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Earth Day 50th Anniversary: Sustainability in the Context of Covid-19

Our blogs highlight a range of consumer issues from different perspectives. Unless otherwise stated they do not represent the position of Consumers International.

AUTHORS: Naomi Scott-Mearns

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our Sustainable Consumption Manager, Naomi Scott-Mearns, considers three sustainability implications of the global Covid-19 pandemic and asks how can we fight the health crisis and build a better world together?

In five years time, will we look back at March 2020 as a tipping point leading to wide-scale change to the way we live our lives? It’s certain that in the short-term, we are having to very quickly adapt to huge changes in the way we live, with more than one third of the world’s population in lockdown, and this is having profound impacts on our environment, economy and societies.

1. “There is no health without a healthy planet” (WWF)

In 2016, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published research indicating that 75% of all newly emerging infectious diseases were zoonotic: traced from animals. Other recent major infectious diseases including Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika are all zoonotic diseases. This rise in the incidence of zoonotic diseases has been linked to the health of ecosystems and biodiversity. The decline of biodiversity as a result of human behaviour including destruction of habitats, urbanisation and human-induced climate change is causing a closer interaction between animals-plants-humans and this is leading to more chance of zoonotic diseases emerging.

We have to reverse this decline in biodiversity. We must focus on the health of our ecosystems because these ecosystems sustain all life on Earth: including human life.  As Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, states: “If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves”.

Consumers can play a role in halting the decline of biodiversity by engaging in more sustainable forms of consumption, for example by purchasing certified goods and sharing goods rather than owning them. The Consumers International member Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), Malaysia is committed to tackling decreasing levels of biodiversity by promoting seed saving and sharing among farmers, gardeners and the public. They are aiming to reintroduce traditional hardy varieties of seeds, minor crops, local species of vegetables and rare herbs. CAP hosted a seed sharing fair for gardeners and farmers in 2018, with an online seed sharing network established afterwards.

Within the next year, there is hope for a global agreement on biodiversity protection expected through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) acknowledging that human development needs to occur in harmony with nature.

2. “The climate crisis will not go away” (Greta Thunberg)

As the global pandemic rages and more lives are very sadly lost, attention is focused on the needs of people right here and right now. And rightly so; but this must not be an about turn away from increased climate action.

The effects of climate change are a reality in many people’s lives already and this is only expected to worsen unless coordinated global action is taken to minimise global emissions. The aim of the Paris Agreement is to keep the Earth within 2C, ideally 1.5C, of warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100. The UN’s climate change conference, COP26, which was due to be held in the UK in November 2020, five years since the Paris Agreement and was being hailed as a pivotal moment for nations to reflect on their progress and future contributions. Many are calling for commitments to carbon neutrality by nations by 2050 or sooner.

Will the postponement of COP26 mean greater commitments of emissions cuts by nations? The UK and Italy, the two governments due to host COP26, have argued that despite the postponement ambitious emissions reductions are still urgently needed. And perhaps more urgently than ever, if 75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic and this has been linked to climate change causing damage to ecosystems, to prevent a global pandemic like coronavirus happening ever again we must act very soon.

 

Early data seems to suggest that lockdown has led to dramatic falls in carbon emissions, but will these return to normal once lockdown is eased? Perhaps this is an opportunity to not return to business as usual: to give over roads to pedestrians and cyclists and to all breathe cleaner air. Lockdown has led to consumers undertaking dramatic and immediate lifestyle changes from a huge reduction in travel, reusing and repairing more items and reduced consumption. The question is will consumers and governments see the benefits of the lockdown on the environment and seek to create a new normality with these as standard, particularly in relation to greenhouse gas emissions, which are required in order to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement?

In our joint statement on consumer protection and COVID-19 we are calling on the G20 to prioritise sustainability. The current crisis should not lead to the weakening of existing legislation to protect and promote sustainability, or the delay of urgently needed future initiatives in areas such as sustainable finance, food systems, mobility and household energy measures.

3. “Covid-19 is by no means a ‘silver lining’ for the environment” (Inger Andersen)

Air pollution levels are the lowest in decades. Parks and gardens are full of wildlife. Water systems are running clear. These are just a few of the many noted positive temporary environmental impacts of the lockdown caused by the coronavirus.

Yet, waste, especially hazardous waste and single use plastics, is expected to hugely increase as a result of the lockdown. There have been news articles of masks already littering beaches. A consumer shift towards reusable items, for example coffee cups, has almost instantly reversed from circular practices to disposable due to hygiene and health concerns. It may take some time before consumers return to reusable items. An interim solution could be an increase in compostable and biodegradeable plastic materials and investment in national facilities to effectively manage this waste to avoid contamination of landfill and recycling streams.

 

Let’s see Earth Day 2020 as an opportunity to embed more sustainable consumption and production practices and to make huge progress towards achievement of Goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals. This means the sustainable choice being the easy choice for consumers and it means businesses seeking to consider both people and the planet. Key business leaders argue the businesses that will survive through this crisis are those that are already contributing to helping people and the planet in equal measure, thereby engendering a more sustainable circular economy: “a great revolution in business is coming, washing away not just the patently “bad” actors, but also the many “average” companies that are watching lazily, indifferent from the sidelines”.

The ask is to us all – as individual consumers, and as businesses, NGOs and governments – to keep environmental protection in mind throughout this health crisis. As we all admire the strength and haven of nature at this time – the volume of the birdsong, the sound of the wind, the clearness of the sky – perhaps on Earth Day we can stimulate a global recognition and thanks to the Earth as our wonderful home and seek to ensure we protect it.