While air and water pollution returned to normal levels within weeks of lockdowns being lifted in various cities, by the end of 2020, it was also becoming evident that the world had managed to undo almost entirely all the gains of the pandemic in terms of carbon emissions, which finally ended only marginally lower than the previous year.
But the worst news regarding the environmental impact of the pandemic proved to be in another area where some “experts” had been predicting huge gains due to restrictions on human activity. Predictions were being thrown around about biodiversity and conservation of nature.
Ultimately, these forecasts also fell flat, and both biodiversity and conservation ended up paying a heavy, if not the heaviest, price of the pandemic. Biodiversity had already become one of the biggest victims of climate change, with fires, global warming and extreme weather events all leading to severe degradation of flora and fauna, on land and in water.
Besides climate change, biodiversity has also been consistently threatened for decades due to human greed as an increasing number of businesses and governments went about easing environmental regulations. These included the US, where former President Donald Trump allowed drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge, against all scientific advice and despite furious protests by environmentalists around the world.
This decision has since been reversed by Trump’s successor in the White House, but other eco-sensitive zones of the world have not been as fortunate. One example is the rapid acceleration in forest clearing in the Amazon basin in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro has eased environmental rules to please his rich allies, the Brazilian agricultural companies.
There have been other examples of governments trying to dilute or even abolish environmental controls that regulate businesses and seek to measure the environmental impact of their activities on nature.
This trend has gathered pace, notably in developing countries, as governments attempt to recover from economic collapse by sacrificing the environment or by cutting costs in areas such nature conservation projects. For example, in the first four months of 2020, during the lockdown, destruction of Amazonian forests jumped by 55 percent compared with the same period in the previous year.
Studies point to a serious rise in destruction of forests in other parts of the world as well, notably Southeast Asia and Africa. Biodiversity, which is typically highest in the developing world, has suffered a terrible loss in these nations as governments also cut spending on conservation forces such as wildlife rangers and forest guards.
Meanwhile, another threat to biodiversity arising out of the pandemic came from mass migration as hundreds of millions of workers who lost their jobs in urban centers returned to their homes in rural areas and near forests, where biodiversity typically flourishes.
Reports from various countries suggest a sharp increase in wildlife poaching not only because of a cutback in forest rangers, but also because thousands joined poaching gangs in a desperate bid to survive. Studies have shown that poaching rose sharply in Nepal, Pakistan and India, and also Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, as poachers’ greed was duly aided by the need of those who found themselves facing starvation in the absence of any government assistance.
It is not only wildlife that has felt the heat of need-driven poaching — there also have been reports of rise in smuggling of exotic herbs and plants from these regions.
A clearer picture of the extent of damage to biodiversity caused by the pandemic is likely to emerge at the IUCN conference in Marseille. Though delayed by over a year, in many ways the conference comes at an opportune moment. As the world prepares for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, a stern warning emanating from Marseille will perhaps nudge global businesses and governments to get serious in dealing with climate change and pollution.
Otherwise, as the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear, the planet will be condemned to a deadly 1.5 C rise in global temperatures within a decade, breaching the target set by the Paris agreement.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.
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