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The pandemic and our planet

Eco-impacts of COVID-19


COVID-19 has been challenging at best and tragic at worst for people around the world. Along with on-going sickness and death, as many as 90 million people joined the ranks of the desperately poor, having lost their jobs or had their work severely limited. Below are some of the environmental repercussions of the pandemic.

The environmental origins of the outbreak

The pandemic had an environmental origin, as it was almost certainly launched as the CV-19 virus

jumped from animals to humans in a wet market in Wuhan, China. This, as other such zoonotic diseases

(dengue, rabies, Ebola), was the result of human interaction with nature – in this case, incursions into

forests and extraction of exotic wild meats. (photo: monkey meat for sale in East Africa) As humans

continue these invasive activities, we can expect more such nature-to-human transmissions.

Restore natural areas now! Here's our new Mangroves to the Rescue page.


Impacts of this global crisis on the environment

Some countries, including China, have banned sales of wild meat (China also closed its “wet markets”

temporarily). This can be good for us as well as for the forests and the creatures being hunted

(including the endangered pangolin). The pandemic also led to border closures, curtailing – for the

moment – some of the trade in illegally harvested wildlife. However, this was a brief respite, as people

throughout Asia still have an appetite for wild meat. (This is the fourth largest illegal international

activity, after drugs, weapons and humans, generating some $20 billion per year in illicit profit.)

In addition, as the pandemics and other economic shocks increase poverty, the lure of the wildlife trade as

an income source will be strong.  

Here's a good summary of the upside and downside of the big drop in tourism over since March 2020: less

disturbance of wildlife, but also a drop in revenues for parks and preserves around the world, which is key for

continuing operations and for protection of endangered species.

NCP provided financial support to a Kichwa eco-lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which faced foreclosure

as tourism dried up during the pandemic. Theirs is the only native owned and run facility in the area.

They have set aside 100 acres around the lodge as a protected zone – no animal or tree harvesting, and

will be reforesting nearby areas destroyed by oil companies and others. A key to saving our last wild places

is to empower native communities to protect them. NCP also raised several thousand dollars to provide

emergency food relief to native communities that struggled as tourism dried up and as the prices dropped

drastically for coffee, cocoa and other commodities they raise to sell.   


Other environmental aspects of the pandemic:

  • greenhouse gas emissions dropped by about a little over 5 percent in 2020 globally, which of course is good for all living things – this had minimal effect on carbon levels in the atmosphere, and the UN says we need to average reductions of 7.6% per year to keep the planet under the gold standard of a two degree Celsius rise to avoid climate chaos. A downside is that less air pollution means more of the sun's energy reaches the earth (particulates in the air acts as a "shade" for the planet), offsetting some of the gains from lower emissions. 

  • as we sheltered-in-place, hundreds of thousands fewer animals and birds were being killed by vehicles every day in the USA (human vehicle-related fatalities also went down significantly)

  • tens of thousands of people around the world who would have died will not, as air pollution has dropped in synch with reduced fossil fuel combustion (deaths from the pandemic itself more than offset this, however)

  • once the prying eyes and snapping cameras of tourists disappeared, two pandas in the Hong Kong zoo finally got together after 10 years of "social distancing"; other creatures out and about in areas typically frequented by humans don’t have to waste time and energy avoiding us as they try to go about their lives

  • there is less noise on land and in the seas as transport of all kinds has scaled back, making it easier for everything from whales and warblers to communicate: e.g. birds don't have to shout anymore!


Looking ahead

The real gain would be if we can keep these trends with us into the post-CV-19 world: driving less, on-going work

from home, more locally-focused economies. (But all this is a bit more complicated that meets the eye.) NCP’s

Sustainable Living Centers are using this moment to seek changes in their communities to carry these changes with

us into the future: promoting green energy in Virginia & expanding community gardens in Vermont. As the pandemic

highlighted shortcomings in our food system, one new initiative at our Harrisonburg site is a "carbon farm", which will

model local food production in a climate-friendly organic manner. (Tom Benevento hosts Bridgewater prof and

students at the farm.)


The national government currently seems committed to combatting climate change - we need to

keep pushing them this direction, as a recent UN report says the world is behind schedule in its efforts to meet

critical goals. 

bush meat monkey.jpg
waita lodge.jpg
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