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Researchers say measures to contain COVID-19 should also be at the heart of efforts to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.

Learn from COVID-19 pandemic to prevent environmental catastrophe, scientists argue

Lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic could help avert global warming and mass species extinction, a team of scientists and policy experts have argued.

Researchers, including from the University of Exeter Business School, say measures to contain COVID-19 – such as the need for early intervention to reduce death and economic damage and curbing aspects of people’s lifestyles for the good of all – should also be at the heart of efforts to save the planet from environmental catastrophe.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, the researchers argue the spread of coronavirus shares common characteristics with both global warming and Earth’s impending “sixth mass extinction”.

Each new COVID-19 case can spawn others and lead to escalating infection rates, just as hotter climates alter ecosystems, increasing emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause warming, they argue, adding: “Both are dangerous feedback loops.”

They also find parallels in what they call “lagged impacts”. For COVID-19, the delay before symptoms materialise means infected people spread the disease long before they feel its effects and change behaviour.

The researchers equate this with the lag between our destruction of habitat and eventual species extinction, as well as lags between the emissions we pump out and the full effects of global warming, such as sea-level rise.

“Like the twin crises of extinction and climate, the COVID-19 pandemic might have seemed like a distant problem at first, one far removed from most people’s everyday lives,” said co-author Ben Balmford, of the University of Exeter Business School.

“But left unchecked for too long, the disease has forced major changes to the way we live. The same will be true of the environmental devastation we are causing, except the consequences could be truly irreversible.”

The researchers highlight the consequences of delayed action in the fight against COVID-19 and warn against similar inaction in tackling environmental crises.

“The consequences of continued inaction in the face of catastrophic climate change and mass extinction are too grave to contemplate,” said lead author Professor Andrew Balmford, from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

The authors also find parallels in the indifference that has long greeted warnings from the scientific community about both new zoonotic diseases and human-induced shifts in climate and habitat.

“The lagged impacts, feedback loops and complex dynamics of pandemics and environmental crises mean that identifying and responding to these challenges requires governments to listen to independent scientists,” said Dr Brendan Fisher, from the University of Vermont. “Such voices have been tragically ignored.”

The similarities between the COVID-19 pandemic and environmental disaster lie not just in their nature but also in their mitigation, say the scientists, who write that “there is no substitute for early action”.

The researchers include an analysis of the timing of lockdown across OECD countries, and conclude that if it had come just a week earlier then around 17,000 lives in the UK (up to 21 May 2020) would have been saved, and nearly 45,000 in the US.

They say that just as delayed lockdown cost thousands of lives, delayed climate action that gives 2C of warming rather than 1.5C will expose an estimated extra 62-457 million people – mainly the world’s poorest – to “multi-sector climate risks” such as drought, flooding and famine.

Similarly, conservation programmes are less likely to succeed the longer they are delayed. “As wilderness disappears we see an accelerating feedback loop, as a given loss of habitat causes ever-greater species loss,” said Professor David Wilcove from Princeton University.    

The scientists point out that delayed action resulting in more COVID-19 deaths will also cost those nations more in economic growth, according to IMF estimates, just as hotter and more disruptive climates will curtail economic prosperity.

Intervening to contain both the pandemic and the environmental crises requires decision-makers and citizens to act in the interests of society as a whole, argue the researchers.

“In the COVID-19 crisis we’ve seen young and working age people sacrificing education, income and social connection primarily for the benefit of older and more vulnerable people,” said Professor Dame Georgina Mace from University College London.

“To stem the impacts of climate change and address biodiversity loss, wealthier and older adults will have to forgo short-term material extravagance for the benefit of the present-day poor and future generations. It’s time to keep our end of the social bargain,” Professor Mace said.

Professor Balmford added: “Scientists are not inventing these environmental threats, just as they weren’t inventing the threat of a pandemic such as COVID-19. They are real, and they are upon us.”

Date: 2 July 2020