COVID-19 recovery can benefit biodiversity

Griffith University researchers have outlined in Science how the COVID-19 pandemic provides governments across the globe with an opportunity to correct our environmental trajectory and deliver a shot in the arm for biodiversity.

The group of researchers from the Australian Rivers Institute (ARI) highlighted ways the choices societies take emerging from lockdown could have lasting effects on global biodiversity.

Lead author Dr Ryan Pearson said the risk of infectious disease outbreak was directly linked with environmental degradation.

“This pandemic is just one repercussion arising from our destructive relationship with nature,” he said.

“To reduce the likelihood of such viruses in the future, we need to improve our relationship with nature. An about-face on our environmental impact is one benefit that could come out of COVID-19 recovery.”

The authors looked at how past events such as pandemics, wars, and financial crises have triggered quantifiable environmental changes that we can learn from.

“History shows environmental benefits gained during crises can be quickly lost in the recovery,” Dr Pearson said.

“The Colombia Conflict, for example, slowed environmental degradation. People were fearful of entering remote areas occupied by rebels. But as soon as peace fell, environmental exploitation accelerated.”

“Despite the images of dolphins in Venice canals and monkeys taking over Indian streets, in many places our COVID-19 responses are accelerating environmental degradation,” said co-author Dr Eva McClure.

“Illegal mining has accelerated forest loss in South America, for example, and there has been increased poaching in marine and terrestrial protected areas.”

To avoid negative environmental consequences, the researchers suggest a number of strategies that governments could implement to tip balance towards positive biodiversity outcomes.

“When rebooting economies, governments could redesign trade networks and supply chains to favour localised and sustainable consumer options, and strengthen environmental protections,” Dr Pearson said.

“Lockdowns have already spurred households to rethink consumer needs, making it an opportune time to promote sustainable consumer choices that will become more engrained with prolonged exposure.

“Purchasing local and sustainable goods can reduce demand from areas with poor environmental regulations, encourage diversification of local crops, and make supply chains more resilient to shocks, such as this pandemic,” Dr McClure said.

“Strengthening environmental protections, and continued environmental monitoring during shutdowns can not only lead to benefits to biodiversity, but can also minimise the risk of future disease,”

“Protecting mangrove habitats, for example, benefits humans by storing carbon, protecting coastlines, and supporting fisheries. But they also provide habitat for half the world’s pangolin species and bat populations, reducing our interaction with these potential viral vectors,” Dr Pearson said.

“As we progress into a post—COVID-19 world, it is crucial that such recovery strategies be optimised to protect not only human health, but also benefit biodiversity conservation.”

“We hope our letter will encourage positive strategies to support biodiversity into legislation, and promote the importance of sustainable choices for people in their consumption, investment, and travel.”