(Photos: GBS Photo Archives)

The theme for this year’s Environment Day was ‘Time for Nature’. The global community chose to celebrate biodiversity in 2020 for its innumerous contributions. Primarily, biodiversity is relevant for food, water, timber, medicine, intrinsic value, religious beliefs, tourism, and life-supporting system. However, in this pandemic era, it has got even more to offer.

Before discussing the impacts of COVID-19 on environment, we should know how environmental degradation has led to this pandemic. We might not be sure about the origin of COVID-19 causing virus, but scientists are confident that around 60 percent of the deadly disease viruses are transmitted from animals to humans. Importantly, some of those viruses include coronaviruses. Many of us do not know that SARS-CoV-2, commonly called a coronavirus (or novel coronavirus), is the seventh coronavirus that infected humans and the third zoonotic virus after SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

This transference of a disease from animals to human beings is called zoonoses, and all such cases are collectively called as zoonotic diseases. There have been many zoonotic disease outbreaks recently. It includes 2002 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) caused by civet cats; 2004 Avian Influenza or bird flu and 2009 H1N1 or Swine Flu caused due to the commercial farming of animals; 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) caused by camels; Ebola in 2014-15 was caused by bats or non-human primates; 2015-16 Zika virus and 2019 West Nile virus were caused by mosquitoes. Even the origin of Influenza or Common Flu could be traced in birds or pigs. The list of such diseases is unending. We must concern over the causes of the rapid transference of this virus from animals to humans.

The fundamental answer to this problem is human activities and their evolving lifestyle. The reason for the frequent occurrence of these diseases is that humans provide them with continuous opportunities to do so. There has been a massive movement from rural to urban areas for various reasons. Earth has also witnessed a sudden boom of the human population in the last 50 years. Consequently, we need more land to accommodate our industrial, housing, and developmental purposes. For this reason, deforestation has become another challenge. It is causing the irreversible loss of biodiversity and habitat for wildlife.

These human activities are creating significant gaps in food chain levels and imbalances in nature. Conservation of biodiversity-species and habitats of plants and animals is essential not only for them but also for humans. Such loss is promoting more human and wildlife interactions. If these human behaviors are not corrected urgently, there will be more diseases to come soon. Also, considering that those will be unknown diseases to humans without a vaccine and an unprepared immune system.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Environment

Now let us understand the impacts of COVID-19 on environment. In the first place, this thought might puzzle you that how COVID-19 is affecting environment. Indeed, this microscopic virus is not efficient to devastate the environment. It is only affecting humans. Though the environmental conservation laws are generally human-centric, however, it is understood that environment is not merely limited to humans.

Considering what has happened over the past five months, it can be said that this disease is different from the others. We do not see schools, universities, public places and institutions halted for months because of some disease. COVID-19 has claimed several lives, devastated livelihood, and stirred up the significant economies within a short period.

So, when we say that COVID-19 has affected the environment, it’s not the disease doing so directly. Instead, we have adopted some measures in light of this ‘special disease’ that has impacted the environment. COVID-19 has led to few ‘actions’ and ‘inactions’ that have ultimately caused an impact on the environment. Thus, it is crucial to identify, understand, and learn from those ‘actions’ and ‘inactions’ taken because of COVID-19 and ultimately associated with environment. COVID-19 has provided us an opportunity to look at environment from a different perspective.

Actions and Inactions due to COVID-19

  1. Lockdown

 

a) Temporary Environmental reformations: It’s always good to see and hear news about the restoration of environment. In this lockdown, several news stories covered instances of clean river water and air in megacities and other places. But what cannot be denied about these environmental reforms is that they were neither expected nor intended at the time of imposing lockdown. They just happened as an obvious counter-reaction of halting several activities together. Therefore, it came with no surprise that after the lockdown was lifted within a few days, the level of air pollution went up by 2-6 times of the present. Though the temporary environmental restorations were not a permanent solution; however, they provided essential data and information on pollution control.

In the World Air Quality Report 2019, India stood the fifth most polluted country in the world. The report said that 21 of the 30 world’s most polluted cities in the world are situated in India. It is true that with the lockdown, air pollution has reduced by 40-60% in major polluted cities, like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Chennai. The average levels in particulate matter and nitrogen oxide have also been reduced significantly. Lockdown told us the possible lowest levels of pollution that could be achieved by restricting almost-all activities in our country. This will help scientists and policymakers to determine the required targets to be met for the upcoming environmental policies. It has also conveyed that the necessary time-frame required for the settlement of the pollution. These valuable data and information can be utilized to chalk-out more systemic policies that will provide a substantive solution to the problem of air pollution in India.

b) Caged humans: Where we saw some improvements in environment, this lockdown has also restricted human movements and activities. Halting all human actions cannot be a preferred mechanism for the conservation of environment. The environment cannot be protected at the cost of human development. This protection should be achieved by balancing ecological, economic, and social development. The government must emphasize achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the stipulated time frame.

c) Rise in Poaching: Wildlife Justice Commission has noted, “A major concern is that poaching incidents may increase during the lockdown period, as criminal networks exploit perceived opportunities of park closures, reduced patrols in protected areas, or the diversion of law enforcement resources to deal with COVID-19 issue”.

In this lockdown, cases of animal hunting and wildlife trafficking were reported from across South Asia. The instances of killings of several wild animals and birds were reported, including chinkara or Indian gazelle, barking deer, peacocks, among them many are declared as endangered species under Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

d) Finance: Several projects that aim to clean our environment require vast sums of money for their implementation. Notably, these projects are still unsuccessful in providing a healthy environment as provided by Supreme Court of India in Virendra Gaur & Ors v. State of Haryana. For instance, projects undertaken to clean the river Ganga invested crores of rupees, yet it has not provided desired results. On the other hand, lockdown helped in cleaning the river at a zero rupees cost. Governmental schemes should properly utilize funds for the protection and conservation of the environment. Further, they should be asked about the financial resources invested for these purposes and their ultimate outcomes.

e) Strict enforcement of environmental laws: The lockdown has also reflected the competence of enforcement machinery to contain the disease for the last few months. The amount of cooperation and hard work shown by police, doctors, officials, and other personnel is commendable. Likewise, it proves that to tackle environmental problems, what necessarily required is the political will than several statues. In India, there exist many laws on environment; however, the strict enforcement of those laws is the most significant need of the hour.

 

f) Power of a Common Man: People have shown in the lockdown that they then can co-operate and support their government and fellow citizen in crisis. Environmental issues should be pushed with a similar intensity among people, and it will be no wonder that the citizen of India equipped with ancient environment ethics will observe them diligently.

  1. COVID-19 affected International Environmental Regime

The year 2020 was significant for the development of the international environmental regime. Several meetings of parties were scheduled on diverse topics this year, including climate change and biodiversity. COP 26 to UNFCCC was initially planned to take place from 9 to 19 November 2020 in Glasgow, United Kingdom, but was postponed to 1-12 November in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Responding to this postponement, UNFCCC Executive Secretary has noted that, “The climate emergency has not taken time off for the coronavirus. Nor will it prevent extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts, which are already causing casualties. Our work in 2020 is not, in any form, on hold.”

Similarly, COP 15 to CBD was scheduled for 15-28 October 2020 in China, but it has been postponed due to the disease. It was dedicated to take a final decision on the post-2020 global biodiversity framework this year, together with a review on the achievements of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 of CBD. Adding to the list, UN Ocean Conference 2020 is scheduled for 2-6 June 2020, Lisbon has been postponed for the same reason. Though international bodies are trying to fill up the delayed loss by carrying out online conferences as far as possible, however significant development will be done after things will return to normal.

  1. Environment is not on the priority list of countries

Due to COVID-19, pandemic economies have immensely suffered across the globe. As this disease will be controlled, the economy will be the priority of all nations. It is reflected from the policies adopted by several countries during the pandemic that they emphasize the economy more than environment. However, it is crucial that while reviving the economy, governments must consider environment and not relax their legal framework.

United States: Trump administration has exempted from penalizing companies failed to comply with federal monitoring or reporting requirements if their non-compliance is due to the COVID-19 disease. Further, they allowed a rollback on car emissions rules that earlier aimed to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions.

Czech Republic: EU proposed to put forward a draft of Green Deal that mandates members to achieve net zero-emission by the year 2050. The Czech Republic prime minister advocated to forget the Green Deal, and instead concentrate on coronavirus. Notably, the European Commission spokesperson has said: “While our immediate focus is on combating Covid-19, our work on delivering the European Green Deal continues. The climate crisis is still a reality and necessitates our continued attention and efforts.” However, later the government reversed its position and came out supporting EU Deal.

Poland: The Polish government provided that the EU’s emissions trading scheme, which penalizes big carbon emitters, should either be scrapped or exempt Poland. Notably, Poland generates most of its energy from coal.

Brazil: Similar accusations were made on Brazil Environment minister who asked the government to push through further deregulation of environmental policy while people are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic. He wanted to utilize the pandemic moment to relax countries’ environmental protection rules.

It is essential to understand that countries need not compromise their environmental measures for restoring their economic development. COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to reconsider our financial structure. It says that new investment avenues should focus on building renewable sources of energy and adopting a sustainable lifestyle so that environmental interests must not suffer in the future.

  1. The revival of the plastic industry

It is a setback for environment and long-running plastic ban movements that, in the light of the COVID-19 plastic industry has again revived. Many places that imposed restrictions on plastic have now granted relaxations. Instances are reported that people preferring single-use plastic bags over their cloth bags.

Recently, it has been reported that the styrene gas leak at Vishakhapatnam LG Polymers has immensely affected plants and animals. It is further stated that the company has not followed hazardous chemical storage rules while re-opening the plant. It becomes more critical that since we are opening back after lockdown, industries must pay attention to the Manufacture, Storage and Import of Hazardous Chemical Rules, 1989, and other relevant precautions to prevent any other similar incident in the future.

  1. Medical and plastic waste

We have entered in times after lockdown when masks, gloves, sanitizers, tissue papers, and other protective equipment have been made compulsory. The sudden rise in the use of these products will ultimately lead to enormous medical and plastic wastes. More importantly, the irresponsible disposal of these wastes on the streets and other places will give rise to other diseases. These wastes either reach up to landfills or nearby water bodies and oceans. Animals or fishes might consider them as a food item and proceed to swallow the trash. It is dangerous since this could also lead to their death. Similarly, this infected waste is a massive threat for cleaning workers engaged in waste reduction and management activities. It highlights an urgent need for proper disposal of our medical and plastic wastes.

A Way Forward

When humans are a problem, then what is the solution? Well, our answer lies in nature. For our protection, it is vital to prevent the destruction of life. We need to fundamentally transform our relationship with the natural world to reduce the risk of diseases.     UNEP biodiversity expert Doreen Robinson says that “Healthy ecosystems can protect against the spread of disease: Where native biodiversity is high, the infection rate risk for some zoonotic diseases can be lowered”.

It is essential that both governments and individuals must learn to respect environment from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to be more sensitized towards the plant & animal species. Further, we have to bring change to our habits and lifestyle and avoid practices detrimental to nature. The environment should be our priority, and it has to be reflected in our daily activities. Human development should not be done at the cost of environment. A balance between ecological, economic, and social development needs to be observed.

COVID-19 is not the end. Humanity is fighting this virus to again lead a normal life. This ‘normal life’ resides in the lap of a healthy environment. If we do not remain cautious about our pandemic-led priorities and actions, though we may conquer the virus, ultimately lose on environmental ground. Thus, we must not create another devil while fighting one.

(The author is a research scholar at the Faculty of Legal Studies, South Asian University, New Delhi)


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