Nature is healing — or is it?

In March 2020, when the spread of COVID-19 was officially declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, city lockdowns were put in place in many parts of the world. With these policies came a dramatic change of lifestyle for millions of people. 

Across the world, the pandemic halted international travel and domestic movement. In the United States, things like public transportation and highways quickly emptied, as the need for a daily commute became moot. And for the first time, because of stay-at-home orders, many people gained an increased sensitivity for their immediate surroundings. 

This sensitivity translated specifically into a heightened awareness of environmental concerns. According to a survey conducted by BCG, a consulting partner of the ongoing United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, 70% of respondents felt the increased urgency of the threat of man-made environmental degradation and climate change during the pandemic.

The relationship between the pandemic and the public becoming more aware of environmental issues is clear. This might be attributed to the public’s increased exposure to nature — as other forms of entertainment and leisure disappeared — and people reconnecting with their surrounding environment during the lockdown period of the pandemic. 

With COP26 having just wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland earlier this month, the urgency of climate change and the world’s response is more critical than ever. While COVID-19 increases drive for environmental action among the public, it remains ever important to look at how the climate crisis is impacting wildlife and the great outdoors.

Amid the pandemic, there are some positives when it comes to the environment. Decreased traffic, movement and modes of transportation has created a small decline in the typical man-made pollution seen in non-pandemic times. Lockdowns forced the world to retreat indoors, which also caused a decline in global economic activity — a positive move for declining emissions and pollution.

Additionally, wildlife populations have felt the impacts of global lockdowns and slow economic activity. In one case, a study found that a reduction in traffic also resulted in a significantly lower number of roadkill in 11 countries. 

Similarly, a decrease in travel, tourism, trade and shipping has also benefited marine life, which have since faced decreased disruption, disturbance or accidental harm — mostly as a result of the heavy decline of shipping activity. In fact, an article by the UN Development Program highlighted that the decrease in activity by sea is the most significant compared to land and air. 

Regarding air ecosystems, experts are also seeing that birds are benefitting from the pandemic, with data from the Federal Aviation Administration showing that in pre-pandemic times — between 1990-2019 — there have been about 227,005 wildlife strikes with civil aircrafts. Because the pandemic slowed air traffic, wildlife may have benefited from clearer skies.

However, it is also important to analyze the pandemic’s negative impacts on wildlife.

The narrative of “nature’s comeback,” is harmful, as The Conversation reported in April 2020. While many industrialized, wealthy countries saw nature and wildlife spring back, many low-income countries and emerging economies see COVID-19 as devastating to the environment. While the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom were able to provide economic safety nets and relief for those facing economic shock, other low-income countries were unable to have that support.

Instead, citizens of these countries were left vulnerable, and had to rely on the environment as their economic safety net. For instance, those who lose their typical sources of income due to climate-related natural disasters often turn to natural resources “to make ends meet.” This means, then, that if the climate crisis continues unmitigated, the world may see increased amounts of people exploiting the natural environment — but for economic security that would otherwise not be provided to them.

“Exploiting natural resources is often the only option for the destitute,” writes Stacy Morford, The Conversation’s environment and climate editor.

This incentive is coming into conflict with increased environmental concerns and social activism. 

A study conducted by Ipsos across 14 countries showed that across all countries, 71% of respondents found climate change to be more important than ever, especially amid the pandemic. These attitudes are also found within global public opinion’s thoughts on what pandemic recovery efforts ought to look like. Approximately 65% of respondents surveyed supported a “green economic recovery,” which means economic policy with sustainability in mind.

Post-COP26, the world continues to watch how climate change and COVID-19 impact the environment and its wildlife. While the pandemic’s impact on the climate crisis has been a detriment and a benefit to wildlife in various ways, the world watches as global leaders tussle for the policy solutions to mitigate climate change around the world.

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