I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a very strange year. Thanks to coronavirus, modern life as we know it has been put on hold. International borders have been shut, governments have ordered businesses to close their doors, and most families have been under lockdown.
For anyone wondering where this infectious virus probably came from, I recommend reading Part 1 of this series, where I present a brief overview. In this post, though, I’ll be looking at how nature has potentially been affected by the pandemic. After all, although people have been placed under varying degrees of lockdown the world over, such restrictions do not apply to nature. So has the natural world benefited from our sudden absence?
In the past six months or so, we’ve seen rapid and extensive international action deployed to tackle coronavirus. Why can’t we see the same action for the climate crisis? by Jason @thenaturenookTweet
Good: More space for animals
Across the world, many creatures seem to have become emboldened by our ongoing lack of activity. In the Welsh town of Llandudno, during the height of lockdown, a herd of Kashmiri goats ventured down from the hills into the deserted town centre and started eating hedges and flowers from people’s gardens. In Barcelona, wild boar were spotted along the city’s normally bustling streets. And in Japan, sika deer began nosing their way around the deserted metro stations of Nara.
Here in the UK, the brief respite afforded to the nation’s wildlife certainly allowed plants and animals to take advantage of a quieter, cleaner world. Peregrine falcons nested in the ancient ruins of Corfe Castle in Dorset for the first time since the 1980s. A cuckoo was heard calling at Osterley Park in west London, having not been heard there for 20 years. Sightings of moles above ground near usually well-walked pathways have increased. Wildflowers have been blooming in much greater numbers than usual because of councils cutting back on mowing services, which is good news for bees and other pollinating insects. And the number of hedgehogs killed on Britain’s roads is believed to have halved during the lockdown.
Wildlife seems to be enjoying this new breathing space. Across the world, coronavirus-related lockdowns are demonstrating just how quickly the natural world around us can adapt and thrive in our absence. But as lockdowns have eased and people have returned to the countryside in greater numbers, we must be careful to ensure that this wildlife remains as undisturbed as possible.
Bad: Conservation projects have been paused
Due to depleted funds, staff being furloughed, and the difficulty of working amid social distancing guidelines, many vital conservation and surveying projects across the globe have been put on hold. The wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) has warned that wildlife conservation ‘is in danger of being forgotten during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that decades of conservation work could be undone through neglect’. During lockdown in the UK, wildlife shooting increased, with culprits probably reassured by a lack of witnesses and protection by conservation staff. Birds of prey, in particular, are thought to have suffered the most due to illegal persecution during this time.
Good: Less pollution
As governments around the world attempted to curtail the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, much of the world came to a halt. With people spending less time in vehicles, offices and factories, and much more time at home, pollution levels plummeted. In northern India, the citizens of Jalandhar in the state of Punjab have been able to see views of the Himalayan mountain range 200 km away, which some residents say have been hidden by pollution for the past 30 years.
It was a similar story here in the UK. According to Defra, nitrogen dioxide pollution dropped by 40% and particulate matter by 10% compared with the same period last year. In fact, it’s been estimated that the air quality here during peak lockdown was as clean as in the early 20th century. In addition, the British Geological Survey discovered that background noise generated by human activity dropped by up to 50%.
Venice’s canals, meanwhile, are said to be the clearest they have been in 60 years. With less boat traffic stirring up the canals, sediment can remain at the bottom, undisturbed. This has welcomed birds and fish back to the waterways (though not dolphins, as was reported a few months ago; they were filmed at a port in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean Sea, hundreds of miles away).
As global travel restrictions were put in place, there was also a huge drop in the number of commercial flights, with many airlines grounding most of their fleets. Fewer planes in the sky, coupled with fewer cars on the road and industry grinding to a halt, resulted in what has been hailed as the biggest carbon crash ever recorded, in just a few short months. In the first few months of lockdown, China produced approximately 200 million fewer metric tons of carbon dioxide than the same period in 2019. Analyses project that global carbon emissions this year will fall by 4 – 8%, somewhere between 2 and 3 billion tonnes.
Bad: Increase in poaching
However, the same decline in air travel has caused a sharp drop in Africa’s tourism revenue. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, tourism was worth $168 billion to the African continent in 2019. Eighty per cent of tourists’ visits are dedicated to wildlife watching, which generates over $29 billion annually. This revenue helps sustain wildlife reserves and habitats across the entire continent. When international flights were grounded earlier this year, tourism across Africa collapsed, and the fallout from this led to widespread budget cuts, salary reductions and job losses. Without money to support local rangers’ salaries and aeroplane patrols, nature reserves became vulnerable to poachers. They have effectively been given free rein to hunt, encroaching on land that is now devoid of visitors, rangers and safari guides – land that they wouldn’t normally visit.
Damaged economies as a result of tourism collapse have also had a huge negative impact on local employment, with people desperate for income pursuing poaching to make a living. Even former rangers and guides are being forced to kill animals for bushmeat, just to put food on the table, since it is cheaper than buying it.
This seems to me like a horrible vicious cycle. More poaching makes future pandemics more likely, since three out of four emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, come from wild animals. This, in turn, makes future lockdowns more likely, which means more poaching. And so on.
Very Bad: The long-term impact doesn’t look great
Although cleaner skies and waterways have been considered by many to be a silver lining of the pandemic, the long-term news is probably nothing to celebrate. History has taught us that when emissions have fallen sharply in the past, as they tend to do after recessions or major conflicts, there’s usually a rocketing rebound that wipes out any short-term cuts. During the 2007-08 financial crisis, for example, carbon emissions fell by around 450 million tonnes, but then bounced back rapidly, soon surpassing pre-crisis levels.
If we fast-forward to the current pandemic, data suggests that air quality is quickly declining again as lockdowns are eased. In many Chinese cities, air pollution has climbed back to pre-pandemic levels as restrictions have lifted, and it has even started to exceed last year’s levels. In early April, with shutdowns widespread, daily global carbon emissions were down by 17% compared to last year. But by June 11, new data showed that emissions were only about 5% lower than the same time in 2019, even though by that point normal activity had not yet fully resumed. Some forecasters have optimistically speculated that behavioural changes brought about by the pandemic, such as teleconferencing and working from home, could translate to a reduction of emissions from transport. Others, however, predict a shift away from public transport, driven by a fear of contagion, resulting in a reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, which would significantly increase emissions.
‘A pandemic is the worst possible way to reduce emissions. […] Technological, behavioural, and structural change is the best and only way to reduce emissions.’Constantine Samaras, Energy and Climate Expert
Lockdown was also touted by many as a chance for wildlife here in the UK to make something of a resurgence – to bounce back in our absence. And the stories and anecdotal evidence of animals reclaiming former haunts and appearing in greater numbers seemed to support that idea. But a very sad fact remains: the UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the entire world. It will take a lot more than a few months in lockdown for our wildlife to recover. One good spring cannot reverse years of decline.
And there is another issue here. Climate change, not so long ago, was headline news, even if a startling number of our world leaders were unconcerned by it or even sceptical of its existence. But now, with the world preoccupied with a new, more visible, slightly more immediate crisis, the discussion surrounding climate change has largely fallen by the wayside. Has the momentum been lost? Will we be able to get it back again?
In the past six months or so, we’ve seen rapid and extensive international action deployed to tackle coronavirus. Why can’t we see the same deployed to tackle the climate crisis?