Unfortunately, the human tragedy of COVID-19 and the expected shock to the global economy were not entirely unexpected scenarios. For many years now experts in ecology, biodiversity, climate and environmental health have been warning about the high risks of the outbreak of new epidemics caused by the current economic development model. Indeed, empirical research suggests that outbreaks of animal diseases and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, Sars, avian flu and now Covid-19 are on the rise. A new discipline – Planetary Health – has also emerged in recent years, focusing on the increasingly tangible connections between human wellbeing, that of other living beings and that of entire ecosystems.
It was as recently as 2017 that Paolo Gentiloni’s Government put the theme of Planetary Health at the centre of the G7 Health programme for the first time under the Italian Presidency (whose Ministerial meeting was held in Milan). The final communiqué of the G7 Health Ministers clearly acknowledged that “climate and environmental-related factors can aggravate existing health risks and create new threats”. For that meeting guidelines for a global strategy for action to reduce these risks were also defined for the first time.
Environmental and climatic factors behind health emergencies
It is clear today of how phenomena of rapid urbanization and population growth, destruction of land and marine ecosystems, continued exploitation of fossil fuels and global warming are having an unprecedented impact on the Planet’s biodiversity and climatic limits, with profound health and economic repercussions for all. Although it is still too early to point to a causal link between Covid-19 and environmental factors, it is clear that the erosion of environmental and climatic factors that underpin human existence and co-existence (and interdependence) with other species and ecosystems will increasingly exposed humanity to the heavy risks and hidden costs of current unsustainable development.
Moreover, for a virus such as Covid-19 which attacks the respiratory system very aggressively, the very high levels of air pollution certainly do not help, especially in the Po Valley which together with central and southern Poland is the most polluted region in Europe. As a result, Italy is the European country with the highest number of premature deaths from air pollution: these amounted to over 70 thousand in 2016. It is plausible, therefore – as stated by a number of health experts – that the populations living in these regions are more exposed to the risks of Covid-19 as they already present basic fragility and diseases of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems due to high levels of smog. Italian researchers have also pointed out how smog could act as a vector helping the virus to stay longer in the air and acting as a “highway” for the spread of the virus. While the correlation is strong, a causal relation remains still to be verified.
International cooperation and solidarity are our only defence
Health, climate and biodiversity are therefore fundamental pillars that support human life and underpin the social and economic stability of nations. They know no borders and must therefore be regarded as global common goods, especially in a world that has never been so interconnected and therefore interdependent as today. The only safe way to effectively counter the threats to individual health from viruses and climate change is through international cooperation and solidarity – regulated by a global governance system of multilateral rules, such as the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 – together with the construction of a new economic system that respects planetary limits and builds the resilience needed to absorb and respond to emergencies.
The global economy is still primarily linked to the combustion of fossil fuels, the primary cause of global warming and air pollution and one of the major causes of biodiversity loss. We have long known that our way of living is unstainable. However, we have not yet managed to bring about the radical change necessary for survival causing a great deal of concern in the scientific community. Paradoxically, once the emergency has stabilised, the social and economic shock of the Covid-19 represents a unique opportunity to accelerate the creation of a new sustainable economy through the economic recovery package.
In a way, we already have all the vaccines needed to deal with the climate emergency: zero-emission technologies are largely mature and the immediate financial response of
Governments and Central Banks to Covid-19 has shown that the injection of large amounts of capital and the review of fiscal policies is primarily a matter of political will. The role of Governments will be strengthened, but with it also comes the responsibility to dedicate the new capital to projects in line with the sustainable development goals, such as the European Green Deal and the Italian Green New Deal. Clear conditionalities could help steer the investment in the right direction and avoid that new and old high carbon projects are supported.
An economic recovery focused on environmental sustainability will help families access cleaner energy options, live in more efficient homes and use cleaner transport, saving on bills and breathing clean air – exposure to air pollution causes 7 million deaths worldwide every year and more than $5 trillion in welfare losses. Investing in climate resilience and adaptation will also be key and the only strategy to avoid experiencing again severe impacts such as those caused by Covid-19. This will also help avoid or at least mitigate mass global migration and conflicts over food and water. Every economic decision-making process (at global, European and national level) must therefore put decarbonisation, biodiversity conservation and resilience at the heart of its mission. As in the post-war period of the 20th century, we need today and throughout this century a new multilateral consensus and a new social contract with sustainable development at its heart based on shared rules, cooperation and solidarity.