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29 June 2020updated 30 Jun 2021 2:55pm

How nature became the pandemic’s latest victim

As global lockdowns lift, prospects for the natural world look more fraught than ever.

By India Bourke

Even as birdsong filtered more clearly than ever through the world’s quiet streets this spring, there was a healthy scepticism around the idea that nature was in fact “returning”.

The #WeAreTheVirus hashtag, which early on in the Covid-19 lockdowns noted the natural world’s apparent reset, was quickly repurposed. Users instead added it alongside doctored or nonsensical images to humorously undermine the original meme’s own anti-humanity and over-simplification: dinosaurs returning to Times Square, cows returning to the sea.

This switch was partly fuelled by revelations that many of the viral pictures circulating on social media were fake –– from dolphins in Venice, to elephants getting drunk in Chinese vineyards. But it was also rooted in a sense that, far from removing environmental challenges, the pandemic may make them even harder to solve.

As one Instagram user, who deployed the hashtag to accompany an image of rainbow-striped dildos mimicking mushrooms, put it to me: “Capitalism is the virus that needs to be changed, not humans as a whole.”

And as parts of the world begin to pull themselves out from under the first wave of infections, much of the scepticism surrounding nature’s apparent recovery now seems justified.

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Not only is the Arctic literally on fire, but the pollutants that ravaged our atmosphere before Covid-19 are likely to return with a vengeance as soon as its spread is curbed. Oil demand is set to bounce back in 2021. Airlines have successfully lobbied for an amendment to their climate targets. And in China, air pollution has already briefly exceeded its pre-virus levels. According to the International Energy Agency chief, the world only has six months to stave off climate catastrophe.

Biodiversity is also suffering. In Brazil, deforestation has soared during lockdown, with a government minister suggesting the pandemic’s distraction should be used to increase deregulation. In Kenya, there has been an alarming rise in bushmeat and ivory poaching. Even within the UK, badgers may have been saved by a reduction in road use – but birds‘ eggs have been eaten by rats owing to the absence of conservationists to protect them.

Nor do many governments yet seem equipped to meet the challenge. A new report from Britain’s Committee on Climate Change, assessing the British government’s progress towards its climate goals, finds the government has failed against 14 of 21 sectoral indicators of progress. In the US and China, the rush to rescue their most polluting sectors is not yet pursuing anything like a green stimulus. And while the EU says it has put fighting climate change at the heart of its Covid-19 recovery plans, its current proposals leave in place existing support for dirty industries.

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“A world of clean air and good green jobs is there for the taking. There’s no guarantee we’ll take that path, though,” Rosie Rogers, head of green recovery at Greenpeace UK, told me. “For all the voices backing a green recovery, the emergence from lockdown could still see us locked further into polluting systems. We’re already seeing a rapid bounceback in carbon emissions as public transport remains off limits and car use increases.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. In last week’s CCC report, the body urged the UK to “ seize the opportunity” for a “green recovery”, such as through bringing forward car bans and raising subsidies for electric alternatives. Around the world, calls for Green New Deals are growing, with governments both under pressure to create and spend money, as well as to tackle rising unemployment. South Korea has already gone some way to taking the plunge.

Wildlife scientists are also hoping to use data gathered during the lockdowns to quantify humanity’s impact on nature better. And among all the painful disruptions the pandemic has brought, there is a small silver lining of increased engagement with the natural world – both locally, through visits to parks, and more widely, in the surge in numbers tuning into wildlife cams.

In ways such as these, the lockdowns perhaps bring to mind the words of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare.” Yet while coronavirus has given some people more time to pause and appreciate the natural world, with all its growing, replenishing potential, it has also highlighted the increasingly urgent need to save it.