As we embrace 2021 and the opportunity for a fresh perspective, Matthew Partridge reviews the independent international expert report on the transformative change required to escape from the ‘pandemic era’ that underpins the UK’s green recovery plan.
If there is one area in 2020 that did well it would be the huge growth in jokes about how terrible 2020 was. My Facebook feed is awash with “If 2020 was a…” memes and variations of apocalyptic scenes with the tag “how 2020 feels”.
COVID-19 hit the world hard in 2020. It’s killed over a million people and is far from over. Its impact on our societies and economies will do yet more damage and we won’t know the full impact for years to come.
But COVID-19 wasn’t some fluke or worldwide bad luck. Behind all the jokes and social media shares it’s easy to vilify 2020 as a ‘blip’ but not look at the underlying reality. 2020 was bad because of a long string of human actions that made it possible – if not inevitable. COVID-19 (or a pandemic like it) should have been expected.
Nowhere is this more starkly laid out than in a report released at the end of 2020 by the catchily named Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). An independent intergovernmental body established to strengthen the science-policy interface for biodiversity and ecosystem services and sustainable development.
The workshop report, Escaping the Era of Pandemics  was created by twenty-two experts from around the world who reviewed and discussed 684 research papers, reports and books, trying to understand the factors that brought about a pandemic like COVID-19, and more importantly what can be done about it.
“The relationship between people and biodiversity underpins disease emergence and provides opportunities for pandemic prevention, control and response measures.”
Accelerating anthropogenic change drives pandemic risk
Over the last few centuries humans have had a phenomenal impact on the natural world. Our population has exploded, pushing us further and further into previously undeveloped lands. Our exploitation of wildlife has likewise expanded with around 24% of all wild terrestrial vertebrate species now being actively traded and consumed either as food or for various products.
So significant has been our impact on the natural world that it has been proposed we given this geological period in Earth’s history a specific name; ‘Anthropocene’ - the Human Epoch.
The IPBES report shows how anthropogenic environmental and socioeconomic change has had a devastating impact on biodiversity, with many species being pushed into new habitats and, in some cases, shared environments with humans. Microbes then exploit t
The reduction in biodiversity and climate change has led to changes in population dynamics which has altered microbe communities. Microbes then exploit these new conditions, transforming into emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) and increasing the risk of zoonotic transmission into human populations. With each year, the incidence of Malaria has pushed further north in Europe with the movement of mosquitoes. Since the 1980s, the prevalence of tick-borne encephalitis in Scandinavia has risen hand in hand with the average temperatures.
The increase in human-animal interaction created by the vast global animal trade driven by unsustainable consumption, also drives pandemic risk. COVID-19 has been linked to the now infamous – but not unique - wet markets in China where meats and animals are traded in poor conditions in close proximity with humans. Trading regulations and controls to prevent disease transmission vary widely around the world and are inconsistently applied (if at all). However, both illegal and legal wildlife trade has been linked to disease emergence. International legal wildlife trade has increased five-fold and was worth US$107 billion in 2019. Legal wildlife imports into the US alone accounts for the movement of 10-20 million marine and terrestrial animals annually and has been shown to have a direct link to the emergence of both Monkeypox and Heartwater disease into North American livestock.
But how we got here is only part of the report’s story. It’s easy in hindsight to see these issues, but the IPBES look to our future and set out some compelling ideas for fixing these problems and preventing the next pandemic.
Pandemic preparedness strategies – a green recovery
By implementing a green recovery from COVID-19 we can essentially insure the world against future outbreaks. By changing our consumption patterns to reduce demand for products with a negative impact on biodiversity (e.g., palm oil and beef). Applying government-funded biodiversity checks to new land-use projects. Reforming aid to help communities in ways that also promote good land use. Valuing the knowledge of indigenous peoples and local community engagement, learning from those connected with specific environments and ecosystems how to reduce pandemic risk sympathetically.
These ideas are not radical and are based on numerous studies and examples where they have been very effective at promoting economic growth in sustainable ways.
Of course, transformational change comes at a cost. But before 2020 these cost implications could only be weighed up against a ‘theoretical’ benefit. Now, the IPBES report notes that COVID-19 had already cost the global economy $10 trillion by July 2020, and weighs this against the solutions presented which, in a worst-case scenario, would cost around $0.031 trillion. It would be three hundred times cheaper to implement a green recovery, change land use and regulate animal trade, than to ever go through anything like COVID-19 again. This is no longer a theoretical benefit but a tangible, quantifiable outcome.
Ahead of the crucial 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), that will take place in November 2021 at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, the UK Government aims to set out its full ‘Green and Fair 10 Point Plan’  that aims to support a ‘green industrial revolution’ to rebuild the nation’s economy following the devastation of COVID-19.
So, as 2021 progresses and more people look to the cause of COVID-19, I hope they look to a future where pandemic prevention is a given, alongside sustainable environmental practices. And, if only one meme from 2020 survives, then it should be; “If 2020 was a fire alarm then it would be on fire”. Because 2020 was exactly that – a blaring alarm we had ignored for so many years that, in the end, everything seemed to descend into crisis. Hopefully now we’ll listen and start fireproofing.
Author: Dr Matthew Partridge is a researcher, cartoonist and writer that runs the outreach blog errantscience.com