Is the climate crisis partly responsible for the coronavirus outbreak?

April 22, 2020

The global Coronavirus pandemic is a great example of how fragile our current way of life has become and our growth-based economy that we rely on today.

Unfortunately, climate crisis also looms on the horizon. And it may bring a catastrophe of equal or greater scale than COVID-19.

Like COVID-19, climate change and its impacts do not observe any national and physical boundaries. The two crises are in fact quite similar except for a major difference: Climate change is happening gradually, unlike COVID-19.

The relationship between climate change and health has long been recognized. It was known for a long time ago that pandemics are very likely to happen, but no one expected COVID-19 to arrive and escalate so quickly. Now science tells us that pandemics will occur with increasing frequency in the near future.

It has been proven that climate change, deforestation and wildlife trade are the main contributing drivers behind pandemics. Recent studies also link air pollution to higher coronavirus death rates.

Our health depends on the climatic conditions and other organisms that we share the planet with.

Today, we are facing the consequences of pushing Earth beyond its natural limits. We demand as much from nature as if we live on 1.75 Earths. Increasing demands of resources, minerals and wood leads to the degraded ecosystems and ecological disruptions that drive such pandemics.

Forest cover and land systems are rapidly changing because of intensive farming, mining and infrastructure projects. This process depletes the ability of nature to balance itself, thus disrupting ecological cycles. If current consumption and production patterns continue, the earth will need 183 billion tonnes of material every year by 2050, which is almost three times more than today’s amount and impossible to sustain. 

Experts claim that destroyed habitats create the perfect conditions for coronavirus to emerge, and science has already shown that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.

Global figures for deforestation have rapidly increased – every year an area of forest the size of UK is being lost around the world, leading to loss of critical habitats too. Destruction of natural places will create further conditions for the spread of other pathogens by reducing the natural barriers between virus host animals. It will also drive wildlife to live closer to people, which creates opportunity for pathogens to get into new hosts.

As UN environment chief has said, “Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people.”

We must say no to wildlife trade, a critical driver of novel infectious diseases by enabling transmission of zoonotic viruses from wildlife to humans.

The planet regenerates quickly. There is now less air pollution, but not for long.

The irony is that current pandemic crisis has reduced levels of toxic air pollutions and greenhouse emissions in many areas as places go into lockdown. Earth observer satellites have detected significant reductions in air pollution levels as less vehicles take to the roads and a lot of activity shuts down. In China, for example, industrial shutdowns have led to a 25 percent drop in CO2 emissions in February, compared with the emission levels in the same period last year. The concentration of NO2 levels - a noxious gas which is primarily produced by traffic and factories - have also fallen dramatically.

Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020. Photograph: Guardian Visuals / ESA satellite data

However, such improvements can only be short-lived unless governments continue to deliver on their climate commitments once the crisis is over and the global economy resumes.  We can already see proof this as of today, as air pollution and carbon emission levels seem to be on the rebound in China.

Air pollution has also been associated with the increased occurrence of respiratory diseases. Pollution tends to be worse in communities with poverty, bringing another burden to vulnerable groups in the fight against future pandemics. WHO is working to understand whether pollution particles boost the spread of the virus and make it more virulent

The fallout from COVID-19 signals future disruptions that will be caused by climate change. The global pandemic crisis could be a harbinger of worst disasters, looming on the horizon.

Governments across the world are working on economic rescue packages to deal with the impact of COVID-19. Trillions of dollars in public money are being rolled out to prevent the collapse of big industries, such as tourism, airlines, construction and transport. It is time to ensure that governments do not downgrade their environmental aims in response to the COVID-19 crisis.  In fact, economic response packages should be formulated with a strong emphasize on decarbonization and resilience.

As UNDP, we believe that we should see COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to build back better and greener, in support of resilient systems and services. Today, on Earth Day, we reaffirm our commitment to embedding climate action into the COVID-19 response and recovery processes.

The Earth is our only home, and it is our shared responsibility.

To read more, including ways the Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction team is helping countries recover "greener", visit the current Sway issue.

UNDP is working across the region to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Find out more about our work.