There is a lot of talk about getting back to normal after the Covid-19 crisis is over. And yet normal – business as usual – is what has made our planet and our societies vulnerable to crises in the first place.
Normal means cutting down huge swathes of forest to plant crops. Normal means overgrazing livestock, destroying natural ecosystems at the expense of habitats for wild animals. Normal is driving climate change, which increases stress in wild species and their habitats and makes people more susceptible to zoonotic diseases (which spread from animals to humans).
A sound future can be built on a social contract for nature that will lead to a new normal that puts us in harmony with the environment, one that minimises the outbreak of zoonotic epidemics, revives a profitable economy and ensures that ecosystem services are available for everyone.
Scientists estimate that at least six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people have spread from animals. More importantly, three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases affecting humans come from animals. Zoonosis has its roots in elements from our current model of development, particularly in agriculture and mining, and in the way we develop roads and plan urban growth.
Vast changes in land use and the loss of habitat from these practices have put people and livestock into closer contact with wild species. They have exposed our societies to diseases for which no immunity has yet developed.
More than 70% of the ice-free land surface has been altered significantly already. By 2050, land-use change will affect 90% of the Earth’s land systems if we continue with business as usual, according to the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. If we carry on the same path, a future pandemic could be even more deadly and costly in terms of lives and livelihoods.
We can, however, create a new normal with the kind of transformative changes that will enable us to re-craft our relationship with land, biodiversity and the climate system.
Some of those changes have already been highlighted in international agreements on climate, biodiversity and land degradation. These include, among others, the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification’s 2018-2030 Strategic Framework and the 2030 Agenda, a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future.
Achieving the targets in these agreements will help communities to both “recover better” from Covid-19 and build a clean, green, healthy, safe and just future for all people.
In his recent speech to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres shared six climate-related actions to help nations green their recovery and invest in a more sustainable and resilient future.
This vision of protecting the long-term health of our natural world is vital.
Nature provides “ecosystem services” that are essential for life. Food. Water. Pollination. The very air we breathe. Ecosystem services are worth at least $125tn (GBP102tn) per year. This is about 1.5 times the gross domestic product of all countries, according to the WWF and Axa Report Into the Wild: integrating nature into investment strategies.
Investing in land-based ecosystem services, for instance, could save up to $50bn, according to the report. The associated cost of doing nothing could be equal to 7% of global GDP by 2050.
In the new normal, climate risks and opportunities need to be incorporated into the financial system as well as all aspects of public policymaking and infrastructure.
Whatever choices we make now to help the economy recover will lock in future economic growth and development paths. Building back better, stronger and smarter means embarking on a journey where we create the conditions for nature to take care of us; a new social contract for nature.
Battling Covid-19 is often compared to fighting a war. After wars, successful leaders reimagined and built better futures for their people. The first opportunity we have to do this together is when heads of state and government meet in September at the UN Biodiversity Summit in New York.
This is the moment to set the world on the road to a more ambitious and secure future: the moment to act on a social contract for nature that recasts our fate to a healthier, more prosperous one for people and planet for generations to come. Our children deserve nothing less.
o Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is acting executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Ibrahim Thiaw is executive secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and Patricia Espinosa Cantellano is executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change