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Mexique afd biodiversité climat forêt
Covid-19 has forced us to confront some of the big environmental questions of our time. How is the global pandemic linked to the continuing environmental crisis? What risks are involved in our attempts to preserve the climate and the ecosystem? To answer these questions, we present a joint interview with Gilles Kleitz, Director of the Ecological Transition Department at Agence Française de Développement, and Damien Navizet, Head of AFD’s Climate Change Division.

Might the origins of the Covid-19 epidemic lie in the environmental crisis that we are experiencing?

Gilles Kleitz: Right now, it’s still very difficult to answer that question. What we can say is that the epidemiological phenomena such as SARS, MERS, H5N1, H1N1, and Ebola that we’ve seen in recent years are related to the way humans occupy space and use wild animals.

Several factors have heightened the risks of contagion: increased human contact with natural environments that are potential sources of pathogens, trade in wild animals, the concentration of wild and domestic animals in captivity, and intensive peri-urban or suburban livestock farming under deplorable sanitary conditions. In southwest China, epidemiologists have reported conditions that are highly conducive to the development of viral strains. Massive development of consumption and transport leads to very rapid intensification of these phenomena.

Damien Navizet: Meanwhile, climate change, which human activities are also responsible for, is disrupting the natural balance in many ways. New regions are becoming potential hosts for disease-bearing species. For example, the Tiger Mosquito, suspected of transmitting malaria, is now well established in southern Europe.

We are also beginning to realize that air pollution makes our bodies weaker to external attacks, as is the case with the coronavirus.

Paradoxically, this epidemic provides the biosphere with some relief. 

Damien Navizet:  Yes, there has been a standstill in some economic activities that generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. Lock-downs limit transportation and consumption – despite the flow of goods into supermarkets – and thus reduce waste and pollution. From that angle, it’s good news.

But the respite won’t last long. It could be reversed when the health crisis ends. On the other hand, if the crisis lasts longer than expected, we may see long-term environmental benefits. In that case, the lessons we will have learned will be all the more meaningful. The duration of the crisis is therefore an important parameter.

Gilles Kleitz:  We can indeed talk about relief for a number of environmental issues – the pangolin trade, for example. We must manage the emergency, but also consider the post-crisis situation.

Several major conferences on climate and biodiversity have been postponed (COP26, COP15 on biodiversity, International Union for Nature Conservation Congress) or canceled (One Planet Summit). What impact will this crisis have on the big international priorities they cover? 

Damien Navizet:  Postponing them deprives the climate and biodiversity of crucial political meetings. This year was supposed to be a particularly important year for the climate. There had been plans to reach $100 billion per year in transfers from the countries of the North to those of the South, which are harder hit by climate change. Cancellation of the COP will not prevent progress on the issue, but the epidemic does risk having an impact on North-South financial flows, which may not reach $100 billion in 2020.

Nonetheless, next year – most of the major meetings having been postponed to 2021 – we’ll have a better perspective on things. The climate plans are spread over 5 or 10 years and in principle won’t be reversed. But some countries might be tempted to ignore the COP26 deadline for updating their commitments.

Gilles Kleitz: As far as biodiversity is concerned, the change in the timetable is not so serious. We now have extra time to think and better prepare the important conferences. But that’s as long as those involved remain mobilized.

Are there opportunities to be found in this health crisis?

Gilles Kleitz: The slowdown in the economy and the lock-downs are good occasions to raise people’s awareness about protecting the ecosystem. They may also convince people that we can’t go back to the way things were before the crisis – adopting the same practices that will have the same effects, including the devastating effects on ecosystems and biodiversity and on the poorest and most vulnerable people.

We must not forget this crisis too quickly. And it’s clear we’ll have to rethink the way we do things. How do we rebuild after this? What kind of agricultural system do we want to promote? There is no single response to a situation like this. But we can build a new, more resilient system in which the factors that make epidemics more likely, are reduced.

Damien Navizet:  And public opinion may become favorable to some things that are good for the environment, because they will have shown that they contribute to the resilience of our societies in this time of health crisis.

We are forcing a change in behavior now in order to deal with the epidemic. And it’s this same kind of change we need faced with the climate emergency. The current crisis shows that we are indeed capable of making these kinds of decisions. 

Of course, we can’t impose lock-downs on people to protect the climate, but we can take a step further towards working from home, consuming local products, and reducing travel. The difference with the climate is that we can think ahead about these changes to make them less harsh. We could anticipate changes in habits in many areas.

Gilles Kleitz:  Our work at AFD already involves providing concrete solutions for a sustainable world, such as backing up public health systems, creating drinking-water networks and rural dispensaries, supporting veterinary policies and intelligent management of resources and natural areas, and fixing up slums, etc.

How can we make governments, businesses, and citizens active again in face of the environmental crisis, once the health crisis has passed?

Damien Navizet: By not letting go of the link between the two. During a health crisis like the one we’re going through, apathy about environmental issues is a risk. But if – once the epidemic is brought under control – we start again like before, or double up our efforts in the wrong direction, we’ll soon be back at the pollution levels we had before the crisis. In fact, China has lifted its moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired power stations.

That’s why, in the stage of boosting economies that will follow this immediate health emergency, we will have to reaffirm the absolute need to protect the environment. It’s also important that this movement be widespread. And it has to start with players in the world of finance. The more we at AFD will have been a reliable partner in the emergency response, the more our proposals to take the environment into account will be heard.

This is an opportunity for us, and we can reasonably expect that it will be well received. And that’s all the more true because these approaches often create local jobs, especially in the areas of efficient energy, clean transportation and restoration of natural habitats.

Gilles Kleitz: This economic rebound will have to fall within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): think of nature, think climate, think social. What we need today are explanations of the root causes of the Covid-19 pandemic: trade in wild animals, colonization of forest areas, intense population density, and unregulated global food flows. These issues will have to be dealt with.

In political terms, we’ll continue to advocate that the ban on trade in protected animals be respected. But we also need to remember the fundamentals that bind humanity and the living world. We must remember that disrupting the biosphere leads to huge uncertainties, which are always difficult to manage. And we must remember that a greater effort is needed to preserve our biosphere, which by the way, will preserve us too!