One of the few pieces of seemingly good news to come out in these troubling times is what might be called the return of Nature.
Many on social media worldwide were joyous when pictures of dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice and drunken elephants in China appeared.
These two specific stories sadly turned out to be fake news. Nonetheless, there were indeed heart-warming real news when sika deers were seen on the streets of Nara in Japan and raccoons showed up in numbers on the beaches of Panama.
As promising as these stories are, they do not, however, signal the return of Nature.
Ecosystems change over time in a slow ecological process rather than a single event. The partial shutdowns across the world will not be capable of restoring ecosystems, habitats and Nature at large.
More importantly, if any lesson is to be learnt on Nature and the environment during the Covid-19 crisis, it is not so much the potential return of Nature, but a reminder that we are, in fact, a part of Nature.
More importantly, that we rely on Nature for our livelihoods.
Firstly, it is important to note that most experts agree that the coronavirus currently sweeping the world is zoonotic, an infectious disease that is spread by animals to humans.
A recent report by the BBC highlighted that scientists found that Malayan pangolins carry viruses closely related to the Covid-19.
If true, this points to the consequences of wildlife trade not only to animals, but also to human health.
Since 2016, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the international trade of pangolins.
Nonetheless, pangolins continue to be smuggled into countries such as China, with their meat being sold for consumption and medicine.
Secondly, while Nature may not return to its original form, the control of movements in various countries will likely result in reduction of pollution and emissions.
A major environmental consequence of the current outbreak is the impact it has had on air quality worldwide.
Northern Italy and China, which have both been deemed as epicentres of the outbreak at one time or another, have shown dramatic reductions in concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, otherwise known as NO2, a major pollutant emitted from cars, trucks and motorcycles, among others.
According to Nasa, NO2 in eastern and central China have been 10-30 per cent lower than normal, while in Milan, average concentrations of NO2 for the past four weeks have been at least 24 per cent lower than four weeks earlier this year, according to the European Environment Agency.
The reductions seen in these locations, where strict measures have been imposed to curb the escalation of cases, suggests that Malaysia will also experience a decline of NO2 during the period of the movement control order (MCO), and likely past that as Malaysians opt to stay or work from home until the pandemic is well and truly over.
On the major topic of climate change, major reductions in CO2 emissions have already been seen.
Taking the example of just China, an analysis carried out by the climate website Carbon Brief found that in a two-week period there had been a 25 per cent drop in energy use and emissions in China which would likely lead to an overall fall of around 1 per cent in the country this year.
With drastic measures to curb movement being seen all over the world, especially in urban areas, and the astonishing depletion of the aviation industry, carbon emission levels everywhere, including Malaysia will continue to see a degree of reduction.
The reduction of pollution will result in cleaner air to breathe and benefits to our health and livelihoods.
In terms of climate change, while the reduction of carbon emissions during this period is not sufficient to ensure a climate-proof future, it can provide clues of how a lower carbon society can operate with less dependence on fossil fuels.
Covid-19 has once again acted as a reminder between the important links between our well-being and Nature.
Moving forward, Malaysia’s responses to this crisis will determine how we can be more proactive to either prevent or face future environment-related incidents.
Firstly, is the need to have stronger enforcement on illegal wildlife trade.
Various reports have highlighted Malaysia’s role as both a source and hub for internationally trafficked wildlife.
Pangolins, in particular, have often been attributed to Malaysia; in February last year, 30,000 kilogrammes were seized in Sabah.
While these seizures demonstrate successful enforcement, it also indicates the scale of the operations and the need to strengthen the enforcement and clamp down on the illegal networks operating to support it.
Secondly, Malaysia as with many other countries is planning to try and rescue their economies by spending significantly high amounts in their respective stimulus packages.
But these packages are unlikely to have climate change and the environment on their agenda or as a priority but will most likely focus on short-term measures.
Furthermore, the struggles the private sector are also facing may lead to a lack of investment in green technologies in the coming years as companies try to recover from this disastrous period.
While the focus on the short term is understandable, these two points taken together would mean a serious setback for the battle to preserve Nature, and risk future incidents that will amplify the crisis rather than resolve it.
This crisis should be a starting point to understand the relationship between the economy and the environment and how the imbalance in the first place caused the crisis.
Thirdly, is to heed scientific advice. Prominent scientist and the founding chair of United Nation’s Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), Tan Sri Zakri Abdul Hamid, in a recent article in the New Straits Times, pointed out that a 2019 report by IPBES already warned of such an incident, and linking emerging infectious diseases in wildlife with human activities.
More directly, back in 2007, a research paper by the University of Hong Kong (Cheng et al. 2007) warned that “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.”
Yet, trade in wildlife animals and consumption of their meat continued.
There are no doubts that the Covid-19 pandemic has had consequences, for better and worse, for the environment.
The main question is how long lasting and significant these effects will be and whether it will turn out to be a wake-up call in understanding our relationship with Nature and the actions required to ensure sustainable development.
Arguments will be made that this is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and long-term action such as on climate change and wildlife trade may not take priority alongside rescuing the short-term economy.
If so, we would have lost an opportunity to progress towards a more resilient and sustainable model of development.
Alizan Mahadi and Nazran Johari
which appeared in Malay Mail 28 March 2020