How COVID-19 challenges sustainability goals

WWF scientist Robin Naidoo on the pandemic and planetary health

Thirty Hills forest from above

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed uncharted challenges across disciplines and spectrums. The disease and the reactive emergency measures that have been put in place have put our economic models and public health systems under stress, with devastating consequences for sustainability and the livelihoods of many, particularly those in developing countries. One way of tracking our planet’s health is through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of targets established by the United Nations aimed to eradicate poverty, protect the health of our planet, and ensure human prosperity by 2030. These goals are key for a green recovery from COVID-19, with stronger and inclusive economies and more resilient societies across the globe.

Robin Naidoo, Lead Scientist for Wildlife Conservation at WWF, shares his perspectives on how COVID-19 has challenged the Sustainable Development Goals and how we need to improve our relationship with nature in order to achieve them.

How has COVID-19 impacted the environment?

The environmental impacts of COVID-19 are mixed. On the positive side we have CO2 emissions decreasing dramatically, and restrictions on human mobility have led to some areas normally heavily used by people being reclaimed by wildlife. Owing to reduced pollution, Mount Everest is now visible from Kathmandu, Nepal, for the first time in modern memory, and the lockdown has led to substantial reductions in wildlife killed on roads in many parts of the world.

On the other hand, reduced human mobility has also reduced tourism and the active management of many of the world’s protected areas. With watchful eyes absent, poaching is increasing in many places. An analysis by TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, found that reports of poaching for consumption and local trade – not restricted to any geographical region or area – have more than doubled during the lockdown period.

Another impact is the increase in plastic waste due to an uptick in single use items like latex gloves or disposable tableware, which could lead to more pollution in the ocean. We also see increased deforestation in places like Mozambique, where the government has stopped issuing timber licenses due to the pandemic; or the Brazilian Amazon where deforestation has soared as oversight decreases; or Nepal where there have been reports of timber smuggling and wildlife poaching in some community forests in Nawalpur.

How do current policies and social norms seem to have been disrupted by COVID-19?

    We can argue that a big possible casualty of COVID-19 are the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. In 2015, the United Nations adopted these goals to improve people’s lives and the natural world by 2030. The success of the SDGs depends on two big assumptions: sustained economic growth and globalization and COVID-19 has now torn both assumptions to shreds. This has fundamental implications for how we conceive of and prioritize sustainability in a post-pandemic world. To give you an example, 30 (18%) of these targets would help to lessen the likelihood of another global pandemic. Reducing wildlife trafficking and demand for these products would significantly reduce the probability of transferring new viruses to humans. In addition, the targets of (1) achieving universal health coverage, (2) bolstering health workforce, and (3) strengthening the capacity of early warning systems for global health risks, would also slow down the impacts of COVID-19 in developing nations.

    Land conversion in the Grand Chaco

    Forest loss in the Amazon

    Are the Sustainable Development Goals now unrealistic?

    Even pre-COVID we were not on track to meet many of the 169 SDG targets by 2030, in part because it is estimated there is a $2.5 TRILLION shortfall every year in terms of funding needs. With the global economy expected to contract by 5% and the time frame for its recovery uncertain, COVID-19 has confirmed the suspicion that two-thirds of all SDG targets may not be met – the goal of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all one of the more obvious casualties. Nevertheless, if we have learned anything from COVID-19 it is that governments and countries can quickly change their thinking and act in a timely fashion. We’ve also learned that pandemics can drastically shake economic and social models and therefore drastic measures need to be taken to address public health, poverty, biodiversity and climate change.

    What industries can we predict be impacted because of COVID-19?

      Economic activity across all sectors has slowed dramatically in the wake of COVID-19 and we can expect a contraction of the world’s economy at a level not seen since the Great Depression. The lockdown has particularly impacted tourism, which has had significant negative repercussions for the many parts of the developing world where tourism funds the conservation and management of protected areas and threatened species. These lockdowns and travel restrictions have disproportionally affected some indigenous communities that work in the informal economy and rely on income from seasonal work and tourism to support themselves. For example, countries like Kenya and South Africa, where tourism is the main revenue source for many communities, are facing devastating effects due to the collapse of the nature-based tourism sector. With many neighboring countries closing borders and parks to prevent the spread of COVID, national budgets for wildlife conservation are being drastically reduced. The contraction of the world’s economy may very well prevent tourism from returning to previous levels for quite some time.

      How could a thoughtful turn to a more sustainable economy benefit people and nature?

        COVID-19 crisis demonstrates that systemic changes must be made to address the environmental drivers of pandemics.

        An immediate and short-term response that many have called for is to reduce the consumption of high-risk wildlife species, and to close wildlife markets that pose a high risk to people in terms of emerging infectious diseases.

        More fundamentally, we need to decouple development from economic growth, and recognize that at current trajectories the scale of the human enterprise on earth is simply unsustainable. Beyond that, collaboration across disciplines is vital to prevent future pandemics and requires concerted commitment from policymakers, conservationists, scientists, and health experts. Urgent steps are needed by relevant authorities to stop land conversions and deforestation across ecosystems while sustainably feeding a growing population; to address immediate health and economic needs and build a new relationship between people and nature; and to help local communities sustainably manage their wildlife and natural resources. These setbacks do not mean we should give up hope, it just means we need to continue to work hard to rebalance and secure a healthy future for people and nature.

        What is WWF doing to help people and nature in light of COVID-19?

          WWF is working with preeminent wildlife health, zoonotic disease, and public health experts for joint action to address some immediate priorities including shutting down high-risk markets and trade in high-risk species and ensuring effective enforcements are in place, reducing demand for wildlife products, and securing alternative livelihoods and food security for rural, local, and indigenous communities that often rely on these wildlife products.

          WWF is working to halt deforestation and land conversion, particularly in zoonotic disease hotspots. Forests act as a natural barrier from disease transmission from wildlife to people; therefore sustainably managed forests are vital to reducing the likelihood of disease outbreaks while also safeguarding the important ecosystem services vital to forest-dependent communities. WWF is working with policymakers, local communities, and companies to reduce deforestation by improving agricultural practices like shifting toward deforestation-free and conversion-free production of key commodities. Food production, including livestock, is the leading driver of deforestation and WWF is working to improve management of livestock to prevent forest conversion and natural-resource use, and also reduce the proximity of domestic livestock to wildlife and the risk of disease transmission.

          COVID 19 has underscored the need for more resilient and sustainable planet and we are re-assessing the role our institution can play in supporting public health. Working with public health organizations, policymakers, communities, and partners, we seek to design and execute interventions for long-lasting systemic change. As a science-based conservation organization we are uniquely positioned and compelled to help address the root causes of zoonotic spillovers and prevent future pandemics.