevalent locally. As urban areas expand, natural areas are cleared and paved for habitation, leaving biologically impoverished cities. The environmental sphere of influence of urban areas extends beyond the confines of a city, with parallel land use changes in rural areas for agriculture and infrastructure. With demographic changes and population growth, these spheres are swelling. With this, we not only reduce our ability to remove carbon and pollutants from the atmosphere and ecosystems, but we inhibit our natural environmental protections and increase our susceptibility to future climate hazards, including flooding, droughts, urban heat island and weather extremes.
Climate change, poor urban planning, public health and nature are all inextricably linked
It is clear COVID-19 has resulted from our failure to embrace long term environmental stewardship. Indisputable evidence is emerging, linking the environmental determinants of many diseases including infectious diseases and zoonoses but also allergies and mental health disorders, and so without a change in culture and behaviour, it is likely further public health emergencies will emerge in the future.
With half of the global population residing in urban areas, an ever-increasing population, and global net rural to urban migration, urban areas must become more resilient to future natural hazards while safeguarding public health. Enveloping ecosystem services, the essential benefits we obtain from the environment, into urban planning will enable us to simultaneously reach our climate adaptation goals, increase urban resilience and reduce the public health burden.
Time to accelerate city-based solutions from green roofs, bioretention initiatives, rainwater harvesting initiatives to integrated urban ecosystems.
“Green cities” must incorporate nature into urban planning, conserving wild ecosystems where possible or recreating natural areas where this is unfeasible. With nature at the forefront of development initiatives, we can design living spaces which are climate-resilient, with synergistic outcomes of improved air quality, clean water systems, improved food production and biodiversity. These ecosystem services are fundamental for human health and wellbeing both directly, and indirectly in the long and short term. Post-COVID-19 we could see futuristic green cities, abundant with green roofs and walls, bioretention initiatives (vegetated areas created to extract contaminants and improve drainage during extreme rainfall events), rainwater harvesting initiatives and urban ecosystems.
Governments are failing to deliver on their environmental election policy pledges
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) denounced the government in 2019 for failing to address any aspect of climate change sufficiently, and urban areas are no different. Unfulfilled “tree-pledges”, insufficient at the outset, fail to integrate urban areas which urgently need green spaces to reduce soil degradation, regenerate groundwater supplies and to absorb the impacts of temperature extremes and rainfall throughout the year. In spite of this, across England the public have been offered the opportunity to decide where trees will be planted, might these decisions incorporate the needs of urban areas? Potentially, this could incite the development of “green cities” across the UK.
What we need now – a consensus that we can harness this disruption to recalibrate our future
The CCC advises the UK government to focus the COVID-19 recovery on creating a cohesive and holistic green agenda, including investment in green infrastructure, tree planting and ecosystem restoration. And so, in the wake of COVID-19 we must force governments to adopt green energy policy and green infrastructure planning to safeguard public health and create climate-resilient living spaces without any delay.Read More »
How cycling can save the NHS and the environment
In the first week of “Emerging Planet”, I eluded to the possibility of green infrastructure as an economic recovery tool during COVID-19. Key components of urban areas for climate mitigation and adaptation planning include decarbonisation of the energy network but also creating resilient, adaptable cities through introducing green urban planning and clean transport.
COVID-19 has presented society with a period of uncertainty. Looking forward, we must also anticipate and prepare for the insurmountable impacts of an uncertain future and a changing climate. To mitigate climate change and to maintain a global temperature rise of 1.5℃, the UN states that emissions must be cut by 7.6% every year for the next decade. World leaders must, therefore, focus on trying to sustain and increase the emission reductions observed during this lockdown.
How can infrastructure and improving access to sustainable mobility help?
It is well understood by economists that infrastructure investment can strengthen the economy for a sustained period, creating vital jobs, to assist us through economic hardships. The focus on stimulus packages to revitalise the economy will almost certainly include infrastructure, but where investment will be allocated is up for debate.
Throughout lockdown, emissions have sharply declined across the developed world, a glimmer of promise and potential for the green economy. As lockdown is lifted, and risks posed by public transport are made explicit, the workforce are taking to the roads. Despite weeks of reduced emissions, up to a quarter lower than usual, it is likely that emissions will escalate to unprecedented levels without intervention, surpassing the pre-pandemic rates.
If governments choose to respond to this foreseen trend in emissions, it can be countered through:
- Proposals to support “work from home” in the long term and “flexi-working”, automatically reducing traffic on the roads.
- Through investments in walking and cycling infrastructure.
Requirements to socially distance have been a wake-up call that the UK has outdated roads and pavements which are unfit to support individuals who wish to cycle safely and those who choose to walk. In May, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, released a £250M emergency fund to introduce “pop up” bike lanes and wider pavements across the country which have been well received. These pop-up lanes have been visible in major cities across the country and are a step towards cycle-friendly cities in the interim.
The UK could seek to imitate the “supercycle” highways introduced by Copenhagen, Denmark. This is transforming urban planning and infrastructure development with climate change and public health at the forefront of design and investment. Recent socio-economic analyses have estimated that Copenhagen’s “superhighways” have provided an economic surplus of €765 million. The Danish government advocate for prioritisation of cycle infrastructure as it is a relatively inexpensive transportation mechanism to install and has innumerable economic benefits; reducing air pollution and decreasing healthcare costs for instance.
In the wake of COVID-19 cycle investment could reduce pressure for the NHS while reducing our emissions and improving the local environment.
In the UK, promises and plans around cycling and walking before and during COVID-19, have been the environmental “buzz” for both the Scottish Government and Westminster. But whether these promises will materialise into tangible action or mere tokenism, time will tell. Let’s hope these plans don’t fall to the same fate as the afforestation commitments.Read More »
Will COVID-19 be the last call to preserve our oceans? Introduction to World Oceans Day | Reanimated Oceans
This brief intermission in societal life has prompted the reinvigoration and reanimation of our oceans. In quick succession, images have poured from Venice of “nature’s comeback”, shoals of fish and seabirds have returned to the city. The endangered Spiny Seahorse has been sighted in a small enclave off the coast of Dorset in the largest recorded observation since 2008. Also, sensitive seagrass around the UK shows early signs of recovery, thanks to respite from marine traffic. Initial indications point to benefits for humpback whales as well which respond to quieter seas, devoid of tourists and fishing fleets. Marine scientists hope that the undisturbed breeding season, which has coincided with the lockdown, coupled with the implementation of additional restrictions on commercial whaling will result in population growth. These observations indicate some recovery of marine life, perhaps these early signs could lead us to some cautious optimism for the future.
COVID-19 and Human Activity
Fortunately for developed countries, resilient economies and strong social welfare systems have momentarily cushioned the economic hardship for most of their populations. However, this is not representative of the wider global community, many of whom reside in developing nations, not entitled to furlough schemes and are often reliant on subsistence livelihoods. This can result in the exploitation of local ecosystems, with people seeking their own social security by the only means accessible to them. Communities have turned to the forests and the ocean, increasing hunting and fishing to buffer the inevitable economic strain of the pandemic. This echoes patterns of natural resource destruction following the 2008 financial crash, which saw low-income communities globally exploiting natural resources to mitigate economic distress. These behaviour patterns are possible due to gaps in law enforcement’s ability to control exploitation allowing overfishing, deleterious fishing practices and the unlawful misuse of marine protected areas (MPAs).
The current pandemic has had a significant impact on maritime transport and tourism and the hospitality industry, with parallel challenges for fisheries. Fishing exports are projected to decline by one third due to the decrease in demand. Whilst this is problematic for the industry which has until now unsustainably exploited a third of the fish stocks worldwide; this hiatus could allow for the recovery of fish populations in the short to medium term. The economic value of fisheries is high for many countries but especially significant for the livelihoods of small-scale fishers who lack the adaptive capacity to find alternative means of living. This trade-off is not feasible for many, and poses questions about how oceans could be replenished sustainably for all?
Our oceans are in turmoil, with everyone clamouring to take their piece. Fish stocks are plundered for consumption, coral reefs are devastated by ocean acidification, coastal areas are suffocated by eutrophication, fuel spills threaten fragile ecosystems and habitat destruction infringe upon sensitive areas. The emergence of Covid-19 has triggered outrage at the relationship that we, as humans, have with the environment. In the past, such crisis’ have brought forth environmental changes and the development of strategic conservation plans. The synergy between Covid-19 and the environment, both in its conception and potential recovery solutions, could establish effectual conservation strategies; protecting human health and the environment above and below the ocean. This is encouraged by Patricia Scotland, Secretary-General of The Commonwealth, who states:
“While the fallout from the pandemic has had a huge impact on our blue economies, it also presents a crucial opportunity to strategise on how to accelerate the transition towards more sustainable economic practices built on climate resilience and ocean sustainability”.
In times of crisis, we see the interrelationship of people and the ocean, with 3 billion people reliant on the ocean for food and the rest are dependent on the ocean for health, wellbeing and livelihoods. Covid-19 might be the impetus we need to demand renewed marine protections. Sustainable management of the blue economy is essential to build resilience and key for the preservation of our oceans.Read More »
Can we ensure further uptake of renewables and decarbonisation of the economy post-COVID -19?
Covid-19 has called for drastic and unprecedented action from world leaders. It has taken a herculean effort to suppress the devastating impact of coronavirus and the challenge looks to persist long into the future. As lockdowns ease, this presents an opportunity to align environmental and economic agendas to ensure our own long-term survival.
The pandemic has revealed that it is possible to reduce emissions across polluting sectors when compelled. In the UK, lower energy demand has enabled ‘greener supplies’ to govern the grid, which might provide a flavour of a greener future if society demands it. Although absolute lockdown cannot be sustained long term, are there lessons to take from restrictions? And how could these insights inform sustainability and environmental agendas in the coming years?
While the coronavirus pandemic has dominated media headlines, for now, it is critical to see how the environmental discourse will develop in a post-Covid world.
A Tool for Economic Recovery?
While there are early signs of levelling or, in some cases, restoration, the pressure to revive global economies is mounting and governments seek to stimulate growth. Immediate responses to mediate the damage and absorb economic shocks must reform into longer-term solutions. This might resemble infrastructure investment or renewable energy pledges.
Fossil fuels seem a viable tool to instigate economic recovery, the option to invest in high carbon energy to stimulate growth is appealing. Australia, notorious for its high carbon energy mixture, looks set to hold natural gas at the heart of its Covid-19 recovery plan. Whether this will be reflective of wider recovery proposals remains to be seen.
With renewable energy production exceeding coal in the United States for the first time and the United Kingdom observing the first coal-free month ever, we could be optimistic for the future of green energy. In spite of this progress, however, the proportion of the global energy mix extracted from renewable sources and the efficiency of energy systems will still fall short of the 2030 targets of Sustainable Development Goal 7 without drastic amendments. Covid-19 has interrupted the supply chain of renewables, and consequently, the generation of electricity from renewable sources has declined, although less dramatically than its’ corrosive counterparts.
In a unanimous endeavour Greenpeace, HSBC, Siemens, Asda and the National Grid are among the organisations calling for the UK recovery plan to stress the decarbonisation of the economy. A recovery plan prioritising emission reductions will revive the economy and protect jobs, they insist. Renewable energies are quickly becoming cost-effective sources of energy and therefore offer a window of opportunity for the global economy in uncertain times. The UK should not neglect or overlook the medium- and long-term goals of the country and, instead, move environmental obligations to the forefront of the UK’s recovery plan. Implementing progressive policies and prioritising low-cost renewables will adapt markets and reflect a green economic revival. The EU has already pledged €750bn to a green recovery package, the largest green stimulus package ever, the question is whether the UK and other nations will follow suit.
On this World Environment Day, we should be able to look optimistically to a future with sustainable economic growth, powered by clean energy. World leaders could and should use this pandemic to leap into a new era of green energy and green living.Read More »
Two good reasons to eat fewer animals. Shifting to a flexitarian diet will help to prevent pandemics, fight climate change, and feed the world sustainably.
GUEST CONTRIBUTOR: Giulia Wegner
June 01st 2020
Over the past year the world has witnessed an alarming succession of environmental disasters. Millions of hectares of forests have been incinerated in Amazonia and Australia. Floods have submerged whole cities like Venice and its historic and cultural heritage. An ever-increasing number of cetaceans, turtles and birds are dying in agony due to the ingestion of plastic. And most recently, the global Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that messing with our planet can have consequences that are deadly.
The past 60 years have been characterised by the increasingly frequent emergence of new ‘zoonoses,’ which are infectious diseases transmitted from animals to humans – as is most likely to have been the case with the coronavirus. The majority of these zoonoses (more than 150) were transmitted by wild animals, including Ebola (1976 in western Africa), HIV (identified in 1981 in the USA), SARS (2003 in China), and most recently Covid-19.
This may partly be due to climate change, which alters temperature and rainfall patterns in ways that favour disease carriers like mosquitoes. Melting glaciers may also release viruses that have been buried for thousands of years. But the rise in new zoonoses is primarily caused by the ways in which we are pushing into, and extracting resources from, the few remaining pristine ecosystems left on the planet.
When the Amazonian rainforest is burned to obtain cheap land for cattle ranching, or African territories are cleared to extract timber and minerals like coltan for electronic devices, or uncharted landscapes are penetrated to hunt exotic animals and sell their meat, skins, ivory, and body parts for presumed medicinal uses, humans come into contact with previously‑isolated populations of wild animals that host hundreds of thousands of viruses and bacteria to which we’ve never been exposed.
These microorganisms aren’t new – viruses have been on planet earth for more than three billion years – but our interactions with them are quite recent. This explains why the majority of new infectious epidemics are linked to deforestation, which creates novel rural landscapes where wild animals and humans intermingle, and which also facilitates the entry of illegal hunters into pristine ecosystems.
Certain species of bats and rodents prosper in these modified landscapes, and due to their high numbers and tolerant immune systems these animals act as ‘reservoir’ species that host viruses asymptomatically. Once these viruses enter the human body they can be lethal. Many viruses also make use of an ‘intermediate vector’ through which they can evolve and transit from reservoir species to humans.
For example, insufficiently-cooked meat from wild animals is one of Ebola’s main vectors, where the animals involved were probably infected by eating fruits that were partly consumed by bats that host the virus. The Nipah epidemic in Malaysia in 1998 broke out when a large intensive pig farm was established together with fruit orchards at the edge of a forest, with the virus transmitted first from bat to pig through fruit contaminated with the bat’s saliva and urine, and then from pig to human through direct contact with sick pigs or their contaminated tissues.
Thus, as long as we keep encroaching into the last uncontaminated ecosystems on earth to extract resources, new infectious diseases will continue to emerge. As explained by Alanna Shaikh, an expert in global public health, even if every country in the world was able to develop effective protocols to contain new disease outbreaks by identifying new viruses as soon as they emerge, immediately treating infected people, and sharing all the necessary information so that other countries can be prepared, new viral disease outbreaks will be inevitable so long as we continue to abuse our planet.
The sharing of diseases between animals and humans reminds us of something fundamental: we are animals too, and as such form an integral part of nature. The only way to mitigate environmental disasters is to learn to accept and respect this basic truth.
The causes of ecosystem disruption are several, but they are all linked to the overconsumption of natural resources. One form of consumption in particular lies at the root of both the increasing risk of zoonotic pandemics and global warming: the consumption of animal‑sourced foods. As is well known, climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, especially from electricity and heat production (which account for 25% of the total); deforestation, crop cultivation and livestock ranching (24%); industrial production (21%), and transportation (14%).
In order to curb emissions and mitigate climate change, governments tend to focus on the energy and transport sectors, but the second of these areas – the global food system – is also key, especially livestock production. The farming of poultry, pigs, cattle, goats and other livestock is responsible for between 72% and 78% of agricultural food-related greenhouse gas emissions. This is due to the fact that livestock is the world’s largest user of land and water resources, and also to cattle gut fermentation (which produces methane), and manure-related gas emissions.
With its high requirements for land, water and feed, livestock production is also one of the main causes of the habitat destruction that brings humans into increasing contact with wild animals. Since the expansion of livestock and feed production occurs predominantly in tropical countries, the risk of new zoonoses is also concentrated in tropical forests which are characterised by high mammal species diversity, and which are undergoing land conversion for crop and livestock production. Moreover, due to their high density and low genetic diversity, intensive livestock farms can also act as amplifiers for the transmission of new pathogens.
There is a growing consensus among the scientific community that greenhouse gas emissions cannot be sufficiently mitigated without a radical reduction in the consumption of animal‑based foods. The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and the Special Report on Climate Change and Land of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) both assert that the target of keeping global warming well below 2°C won’t be met without intensifying sustainable agriculture, reducing food loss and waste, and adopting diets that are low in animal-sourced protein.
A so called ‘flexitarian’ or ‘planetary health’ diet consists of large amounts of plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds, along with modest amounts of animal-based foods such as fish, poultry, eggs and dairy produce and very low amounts of red meat (i.e. beef, pork and lamb). A global shift to a flexitarian diet has the potential to reduce food‑related greenhouse gas emissions by 56% and feed more than nine billion people by 2050 in an environmentally-sustainable manner.
The EAT Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health in 2019 reached the same conclusions. In addition, the commission highlights how a plant‑based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and wholegrains , along with cutting unhealthy products like red meat, added sugars and highly processed foods, could prevent approximately 11 million deaths per year (or 19 – 24% of total adult deaths). High levels of consumption of red and processed meat are linked to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers.
Therefore, in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the risk of new epidemics, it’s crucial that each one of us begins to shift to a flexitarian diet as soon as possible, as well as purchasing more sustainably-produced food (like organic products) and eliminating food waste from our households.
The Covid-19 pandemic shows that each and every one of us is vulnerable to the consequences of environmental degradation. Therefore, we all share the responsibility to act in order to prevent land and water pollution, floods, drought, famine, and epidemics from becoming increasingly prevalent.
In evolutionary terms, what distinguishes humans from other animal species is not, as many suppose, the capacity to feel emotions or express oneself through technology and art. Other animal species share our capacity to feel fear, joy, pain and expectation, and to develop knowledge and transmit it to their offspring.
Rather, what distinguishes us from other animal species is our cerebral capacity to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist, and communicate it to the rest of our community in words and images so that we can turn abstract ideas into concrete action. But to do so requires that we activate this capacity.
We are already feeling the consequences of our inaction. Our children and grandchildren, and those human communities and non-human animals who lack the privilege of choice that’s available to many of us in wealthy societies, will have it much worse if we do nothing.Read More »