Reducing risks to biodiversity is crucial in reducing the odds of another pandemic, according to a series of reports, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reporting that although the Asia Pacific is rich in biodiversity found nowhere else on the planet as much as 42 percent of all species in Southeast Asia could be lost by the turn of the century.
At least half of these would be global extinctions, with the accelerating rate of nature loss having an unimaginable impact. As additional species are lost, the odds that a pandemic could jump from one to another – including to humans – grow exponentially. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken at least 6.3 million lives (some estimates double that figure) and sickened at least half a billion people and looks likely to sicken far more, is just one disheartening example.
The Manila-based Asian Development Bank is seeking to address the issue through a post-Covid-19 recovery plan outlined for Southeast Asia, a green recovery approach that complements the goal of a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, set to be finalized by countries late this year. Both posit that zeroing in only on pandemics may not be enough, however, as countries must decide how to best comprehensively address the nexus between biodiversity and human health to build back better.
The ADB, in its report “Implementing a Green Recovery in Southeast Asia,” released on July 6, said that Covid-19 recovery packages must include an assessment of impacts on the environment, one that should also be further integrated into economic plans and related regulations in general.
“To ensure that the green recovery process from the pandemic goes beyond injecting temporary green investments and builds in permanent shift toward environmentally resilient pathways, “green” objectives such as climate mitigation and adaptation and safeguarding against biodiversity loss will need to be mainstreamed into all policies beyond Covid-19 response measures,” it said.
It’s an objective that other countries also put forth last year, as parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) said that governments must consider how stimulus measures “could contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity,” consequently minimizing the risk of future pandemics.
Not just Covid-19
Exploring the role of biodiversity protection in improving human health must go beyond the issue of Covid-19, however, experts said in a policy explainer published in the medical journal The Lancet in June.
In the draft for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, health is approached on more broader terms, wrote Liz Willets from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. For one, it acknowledged that “biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and negative health outcomes share many common drivers.” These include pollution, climate change, harmful use of pesticides and antimicrobials, and unsustainable food production practices, among others.
She added that recognizing that biodiversity and health linkages are not just limited to zoonoses or one kind of pathogen could open more opportunities for developing more equitable solutions to the health impacts of other forms of environmental destruction, which more often than not deal a bigger blow to marginalized communities.
ADB, on one hand, while noting that “the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the strong link between the environment and public health,” proposed that a key component of a post-pandemic green recovery should be “building open data systems for biodiversity, one which would cover not just wildlife, but a range of issues, from illegal fishing, to deforestation, to mangrove conservation.”
ADB has enumerated existing examples in Southeast Asia which could be further developed for data collection and sharing. These include an initiative in Indonesia called Global Fishing Watch which uses a mixture of GPS, big data, and machine learning to track illegal fishing. Global Forest Watch, on the other hand, makes use of satellites and algorithms to monitor real-time information about tree cover reduction. Aside from Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines have open data platforms which collect data about biodiversity.
“These platforms could be further built upon to allow for more types of data to be collected and shared securely and organizations to use the data to help address biodiversity challenges, “ the ADB said.
Aside from arresting biodiversity degradation, the ADB said a green recovery in Southeast Asia should also aim to achieve productive and regenerative agriculture, sustainable urban development with good transport models, clean energy transition, healthy and productive oceans, and circular economy.
“These could generate US$172 billion in capital investments and 30 million jobs by 2030,” Ramesh Submaraniam, director general of the Southeast Asia department of ADB said.
Human health targets: work set for countries
These recommendations for green recovery came as the region starts to slowly recover from Covid-19, a pandemic that pushed 4.7 million more people into extreme poverty, following the loss of 9.3 million jobs. Mobility restrictions such as lockdowns also gutted the revenues of micro, small and medium enterprises by over 50 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels in the region.
These are economic impacts of only health problem, however, which is linked to the harmful utilization of biodiversity. There are many others which were recently tackled in Nairobi, Kenya, where 200 countries explored and debated on areas and provisions that could halt biodiversity loss post-2020.
One, according to The Earth Negotiations Bulletin, is the impact of light and sound pollution on human health, or Target 7, of the draft of the new global biodiversity framework. Countries have yet to agree on the inclusion of this language, with some delegations saying if these were to be included, then so should be the effects of mercury and heavy metals.
A provision which saw significant progress, meanwhile, is Target 12, which states that human health must be improved in conjunction with having more “green and blue spaces in urban and densely populated areas” where biodiversity conservation will be mainstreamed.
Countries failed to find consensus, however, on Target 17, as some parties propose to include measures to address the adverse impacts of biotechnology on human health.
The outcome of the said sessions, which took place from June 21-26, will be negotiated in Montreal, Canada where a UN summit on the Convention on Biological Diversity will be finally held this December after being postponed twice due to Covid-19.
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