By Vincent Lyn
The world is facing unprecedented humanitarian emergencies — as well as a political crisis of inaction by world leaders. The triple threat of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 is driving the crises in nearly all Emergency Watchlist countries, threatening famine in several in 2021. Displaced families, and in particular women and girls, are disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises — and the COVID-19 pandemic is is no exception.
2020 will go down as one of the most turbulent years in history, but this year will be remembered for how we either helped or turned away from those suffering the most. 2021 should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers, government leaders, and concerned citizens around the world about the cost of neglecting humanitarian crises — and how they urgently need international attention.
2020 was perhaps the first time in living memory when governments around the world took radical action to put the interests of public health and wellbeing above that of private profit. For a world that is so dominated by the logic of capitalism, that’s no small triumph. It’s tempting to say that this was a one-off response to a one-off pandemic. But this is to misunderstand both the nature of COVID-19 and global capitalism. If you hoped we could leave life or death political decisions behind us in 2020, then I’m here to disappoint. Because in 2021, the stakes are even higher.
First, some context. Before COVID-19 gripped the world’s attention, humanity’s primary challenge was clear: our fossil fuel-based economic system had pushed our natural environment beyond safe operating zones, threatening the foundations upon which civilization depends. Without rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society we are on track to experience devastating and irreversible damage to our climate and ecological systems, and the end of life as we know it. Each passing year of inaction produces a compounding effect, necessitating ever steeper carbon reductions in future years. In short: time is rapidly running out. For this reason alone, 2021 was always going to be a critical year in the fight against climate breakdown. But then COVID-19 came along.
Eighteen months ago it looked like 2020 was going to be another record breaking year for carbon emissions. But as COVID-19 rapidly spread around the world, businesses were forced to close, international travel ground to a halt, events were cancelled, and people were told to isolate at home.
Unsurprisingly, this caused carbon emissions to fall — according to the Global Carbon Project global emissions fell by 7% in 2020. Despite being the largest relative fall since the Second World War, this still pales in comparison to what is needed to meet the Paris targets. If warming is to be limited to 1.5C, then emissions need to fall by 14% every year until 2040.
Some have cited these falling emissions as evidence that COVID-19 has helped to “save the planet”. As well being wildly exaggerated, these claims are also offensive: the idea that a pandemic that has caused immense suffering and killed millions of people should be celebrated is obviously perverse. Pandemic-induced lockdowns do not provide a model for climate action.
More importantly however, those who say the pandemic will help the environment have got things precisely backwards. Like many other infectious diseases, COVID-19 has its origins in the encroachment of human activity into natural ecosystems. As more and more countries have sought to maximize economic growth, activities such as logging, mining, road building, intensive agriculture and urbanization have led to widespread habitat destruction, bringing people into ever closer contact with animal species. As the United Nations’ environment chief, Inger Andersen, put it: “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people.”
According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals. In the case of COVID-19, it is believed that the virus originated in China’s bat population and was then transmitted into humans via another mammal host. On our current trajectory, while COVID-19 might be the first pandemic many of us have experienced, it will almost certainly not be the last.
COVID-19 is therefore not a random act of God. Like climate change, it is a symptom of accelerating environmental breakdown, which in turn is a product of an economic model that is reliant on growth and accumulation. Seen in this light, the idea that COVID-19 can somehow aid the environmental crisis is absurd: they are two sides of the same coin. To address both, we need to tackle the root cause.
The world is facing unprecedented “environmental breakdown” which could threaten the stability of societies. Climate change and damage to land, soil, air, water and animal populations are happening at such a scale and pace that the window to prevent catastrophe is closing, the report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) said. Politicians and policymakers have failed to recognize that human impacts on nature have reached a critical stage, the report says, warning that historic disregard for the environment in policy has been a “catastrophic mistake”.
The impacts of environmental breakdown could include financial instability, large-scale involuntary migration, conflict, famine and the potential collapse of social and economic systems. In the UK, one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, populations of the most threatened species have fallen by two-thirds on average since 1970. Some two million tonnes of topsoil is eroded annually and nearly 85% of fertile peat soil in East Anglia has gone since 1850, with the rest at risk of being lost in the next 30 to 60 years, the researchers said.
Areas of environmental breakdown the report identifies include climate change, loss of wildlife, ocean acidification which is caused by carbon emissions and which harms wildlife, and changes to land, including deforestation and soil erosion. Natural systems are being damaged by phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from farming, and that pollution from various sources such as vehicle emissions and plastic waste is also causing problems. It also points to the shrinking hole in the ozone layer as a rare example of damage to natural systems being reversed due to a ban on CFCs which were causing the problem. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are nontoxic, nonflammable chemicals containing atoms of carbon, chlorine, and fluorine. They are used in the manufacture of aerosol sprays, blowing agents for foams and packing materials, as solvents, and as refrigerants.
Overall, the environment is breaking down, with consequences which include more drought, famine, forced migration and war. Environmental breakdown poses a catastrophic risk. This is a crisis particularly for millennial and younger generations — the leaders of tomorrow face the daunting twin tasks of preventing environmental breakdown while responding to its growing negative effects and the failure to stop the damage sooner. We need to move from these isolated successes to a transformation to make our societies and economies sustainable, just and prepared.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
Director of Creative Development
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts