COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease, as are nearly two-thirds of infectious diseases affecting humans. That means that the disease-causing pathogen jumped to humans from another animal. So which animal caused the COVID-19 outbreak? The jury is still out. Scientists suspect that bats, pangolins and possibly other animals were involved. But let’s not shift the blame.
Look at other infectious diseases and you will see a common pattern emerge. Increased incidence of Lyme disease, Nipah, West Nile virus and other zoonoses can be linked to our heavy environmental footprint. By overexploiting wildlife and degrading ecosystems, we have brought ourselves closer to natural reservoirs of disease and disrupted the processes within ecosystems that keep these diseases in check.
Humans have significantly altered three-quarters of the earth’s surface We have destroyed over 85% of the world’s wetlands. And between 1990 and 2015, we cut down an area of native forest 16 times the size of France. The rate of species extinction is unprecedented and accelerating, driven by land-use change, over-exploitation of natural resources, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. If we do not make transformative changes in our systems, values and behaviours, we will see further declines in nature for decades to come. And with it, a rising risk of a disease outbreak.
First, the COVID-19 recovery is no excuse for rolling back environmental regulation. This will only create future vulnerability. Maintaining and strengthening environmental regulation is critical, but not sufficient. The increased rates of illegal poaching and deforestation during the COVID-19 lockdown highlight the importance of coupling environmental regulation with effective monitoring and enforcement.
Second, stimulus measures should be designed to have a neutral or positive impact on nature. The Greenness of Stimulus Index developed by Vivid Economics shows that, in 13 out of 16 countries, stimulus measures potentially harmful to nature largely outweigh those that support nature. Screening and monitoring stimulus measures for their environmental impact is a sound first step. To drive transformative change, governments could make bailouts conditional on companies aligning their business models with sustainability objectives.
Third, governments need to accelerate progress in reforming subsidies that harm nature. Before COVID-19 hit, government spending on subsidies harmful to biodiversity was at least five times more than total spending to protect biodiversity. Reforming harmful subsidies can help free up resources while promoting long-term resilience.
Fourth, introducing and ramping up taxes on activities that harm biodiversity can help offset the costs of increased government spending and reductions in labour tax revenue resulting from the COVID-19 induced economic crisis, while simultaneously providing incentives to better protect nature. OECD’s PINE database shows large potential to scale up biodiversity-relevant taxes.
Fifth, nature-based jobs can get people back to work quickly while promoting resilient, well-functioning ecosystems for the future. New Zealand, for example, is investing NZD 1.1 billion to create 11,000 nature-based jobs. Jobs include restoring wetlands, trapping stoats and other introduced pests, and removing wilding pines to make space for a native bush to return.