The Covid-19 crisis caused rapid and dramatic changes to life in the UK, probably beyond the previous experiences of any post-war generation. The social, economic and environmental impacts are far reaching and likely to be long-lasting. The consequences for Gloucestershire’s wildlife and the Wildlife Trust were outlined by our CEO Roger Mortlock’s in his ‘Life in Lockdown’ blog.
As the UK begins to plan its recovery, we are increasingly hearing the mantra ‘new normal’ because some restrictions may remain until a vaccine or treatment is developed. I completely understand any apprehension of ‘new normal’. It does sound like a vanguard preparing us for the inevitable compromises and difficult decisions that will be required to restart society and the economy. However, I find it heartening to remember that change can be very good. Some of the UK’s greatest achievements were caused by adversity. The NHS was born out of the second World War and the austerity that followed. The 1956 Clean Air Act was a landmark piece of environmental legislation stimulated by London’s great smog of 1952. No doubt there are challenges down the road, but there are also opportunities to create a better and more sustainable world.
The true cost of inaction
I expect most of us didn’t see the Covid-19 pandemic coming but specialists in zoonotic diseases (diseases that move between wildlife and humans) might argue that they had warned of such a risk for years. These warnings went unheeded and the actions necessary to reduce the risk were not taken. This highlights a very serious issue when it comes to our natural environment, people often fail to make good decisions because the consequence for others, including future generations are not accounted. Put simply, the value of nature to society is not reflected by its financial value, therefore, anyone seeking to make money in a way that degrades nature has little incentive to protect nature for society (Dasgupta, 2020 – more on this in a future blog).
It would be difficult for anyone to claim that we hadn’t been warned about the threats posed by climate change and biodiversity declines. It was only last year that streets across the country were filled with people from every generation calling for urgent change to tackle the climate and ecological crises. National and local Governments have declared climate and ecological emergencies, neither of which have been solved. Global temperature rises between 2032 and 2050, predominantly due to human activities, will lead to biodiversity loss, extreme weather, sea level rises, reduced food and water security, increased air pollution and reduced economic output2. Many of these impacts are already being seen in some parts of the world. Globally one million species are threatened with extinction3 and only 1.5% of the wildflower rich grasslands which used to cover 40% of the Cotswolds remain. This is a travesty in itself, but if that doesn’t worry you perhaps the fact that 70% of cancer medications originate from nature and 75% of global food crops rely on animal pollination3 will.
To provide some perspective, by mid-May 2020 Covid-19 had tragically caused an estimated 318,000 deaths globally4. The World Health Organisation estimates that climate change already causes 150,000 deaths per year and that this will rise to 250,000 by 20305. This is a best-case scenario and recent research suggests that the actual mortality rate will be closer to 1 million per year6. Air pollution alone causes an estimated 28,000-36,000 avoidable deaths per year in the UK7 and is set to increase with climate change. As we rebuild our society and economy after Covid-19 we can’t afford to make the same mistakes again by ignoring environmental issues.
We shouldn’t need a crisis to start positive change
What the Covid crisis has demonstrated is that we can make transformational changes to how we live if there is a big enough stick pushing us. How many of us (me included) said that we couldn’t work from home before the crisis? Lots of businesses are now operating through remote working, with people avoiding commutes and getting time back in their lives. This has manifested itself in a 75% reduction in car transport8 which tackles one of the biggest sources of the UK’s CO2 emissions. It was only last year that the Science and Technology Select Committee said that urgent action to cut personal car use probably wouldn’t succeed by 20359, but we have nearly achieved it in two months. As a result there have also been well publicised improvements in air quality across our towns and cities. Perhaps now is the time to improve public transport and cycling infrastructure, making home working the norm for those whose jobs allow it.
When you are limited to one trip outside per day you make the most of it. More and more people are visiting local green spaces they didn’t know existed and here at GWT we’ve had lots of people get in touch with their wildlife discoveries. I have lost count of how many people have told us that seeing wildlife in their garden or on their daily exercise walk is helping them to get through lockdown. The well evidenced mental health benefits of spending time in nature10 shining through. Recent YouGov polls revealed that a substantial majority of the public want the Government to prioritise improving quality of life over economic growth and that addressing environmental issues remains one of the top 3 priorities for UK voters.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the rise of Covid-19 is partly a consequence of decisions we made regarding our natural environment. New diseases are emerging at an increasing rate and most are ones that pass from animals to humans11 whilst there are multiple reasons for this the ongoing destruction and degradation of ecosystem is an important one. Our collective failure to stop and reverse habitat loss has created landscapes that increase the risk of disease transmission12. This is not to say that people and wildlife should be kept separate. Nature Deficiency Disorder is a growing issue particularly for children13 and there is growing evidence for the benefits of having high quality natural green spaces near to where we live14. The Covid crisis is not over and we can’t rule out another pandemic in future, so having quality natural green spaces near to where people live is more important than ever.
Together we can make this an ‘NHS’ moment for the environment
Here comes the positive bit - this could be our ‘NHS’ moment for the environment. We have shown that we are capable of making substantial changes to our way of life when faced by a crisis. Some of the changes have been difficult to cope with and there is a huge caveat that the economy is currently being propped up by Government support. However, there have been some positive changes for the environment and in quality of life for many of us. Let’s not wait for another crisis to happen before we make the changes needed to adapt and reduce the impact. We need to use this moment as a catalyst to make some of the difficult social and economic changes to properly tackle the climate and ecological emergencies.
Now is the time to reimagine society as one that is happier, more sustainable and with nature in recovery. The Trust has a chance to influence the recovery in Gloucestershire, but we need your thoughts on what a different world could look like. Please help us by letting us know what you think here.
I’m normally not one for using quotes, but Charles Darwin said something that perfectly sums up the current opportunity “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change15”.