Is COVID-19 good for sustainability?

By Dr Steve Lade, used with permission from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Lockdowns to curb the spread of Covid-19 are seemingly the best news the environment has received in a long time. Carbon emissions have dropped dramatically, reductions in air pollution have saved many lives and mountain vistas have revealed themselves for the first time in decades.

Is this virus then good for sustainability?

Complex interactions make sustainability hard

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The Earth system is made up of matter, energy, organisms and people moving and interacting in complex ways.

Many consequences of COVID-19, which initially were hard to predict, are seriously harming the planet’s systems.

These interactions constrain the ‘safe operating space’ in which human activity can safely occur without undermining the planet’s capacity to support our wellbeing.

Most interactions in the Earth system usually make global sustainability harder. For example, cutting down forests not only harms biodiversity but also releases carbon into the atmosphere that accelerates climate change.

Producing fertilisers requires energy, but excess fertiliser washes off and pollutes rivers, lakes and seas.

Sustainability efforts postponed

Similarly, many consequences of COVID-19, which initially were hard to predict, are seriously harming the planet’s systems. The use of disposable food and drink packaging have increased, face masks and latex gloves are finding their ways into rivers and oceans.

Working from home is more common due to lockdowns, with potential for a long-term shift in working patterns. International travel has also plummeted, both leading to decreased emissions. But those still commuting are favouring cars over public transport due to infection concerns.

Restrictions on cargo transport have led to local oversupply and food wastage, leading to reduced production and unemployment, while other regions go hungry. Ecotourism has decreased, leading to increased demand for other livelihoods that may involve exploitation of fragile ecosystems.

With the virus dominating the news and governments focused on economic recovery, sustainability initiatives are postponed, watered down or abandoned altogether. At the local level, lockdowns have left conservation zones unmonitored by environmental protection workers.

Inextricably linked

At the same time, deforestation and other environmental damage has increased the transmission of diseases from animals to humans.

The coronavirus has demonstrated once again that the health of humans and the health of the planet are inextricably linked.

What effect the pandemic has on global sustainability in the long term is up to us. We cannot allow the pandemic to distract from our progress on global sustainability made so far. Economic stimulus, if designed appropriately, can stimulate sustainability at the same time.

This pandemic may not be a boon for sustainability, but we can use the global upheaval to design a better and safer future for ourselves and the planet.

Read more Dr Lade's work about human impacts on planetary boundaries at Nature.