Silver linings—the global environment and coronavirus (COVID-19)

Silver linings—the global environment and coronavirus (COVID-19)

What immediate positive impacts are we seeing on the global environment as a result of coronavirus, eg lower levels of air pollution, reduced carbon emissions, improvements in public health?

An almost immediate positive impact of coronavirus has been the dramatic reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels. There has also been a drop in carbon emissions. Both will have had a marked, and significant, positive impact on human health, particularly in urban areas that are usually hotspots for such pollution. For example, I understand that the proportion of ‘good quality air’ days across China was up 11.4% compared with the same time last year in 337 cities. However, it would also appear that such levels have risen again as restrictions have been relaxed—an issue that we return to later.

What negative impacts are we seeing for the environment, eg impact on the fight to reduce single use plastic—a Bloomberg NEF report found that ‘concerns around food hygiene due to coronavirus could increase plastic packaging intensity, undoing some of the early progress made by companies’, delay to the Conference of the Parties (COP26), delay in progression of the Environment Bill, other delays due to parliamentary and court closures?

Anecdotally, one might imagine that the use of single-use plastics will increase as a result of coronavirus. For example, PPE in a medical setting, as well as an increase in plastic packaging as people fill their store cupboards more frequently. Contact free deliveries would also appear to have given rise to an increase in packaging.

The 26th session of COP26 has been postponed to sometime in 2021. Talks between the UK and EU on any ongoing relationship after the UK’s withdrawal are likely to be significantly impacted, possibly giving rise to an extension of the transitional period or departure with no agreement in place at the end of the year.

The timetable for the Environment Bill is also now uncertain.

The timetable for the Environment Bill is also now uncertain.What about the longer term? Do you expect that there will be long term environmental benefits as a result of coronavirus? For example, through resetting of the global economy (for instance, putting climate action and resilience at the core of longer term economic stimulus packages and stimulating jobs in the zero carbon economy), changes in public attitude and behaviours (for example, increase in home working and reduction in travel and personal flights) and a change in regulatory response (a realisation that drastic action such as lockdown can produce huge environmental benefit in terms of halting/mitigating the effects of climate change and air pollution)?

It seems unlikely that coronavirus will lead to widespread changes in land use. Therefore, its environmental impacts may be more akin to the financial crash of 2008 and 2009, which led to a reduction in emissions that rebounded as the economy recovered. Instructive in this regard is perhaps the basis for the present reduction in transport and industrial emissions, which have fallen in the short term largely because of strict public health measures. The need to implement those measures very quickly may mean that the associated reductions may not be sustainable in the longer term. In terms of routine trips like commuting, there will be a net reduction but, in relation to other travel, people may simply be delaying or postponing taking trips that they still intend to take in the future. However, if the pandemic lasts longer than predicted then consumer demand may reduce as the economic impact is felt more sharply by individuals. Furthermore, behavioural changes could become habits depending upon how individuals, businesses and institutions embrace remote working over the coming weeks, which might in turn secure lasting reductions in domestic and international business travel.

The outbreak may also have more indirect impacts, as more pressing health concerns take precedence over action in relation to the climate crisis. Likewise, the building momentum of mass protests will almost certainly have been lost to some extent by the time mass events can commence once again.

Might we see a change to the law in certain areas post-coronavirus, for example the laws relating to wildlife trading?

In large part, it seems too early to be able to make any worthwhile predictions in relation to legislative developments.

Insofar as wildlife trading is concerned, the central international treaty is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Our colleagues Richard Wald QC and Tom Van der Klugt recently produced an article looking at CITES and touching upon coronavirus in which they noted the CITES Secretariat’s statement on 17 March, which emphasised that matters concerning zoonotic diseases are beyond its mandate, before stating that: ‘The CITES Secretariat is aware of the media commentary that is suggesting the possible links between the human consumption of pangolins (or other wild animals) and COVID-19. All species of pangolin are included in CITES Appendix I, which means that international commercial trade is generally prohibited under the Convention. Exchange for non-commercial purposes, such as conservation or law enforcement, can be authorized by CITES Parties.’

Richard and Tom concluded by noting that one of the criticisms that has been levelled at CITES over the years is that it operates by ‘negatively’ seeking to ensure that trade does not become unsustainable for a limited list of species, rather than ‘positively’ promoting sustainable trade and biodiversity in relation to the entire global ecosystem. In light of coronavirus, they concluded by suggesting that hopefully regimes such as CITES will receive increased focus and attention, which is likely to bring new challenges for those using them.

Interviewed by Tom Inchley.

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