The COVID-19 pandemic has given nature a bit of a respite from frantic human activities, but it has also hammered the global economy. In other words, good news has come with plenty of bad news.
Environmentalists and sustainability experts worldwide have been urging governments to take advantage of the current economic disruption by changing the way business is done to make global economic practices far more nature friendly and sustainable.
Such changes aren’t happening, however, or at least not on a large enough scale. Worse: some nations such as the United States, Brazil and Australia are even relaxing existing environmental laws in the interest of fast economic recovery.
Recently over 60 heads of state who addressed a United Nations-hosted virtual summit pledged to support efforts to tackle the global biodiversity crisis, which could see untold numbers of plant and animal species go extinct within a few decades. Yet these pledges seem to have been mere words, says Pamela McElwee, an associate professor at the Department of Human Ecology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
“[W]hen we look at what countries are doing, either in their prior budget and policies or especially in their post-COVID planning and recovery packages, very few governments are putting their money where their mouths are,” McElwee said.
“We still see huge amounts of financial support for harmful practices, such as subsidizing overfishing or fossil fuel production or building infrastructure that will harm ecological integrity,” the scientist added. “Only a small number of countries are addressing the biodiversity crisis in the serious manner it deserves.”
McElwee is the lead author of a new study that explores the changes that will be required in global economic systems to transition from harmful activities toward ones that support ecosystem resilience. Authored by a team of economists, anthropologists and environmental scientists from three continents, the paper examines financial incentives, regulations, fiscal polices and employment programs regarding their potentials in this respect.
Specifically, governments should factor into recovery plans measures that prioritize sustainable and ecofriendly practices, including those that provide immediate employment benefits and can lead to longer-term transformations in the global economy.
“Examples include shifting from harmful fossil fuel subsidies to beneficial ones, including those that encourage environmentally friendly farming; carbon taxes that could support forest protection programs; and work programs that focus on ecological restoration and green infrastructure,” the authors note.
And it won’t be enough to simply embrace low-carbon alternatives in energy generation. Economic recovery plans should also focus on better biodiversity protection to preserve fragile ecosystems from further harm, the scientists stress.
“Discussions of nature-related actions have largely focused on closing wildlife markets as a potential source of novel viruses, expanding protected natural areas or reducing tropical deforestation. While these can be important, they do not necessarily address the root causes of ecological disruptions,” they note.
The European Union is investing more heavily in biodiversity conservation in their recovery plans, yet several prominent nations, including the United States and China, have set aside practically no stimulus funding for biodiversity protection. New Zealand, India and other countries are somewhere in between by planning to invest more heavily in job creation in ecological restoration, but only at modest levels.
“Governments are falling short of their stated promises and they need to do more — immediately,” McElwee stressed.
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