The COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t undermine the need for environmental action. Quite the opposite

covid-19 and environment gcsp

The COVID-19 crisis shouldn’t undermine the need for environmental action. Quite the opposite

By Ms Anna Brach, Head of Human Security, Climate and Health

Fauna returning to Venice canals (and no, these were not dolphins), mountain goats in Welsh villages, or leatherback sea turtles on the beaches in Thailand – the lockdown policies introduced by most states have had an unexpected result: nature regaining its space. COVID-19 has indeed given the Earth some breathing space (pun intended).

This is not to say, however, that COVID-19 offers an effective conservation solution. These positive effects vary across the globe with a clear divide between developed and developing countries. While some enjoy cleaner air and home-cooked meals, others intensify use of natural resources in order to survive. It makes one wonder about the consequences of COVID-19 and policies aiming at curbing the pandemic to the environment.

A recent report shows at least two positive effects of the current situation. First, as reported by the International Energy Agency, the global energy demand is set to fall 6% in 2020. At the same time, global CO2 emissions are set to fall nearly 8% this year to their lowest level since 2010, the largest drop in history. At the same time, the US crude oil prices dipped below zero last week, before regaining slightly. This may decrease pollution from fossil fuels and provide new energy transition modalities.

Second is the impact on health. For example, in Europe, 11,000 air pollution-related deaths were avoided thanks to the decrease in pollution. We do not know the exact statistics for other parts of the world, but we could expect similar results, including China and India where air quality has improved dramatically since lockdown measures have been introduced.

At the same time, these positive trends make individual behaviour or policies detrimental to the environment, such as an increase in littering – disposable masks and gloves being found disposed of around the globe – and beaches in Southern Spain being sprayed with bleach, which is surprising to say the least. 

These trends raise questions about the future. What will happen when the pandemic subsides, and we all go back to “business as usual”? What would the new normal be? What is the future of fossil fuels and energy transition? How can we maintain lower levels of pollution and improve the health of our societies?

The current emergency is going to end eventually. While policymakers focus on dealing with COVID-19, there is a window of opportunity for those who understand that we need to prevent another crisis – an environmental one. 

Two aspects could be problematic in the current context. First is the challenge of prioritisation. Typically, governments are allocating resources to deal with the current crisis without looking at long-term consequences. This trade-off is worrying if decisions are made to decrease investments in policies aiming at addressing environmental challenges such as climate change, resource management, environmental protection, conservation and solidarity such as assistance to developing countries in dealing with the consequences of environmental degradation. Moving resources away from environmental policies is short-sighted.


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Second, in addressing the global pandemic, international cooperation and coordination is crucial. The same goes for addressing environmental challenges. This year was supposed to be the year of environmental action and bold decisions. As in the case of any international negotiations, side conversations are often critical to the results of such discussions. Yet several international conferences that were to take place in 2020 have been postponed until 2021 or until further notice. These include the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, that was hoping for its Paris Agreement moment for biodiversity; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress 2020 in Marseilles and Geneva; and finally the UNFCCC 26th COP in Glasgow, UK. It remains to be seen if these processes can be moved online but such a move offers little hope for the courageous decisions needed.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day but we have yet to see how governments and other actors are going to address environmental challenges while dealing with the current health crisis and its aftermath – certainly beyond 2020. The exercise of connecting the dots will happen with the confirmation that COVID-19 was linked to human-animal transmission: i.e. addressing environmental issues might prevent future pandemics. But this exercise goes beyond understanding the health-environment nexus. The environment will need to eventually become central to the new “business as usual” approach if crises equivalent to COVID-19 are to be prevented in the future.

With the right skills, global leaders can help to reduce and manage these risks. To equip yourself to respond to these challenges, join us from 26-30 July 2021 for our "Climate, Land and Security Summer Academy 2021” in partnership with Initiatives of Change Switzerland, led by Ms Anna Brach, Head of Human Security at the GCSP and Dr Alan Channer, Executive Committee of ‘Initiatives for Land, Lives and Peace’, Initiatives of Change International. 


Disclaimer: The views, information and opinions expressed in the written publications are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect those shared by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy or its employees. The GCSP is not responsible for and may not always verify the accuracy of the information contained in the written publications submitted by a writer.

Anna Brach is Head of Human Security at the GCSP. Her work focuses on issues of the evolution of security concept, environmental and health security with special emphasis on the climate change and security nexus. Her research interests include human security, human rights, environmental security, climate change, global public commons and resource management. She is responsible for developing and running the GCSP activities on the subject of human security, including executive courses, workshops, and high-level conferences in Geneva and internationally. She is also the Director of the GCSP advanced course on New Issues in Security.