Even a short walk, an ocean view or a picnic by a river can leave us feeling invigorated and restored. There is now a growing body of evidence establishing the link between such nature encounters and our mental and physical well-being.
In my new book, I explore these nature benefits and put out a challenge to urban planners and decision makers to include more green spaces in our towns and cities.
One of the earliest studies to draw a conclusive link between time spent in nature and well-being was published in 1991. It found a 40-minute walk in nature, compared with walking in an urban space or reading a magazine, led to significant improvements in mood, reduced anger and aggression, and better recovery from mental fatigue.
Research also suggests the benefits of growing up with access to lots of green space has a lasting effect into adulthood. A Danish study in 2019 found children who grow up surrounded by green spaces are less likely to develop mental disorders as adults.
Nature exposure has also been shown to boost immunity. Studies found that forest excursions boost the activity of natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that plays a vital role in the body’s defence system, attacking infections and tumours) and elevate hormones that may be protective against heart disease, obesity and diabetes, at least over the short term.
No exercise required
Researchers have been careful to factor out the beneficial effects of energetic physical activity when designing their studies of nature exposure. They asked participants to sit quietly or take a gentle walk.
This is good news for those of us who prefer a stroll to strenuous exercise. What’s more, researchers have found that just 20-30 minutes in nature delivers optimal benefits. After that, they continue to accrue, but at a slower rate.
There’s even better news. To provide these benefits, nature does not need to be remote or pristine. A leafy park, a stream-side walkway, or even a quiet, tree-lined avenue can provide this nature fix.
New Zealand’s lockdowns have made more people appreciate the importance of green spaces for walking, cycling or just getting some fresh, tree-filtered air. During the strictest lockdown in April 2020, citizen science apps such as iNaturalistreported an upsurge in usage, indicating people were getting out into nature in their neighbourhoods.
The nature destruction paradox
Our appreciation of nature at this time of crisis is not without irony, given the destruction of pristine forests, rapid urbanisation and population growth are all at the root of the pandemic, bringing wildlife and people into close contact and making animal-to-human transmission of new diseases increasingly likely.
A recent World Wildlife Fund report describes COVID-19 as a clear warning signal of an environment out of balance.
The report presents strong evidence of the link between humanity’s impacts on ecosystems and biodiversity and the spread of certain diseases:
Along with maintaining our natural systems, action is needed to restore those that have been destroyed or degraded, in a way that benefits people and restores the fundamental functions that biomes such as forests provide.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich in nature, but here too we have managed to destroy large swathes of indigenous forests and ecosystems since the first Polynesian navigators and then European settlers arrived.
Most of our surviving forests and pristine waterways are concentrated in our mountains and hill country, preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.
Yet, 86% of us live in cities and towns, which are in coastal and lowland areas. So if we are going to ensure that everyone is able to benefit from spending time in nature, we need more nature spaces in our cities.
This does not necessarily mean more parks. With the right care and investment, neglected stream corridors, weed-infested gullies, flood-prone areas unfit for development and even road verges can provide valuable green spaces for people. As an added benefit, they create a network of habitat for insects, birds and reptiles that keep our natural ecosystems functioning.
In my book, I put out a challenge to all New Zealanders, especially urban planners and our decision makers, to strive for a more nature-rich future – an Aotearoa where every New Zealander can benefit from being in nature, every day of their life.
It’s one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. While the human and economic toll have been enormous, new findings show the fallout from the virus also seriously damaged nature.
Conservation is often funded by tourism dollars – particularly in developing nations. In many cases, the dramatic tourism downturn brought on by the pandemic meant funds for conservation were cut. Anti-poaching operations and endangered species programs were among those affected.
This dwindling of conservation efforts during COVID is sadly ironic. The destruction of nature is directly linked to zoonotic diseases, and avoiding habitat loss is a cost-effective way to prevent pandemics.
The research papers reveal the inextricable links between the health of humans and the health of the planet. Together, they make one thing abundantly clear: we must learn the hard lessons of COVID-19 to ensure the calamity is not repeated.
A disaster for conservation
The findings are contained in a special issue of PARKS, the peer-reviewed journal of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, co-edited with Brent Mitchell and Adrian Phillips.
Researchers found between January and May 2020, 45% of global tourism destinations totally or partially closed their borders to tourists. This caused the loss of 174 million direct tourism jobs around the world, and cost the sector US$4.7 trillion.
Over-dependence on tourism to fund conservation is fraught with peril. For example in Namibia, initial estimates suggested communal wildlife conservancies could lose US$10 million in direct tourism revenues. This threatened funding for 700 game guards and 300 conservancy management employees.
It also threatened the viability of 61 joint venture tourism lodges employing 1,400 community members. This forced families to rely more heavily on natural resource extraction to survive.
Emergency funds were raised to cover critical shortfalls. However in April 2020, rhinos were poached in a communal conservancy in Namibia – the first such event in two years. Researchers believe this may have been linked to the pandemic fallout.
More than 70% of African countries reported reduced monitoring of the illegal wildlife trade as a result of the pandemic. More than half reported impacts on the protection of endangered species, conservation education and outreach, regular field patrols and anti-poaching operations.
Rangers have also been hard hit. A global survey of nearly 1,000 rangers found more than one in four had their salaries reduced or delayed due to COVID-related budget cuts. A third of all rangers in Central and South America, Africa and Caribbean countries reported being laid off. Some 90% said vital work with local communities had reduced or ceased.
In more bad news, governments of at least 22 countries used the pandemic as a reason to weaken environmental protections for protected and conserved areas, or cut their budgets.
Many of the changes allowed large-scale infrastructure (such as roads, airports, pipelines, hydropower plants and housing) and extractive activities (such as coal, oil and gas development and industrial fishing). Brazil, India and, until recently, the United States have emerged as hotspots of COVID-era rollbacks.
SARS-COV-2 is very similar to other viruses in bats, and may have been passed to humans via another animal species. The pandemic shows the potentially devastating outcomes when animals and humans are forced into closer contact in shrinking habitats – for example, as a result of forest destruction.
As one paper found, during the last century an average of two new viruses spilled from animals to humans each year. These include Ebola and SARS.
Clearly, investment is needed to preserve the world’s protected and conserved areas, ensuring they act as a buffer against new pandemics. One study puts the required spending at US$67 billion each year – and notes only about one-third of this is currently being spent.
While it’s undoubtedly a large sum, the International Monetary Fund estimated late last year the pandemic would cause US$28 trillion in lost economic output in 2020.
Like many zoonotic epidemics, it appears COVID-19 was caused by the trade in wildlife and wild meat consumption. But diseases caused by uncontrolled land-use change – often for agriculture and livestock production – are just as dangerous.
The greatest risk, according to one group of researchers, is in forested tropical regions where land use is changing and a rich variety of mammal species are present.
As the special issue’s co-editors argue, if COVID-19 is not enough to make humanity wake up to the “suicidal consequences” of misguided development, then how will future calamities be avoided?
The cost of effectively maintaining protected and conserved natural areas is a small fraction of the cost of dealing with the pandemic and getting economies moving again. Imagine, for a moment, if the effort put into the development of vaccines were applied in the same measure to addressing the root causes of zoonotic pandemics.
In 2021, a series of international meetings will be held to decide how to stabilise our climate, save biodiversity, secure human health and revive the global economy. Through these events should run a golden thread: learn the lessons of COVID-19 by protecting nature and restoring damaged ecosystems.
In December, Antarctica lost its status as the last continent free of COVID-19 when 36 people at the Chilean Bernardo O’Higgins research station tested positive. The station’s isolation from other bases and fewer researchers in the continent means the outbreak is now likely contained.
However, we know all too well how unpredictable — and pervasive — the virus can be. And while there’s currently less risk for humans in Antarctica, the potential for the COVID-19 virus to jump to Antarctica’s unique and already vulnerable wildlife has scientists extremely concerned.
We’re among a global team of 15 scientists who assessed the risks of the COVID-19 virus to Antarctic wildlife, and the pathways the virus could take into the fragile ecosystem. Antarctic wildlife haven’t yet been tested for the COVID-19 virus, and if it does make its way into these charismatic animals, we don’t know how it could affect them or the continent’s ecosystem stability.
Jumping from animals to humans, and back to animals
The COVID-19 virus is one of seven coronaviruses found in people — all have animal origins (dubbed “zoonoses”), and vary in their ability to infect different hosts. The COVID-19 virus is thought to have originated in an animal and spread to people through an unknown intermediate host, while the SARS outbreak of 2002-2004 likely came from raccoon dogs or civets.
Given the general ubiquity of coronaviruses and the rapid saturation of the global environment with the COVID-19 virus, it’s paramount we explore the risk for it to spread from people to other animals, known as “reverse zoonoses”.
The World Organisation for Animal Health is monitoring cases of the COVID-19 virus in animals. To date, only a few species around the globe have been found to be susceptible, including mink, felines (such as lions, tigers and cats), dogs and a ferret.
Whether the animal gets sick and recovers depends on the species. For example, researchers found infected adolescent cats got sick but could fight off the virus, while dogs were much more resistant.
While mink, dogs or cats are not in Antarctica, more than 100 million flying seabirds, 45% of the world’s penguin species, 50% of the world’s seal populations and 17% of the world’s whale and dolphin species inhabit the continent.
In a 2020 study, researchers ran computer simulations and found cetaceans — whales, dolphins or porpoises — have a high susceptibility of infection from the virus, based on the makeup of their genetic receptors to the virus. Seals and birds had a lower risk of infection.
We concluded that direct contact with people poses the greatest risk for spreading the virus to wildlife, with researchers more likely vectors than tourists. Researchers have closer contact with wildlife: many Antarctic species are found near research stations, and wildlife studies often require direct handling and close proximity to animals.
Tourists, however, are still a concerning vector, as they visit penguin roosts and seal haul-out sites (where seals rest or breed) in large numbers. For instance, a staggering 73,991 tourists travelled to the continent between October 2019 and April 2020, when COVID-19 was just emerging.
Each visitor to Antarctica carries millions of microbial passengers, such as bacteria, and many of these microbes are left behind when the visitors leave. Most are likely benign and probably die off. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it takes only one powerful organism to jump hosts to cause a pandemic.
How to protect Antarctic wildlife
There are guidelines for visitors to reduce the risk of introducing infectious microbes. This includes cleaning clothes and equipment before heading to Antarctica and between animal colonies, and keeping at least five metres away from animals.
These rules are no longer enough in COVID times, and more measures must be taken.
The first and most crucial step to protect Antarctic wildlife is controlling human-to-human spread, particularly at research stations. Everyone heading to Antarctica should be tested and quarantined prior to travelling, with regular ongoing tests throughout the season. The fewer people with COVID-19 in Antarctica, the less opportunity the virus has to jump to animal hosts.
Second, close contact with wildlife should be restricted to essential scientific purposes only. All handling procedures should be re-evaluated, given how much we just don’t know about the virus.
We recommend all scientific personnel wear appropriate protective equipment (including masks) at all times when handling, or in close proximity to, Antarctic wildlife. Similar recommendations are in place for those working with wildlife in Australia.
Migrating animals that may have picked up COVID-19 from other parts of the world could also spread it to other wildlife in Antarctica. Skuas, for example, migrate to Antarctica from the South American coast, where there are enormous cases of COVID-19.
And then there’s the issue of sewage. Around 37% of bases release untreated sewage directly into the Antarctic ecosystem. Meanwhile, an estimated 57,000 to 114,000 litres of sewage per day is dumped from ships into the Southern Ocean.
Fragments of the COVID virus can be found in wastewater, but these fragments aren’t infectious, so sewage isn’t considered a transmission risk. However, there are other potentially dangerous microbes found in sewage that could be spread to animals, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
We can curb the general risk of microbes from sewage if the Antarctic Treaty formally recognises microbes as invasive species and a threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. This would support better biosecurity practices and environmental control of waste.
In these early stages of the pandemic, scientists are scrambling to understand complexity of COVID-19 and the virus’s characteristics. Meanwhile, the virus continues to evolve.
Until the true risk of cross-species transmission is known, precautions must be taken to reduce the risk of spread to all wildlife. We don’t want to see the human footprint becoming an epidemic among Antarctic wildlife, a scenario that can be mitigated by better processes and behaviours.
If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying […] about two months we’ve had this trip planned.
A week later — now an international “celebrity” for all the wrong reasons — he was forced to issue a grovelling apology.
If you think Sluder’s partying was stupid, we share your feelings.
With the festive season upon us, as the pandemic continues, we can only hope covidiots listen to the rules. As many of us also head off on summer breaks, now is also a good time to reflect on stupidity in tourism.
We may be tempted to think a stupid person has certain demographic or psychological characteristics. However, anyone can behave stupidly, especially in unfamiliar environments — like holidays — where it is difficult to judge the right course of action.
The laws of human stupidity
In our recently published journal article on stupidity in tourism, we see stupidity as an action without insight or sound judgement. This results in losses or harm to the perpetrator and others. In a holiday context, it can negatively affect tourists themselves, as well as other people, animals, organisations, or destinations.
In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla published a definitive essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Although we prefer to focus on stupid behaviour rather than stupid people, we agree with his five laws:
Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular, non-stupid people constantly forget dealing with or associating with stupid people always and everywhere turns out to be a costly mistake.
A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
Why is stupid behaviour so dangerous? Because it is irrational and so the outcome is unpredictable.
In pursuit of trying something new or escaping their daily routine, people may go to places with very different cultures or practices than their own, or try things they wouldn’t normally do — such as adventure activities. As a result, individuals can act differently while on holidays.
There also seem to be fewer social constraints. Tourists may not follow rules and social norms while travelling, because relatives, friends, colleagues, bosses are less likely to find out. Of course, tourists may not be aware of the commonly-accepted rules of where they travelling, as well.
All of the above increases the likelihood of stupidity. And one certainly doesn’t need to travel overseas to be stupid. A case in point is a tourist who snuck into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, which was closed-off in August due to COVID concerns in the local indigenous community. The woman injured her ankle and had to be rescued.
The importance of thinking first
So, what to do about stupid tourist behaviour?
Strict regulation, physical barriers, warning signs and other punitive measures alone may not work. This is seen in the case of a man who climbed over a zoo fence in 2017 to avoid the entry fee. He ended up being mauled to death by a tiger.
Education of tourists on how to behave during travels has some effect. But more importantly, tourists need to be self-aware. They need to consider what is likely to happen as a result of their behaviour, how likely is it that things will go wrong, and whether they would do this at home.
While stupidity is impossible to eliminate, it can be less frequent and do much less damage, if we take time to reflect on our behaviour and attitudes.
So, have fun during the holiday … but don’t be stupid!
Global emissions are expected to decline by about 7% in 2020 (or 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide) compared to 2019 — an unprecedented drop due to the slowdown in economic activity associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
To put this into perspective, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 saw a 1.5% drop in global emissions compared to 2007. This year’s emissions decline is more than four times larger.
It may sound like welcome news, but we can’t celebrate yet. A rapid bounce back of emissions to pre-COVID levels is likely, possibly by as soon as next year. A recent study found emissions in China snapped back to above last year’s levels during late spring when economic activity began to return to normal.
These findings come ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit on Saturday, where global leaders will demonstrate their commitments to climate action five years since the Paris Agreement. This huge drop in emissions should be taken as a unique opportunity to divert the historical course of emissions growth for good.
Emissions in the pandemic year
The total global fossil carbon dioxide emissions for 2020 are estimated to be 34 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Estimated emissions at the beginning of December are lower than their levels in December last year, at least in the transport sectors. However, emissions have been edging back up since the peak global daily decline of 17% in early April.
The decline in emissions in 2020 was particularly steep in the United States (12%) and European Union (11%), where emissions were already declining before the pandemic, mainly from reductions in coal use.
Emissions from India dropped by 9%, while emissions from China, which have returned to close or above 2019 values, saw an estimated drop of only about 1.7%.
Australian greenhouse gas emissions during the peak of the pandemic lockdown (the quarter of March to June 2020) were lower by 6.2% compared to the previous quarter. The largest declines were seen in transport and fugitive emissions (emissions released during the extraction, processing and transport of fossil fuels).
Globally, the transport sector also contributed the most to the 2020 emissions drop, particularly “surface transport” (cars, vans and trucks). At the peak of the pandemic lockdowns, the usual levels of transport emissions were halved in many countries, such as in the US and Europe.
While aviation activity collapsed by 75%, its contribution to the total decline was relatively small given the sector only accounts for about 2.8% of the total emissions on an average year. The number of global flights was still down 45% as of the first week of December.
Global emissions were already slowing down pre-COVID
Overall, global emissions have increased by 61% since 1990. But the pace of this growth has varied.
In the early 1990s, the growth in emissions slowed down due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union, but then increased very quickly during the 2000s, by 3% per year on average. This was, in part, due to the rise of China as an economic power.
Over the last decade, however, the pace of emissions began to slow again, with an increase just below 1% per year. And emissions in 2019 didn’t grow much, if at all, when compared to 2018.
Behind the global slowing trend, there are 24 countries that had carbon dioxide fossil emissions declining for at least one decade while their economy continued to grow. They include many European countries such as the Denmark, the UK and Spain, and the USA, Mexico and Japan. For the rest of the world, emissions continued to grow until 2019.
An opportunity to boost ambition
The pandemic, along with other recent trends such as the shift towards clean energy, have placed us at a crossroad: the choices we make today can change the course of global emissions.
In addition to the slow down in global emissions in recent years, and this year’s drop, there are now dozens of countries that have pledged to reach net zero emissions by mid century or soon after.
Importantly, the first (China), second (USA), third (European Union), sixth (Japan) and ninth (South Korea) top emitters — together responsible for over 60% of the global fossil carbon dioxide emissions — have either legally binding pledges or serious ambitions to reach net zero emissions by 2050 or soon after.
Coal production, the largest fossil fuel source of carbon dioxide emissions, peaked in 2013. Its decline continues to this date; however, increasing natural gas and oil negate much of this decline in emissions.
We are in the midst of extraordinary levels of economic investment in response to the pandemic. If economic investment is appropriately directed, it could enable the rapid expansion of technologies and services to put us on track towards net zero emissions.
Many countries have already committed to green recovery plans, such as South Korea and the EU, although investments continue to be dominated by the support of fossil-based infrastructure.
As global leaders prepare for tomorrow’s summit, they have an opportunity like never before. The choices we make now can have a disproportionate impact on the future trajectory of emissions, and keep temperature rise well and truly below 2℃.
As restrictions ease around the country and the prospect of travel beckons, many of us will be planning road trips for the holiday season.
To ensure your trip is memorable in the best rather than the worst way, here are some things you and your fellow travellers can do to reduce the risk of becoming infected with, or spreading, COVID on your trip.
Before you go
1. Check for any travel or other COVID-specific restrictions or rules in the areas you will be travelling through or to, before you go. These can change rapidly and may include restrictions on how far you can travel, how many people per square metre are allowed in public spaces, and whether you need border passes or to wear a mask. Each state or territory has its own health department or government COVID website you can check.
2. Don’t take COVID with you. If anyone in your group has COVID-like symptoms, however mild, it is important to be tested and cleared for COVID before leaving. Common symptoms may include fever or chills, muscle aches, sore throat, cough, runny nose, difficulty breathing, new loss of taste or smell, and vomiting or diarrhoea.
3. Pack masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitiser. The two most likely ways of catching COVID are inhaling viral particles an infected person sheds when they cough, sneeze, laugh, talk or breathe; and ingesting particles by touching contaminated objects and then touching your face or food. Masks (and social distancing) can help reduce the former risk, while avoiding touching your face, frequent hand hygiene and cleaning surfaces can reduce the latter. So pack masks, wipes and hand sanitiser. Hand sanitiser should containat least 60% alcohol.
4. Pack your own pillows and linen. We know people infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, can shed virus onto linen and pillows (and other surfaces), even when asymptomatic. We also know respiratory viruses can penetrate pillow covers and get into the microfibre stuffing. So you might want to consider bringing your own pillows and linen.
On your trip
5. Use disinfectant wipes to clean high-touch surfaces in your hire car. These would include door and window handles or buttons, light switches, seat adjuster controls, radio controls, the steering wheel, glove box button, gear/drive and handbrake levers, rear-view mirrors and mirror controls.
6. How about singing in the car? The more vigorous the activity, the greater the opportunity to release droplets and aerosols and the further these will travel. So, laughing and singing will release more of these than talking, and talking will release more than breathing. However, if you are travelling in a family group, or with your housemates, then you have been in close contact with one another at home and the additional risk would be low.
7. Maintain social distancing at service stations. Leave at least 1.5 metres between you and the next person while paying for fuel, ordering food and when using the bathroom. Make sure you wash or sanitise your hands after touching surfaces such as petrol pumps, door handles, bathroom taps, and before getting back in your car.
8. Pay with cards rather than cash to avoid touching money. Many people can handle bills and coins over a long duration of time, providing many opportunities to transfer disease-causing microbes from one person to the next. Using contactless payment also helps maintain social distancing.
9. It’s safer to eat outdoors than indoors if stopping for a snack or lunch. That’s because large volumes of air dilute the density of viral particles in the air. Evidence from a study of COVID clusters in Japan suggests the chance of transmitting COVID is more than 18 times higher inside than outside.
10. Is your hotel or rented accommodation COVID-safe? Ask the accommodation provider what steps they have taken to make the place less conducive to spreading COVID. For example, have they introduced extra cleaning or disinfection?
11. Use disinfectant wipes in rented accommodation to clean high-touch surfaces such as door handles, light switches, cupboard handles, taps and toilet flush buttons. You can also put dishes and cutlery through the dishwasher on a hot cycle. This is because the virus can remain viable (able to cause infection) on surfaces for many days.
Following these simple steps can help to keep your trip memorable in the best possible way. Happy holidays!
As Australia plans its recovery from COVID-19, our strategies should be based on a broader set of priorities than we have used in the past.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed to by all countries at the United Nations, provide a set of objectives and targets that can serve as a blueprint to “build back better” after the pandemic.
This week, a report card is being released on Australia’s progress toward achieving these goals. It also highlights the potential impact of COVID-19 on our ability to meet our SDG targets by 2030.
The report shows Australia is performing well in health and education but failing in climate, environment and areas linked to social inequality.
In adopting the SDGs, all countries (including Australia) recognised the need to take a long-term and integrated approach to national planning informed by data and evidence.
Central to this approach is the setting of economic, social and environmental targets for 2030, which help to provide clear signposts for where we want to go.
Targets are critical. They set the priorities and level of ambition, encourage a shift from short- to long-term thinking, provide investment certainty and mobilise people to collaborate to solve problems.
They also enable a clear picture of where we are on track or off track, and the scale and pace of change needed.
Homicide rates have halved since 2000, yet the prison population has increased by 32% since 2006, with Indigenous Australians vastly over-represented.
Women have been disproportionatelyaffected by the pandemic, experiencing more psychological distress and a greater chance of job disruption.
Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined only marginally since 2000 and little progress has been made since 2013. Australia is not on track to meet a 2030 emissions target consistent with the Paris Agreement objective to keep global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius.
Australia’s per capita material footprint is one of the highest in the world — more than 70% above the OECD average — and rising.
Hard coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef has declined and the number of species now threatened has increased since 2000.
Women, young people and those without high school qualifications are more likely to have had their employment disrupted by COVID-19.
Australia’s relatively low levels of government debt will help in the COVID-19 recovery, yet household debt is well above the OECD average.
Wealth inequality is getting worse with the share of household net worth of the bottom 40% of the population declining by 30% since 2004.
Since 2012, middle-class wages and incomes have stalled.
COVID-19 has stymied trade, foreign investment and skilled migration, prompting the need for new drivers of growth.
An opportunity for major policy changes
This report comes at a pivotal moment. All countries are facing a series of complex and related crises — a global health emergency, climate change, growing inequality, unemployment and biodiversity decline.
On the other hand, COVID-19 has given governments the chance to undertake much more significant interventions than previously thought possible.
Australia has a huge opportunity to design a recovery strategy that strengthens our resilience to future shocks, addresses many of the challenges of sustainable development that we have not properly dealt with, and ensures the country’s long-term, sustainable prosperity.
Will the delay of the COP26 UN climate negotiations impact international action to decarbonise? Would catch-up talks help? Could the talks collapse because countries stopped paying their dues?
The 26th Conference of the Parties — better known as COP26 — is the United Nations climate change conference that was scheduled to be held in Glasgow, UK, during the first two weeks of November 2020.
But in April this year the COVID-19 pandemic led to the event being postponed, then later rescheduled to November 2021.
That’s a 12-month delay on a meeting of representatives from nearly 200 countries, including New Zealand, charged with monitoring and implementing the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
It will be crucial to make progress towards the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to limit average global warming to 1.5-2℃ this century, relative to the 1890s (the so-called “preindustrial period”).
Preventing ‘Hothouse Earth’
The temperature target agreed in Paris was carefully chosen. Numerous scientific studies show an increase beyond 2℃ would activate self-reinforcing feedbacks in the climate system (such as a weakening of ocean and land carbon sinks). This would tip our planet into an extreme “Hothouse Earth” that could persist for millennia, regardless of what happens with future emissions.
To avoid this scenario, the legally binding UN agreement encourages all participating nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.
As part of the Paris Agreement, developed countries agreed to provide, from 2020, US$100 billion to support developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
National representatives are expected to arrive in Glasgow next year with substantially strengthened plans to reduce emissions and meet their commitments to support developing countries.
The pandemic and emissions
There is no doubt the gathering of 30,000 delegates in Glasgow will come at a time of ongoing uncertainty about COVID-19 and the largest shock to the global economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The pandemic is a game changer but it’s not yet clear whether this is good or bad for reducing emissions.
Many of us have made substantial cuts to our travel and embraced remote work and online video chat, particularly at the height of the pandemic. Google and Apple data suggest more than half of the world’s population reduced their travel by more than half in April.
Unfortunately, greenhouse gas emissions have remained stubbornly high. Daily global carbon dioxide emissions fell by as much as 17% in early April. But as the world’s economy started to recover, emissions bounced back, according to the UN, with 2020 likely experiencing only a 4-7% decline in carbon dioxide relative to 2019.
The sobering reality is nations have a lot more work to do to decarbonise their economies. But for many national governments, the thorny question is how to achieve more ambitious emission targets while at the same time rebuilding economies battered by COVID-19.
Although the UN has a large financial shortfall of US$711 million (at the end of 2019) due to some nations failing to pay their annual dues — with the US, Brazil and Saudi Arabia the worst offenders — there is no suggestion of cancelling the COP26 meeting next year.
Catch-up talks have indeed been mooted but so far nothing has been publicly announced. That’s not to say there aren’t intensive negotiations and commitments being made in advance of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. And there are some positive signs.
A pandemic recovery
As the world moves towards an economic recovery after the pandemic, some major economies are tilting towards a green stimulus and public commitments to reduce fossil fuel investments.
Arguably more ambitious is the proposed European Green Deal announced in late 2019. It aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by half over the next decade and make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent.
To help achieve this, a carbon tax is proposed for imports into the European Union. This threatens to have far-reaching implications for European trading partners such as New Zealand and Australia.
These pronouncements will help boost the negotiations for more stringent cuts to emissions as delegates prepare for the COP26 meeting in Glasgow next year. This can only put more pressure on all nations to be more ambitious.
Attention will inevitably focus on the world’s largest historic emitter, the US, which is formally leaving the Paris Agreement on November 4 this year, the day after the 2020 presidential election.
So the COP26 won’t collapse, but the year’s delay to the meeting may give the world the breathing space it so desperately needs to realise the ambition of the Paris Agreement and avoid the worst of climate change.
Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Science and Climate Change, Director of Chronos 14Carbon-Cycle Facility, Director of PANGEA Research Centre, and UNSW Node Director of ARC Centre for Excellence in Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, UNSW
Face masks are part of our daily lives during the pandemic. Many are made from plastics and designed to be used just once, which means thousands of tonnes of extra waste going to landfill.
Masks may help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But according to one estimate, if everyone in the United Kingdom used a single-use mask each day for a year, it would create 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.
Evidence also suggests masks may be a source of harmful microplastic fibres on land and in waterways and litter.
So let’s look at how face masks might be designed to cause minimal harm to the environment, while still doing their job – and which type is best for you.
China is the world’s biggest face mask manufacturer. Its daily output of face masks reportedly reached 116 million units in February this year. That creates a big waste management problem around the world.
One way to address this is to adopt “circular design” principles. This thinking seeks to reduce waste and pollution through product design, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
When it comes to face masks, the three common types are cloth, surgical and N-95. N-95 masks offer the highest level of protection, blocking about 95% of airborne particles. Cloth masks are designed to be used more than once, while surgical and N-95 masks are usually intended for single use.
Face masks may consist of one or more layers, each with different functions:
an outermost layer, designed to repel liquids such as water
the innermost layer, which absorbs moisture and allows comfort and breathability
a non-absorbent middle layer, to filter particles.
Each type of mask is made of different materials and used in varying settings:
– N-95 masks: These are designed to protect the wearer from 95% of airborne particles and are largely worn by health workers. N-95 masks are designed to fit closely to the face and are usually worn only once. N-95 masks comprise:
a strap (polyisoprene)
nose foam (polyurethane)
nose clip (aluminum)
valve diaphragm (polyisoprene).
– Surgical masks: These are designed to protect sterile environments from the wearer, acting as barrier to droplets or aerosols. Generally intended as single-use items, they comprise mostly polypropylene between two layers of non-woven fabric.
– Cloth masks: These types of masks are worn by the general public. Some are homemade from fabric scraps or old clothing. They may be wholly reusable, or partially reusable with replaceable filters that must be disposed of.
These masks typically comprise an outer layer of polyester or polypropylene (or in some cases, cotton), and an inner layer designed for breathability and comfort – usually cotton or a cotton-polyester blend.
Research suggests cloth masks are less effective at filtering particles than medical masks, but may may give some protection if well-fitted and properly designed. Health advice is available to help guide their use.
Designing for a healthier environment
It’s important to note that any attempt to redesign face masks must ensure they offer adequate protection to the wearer. Where masks are used in a medical setting, design changes must also meet official standards such as barrier efficiency, breathing capacity and fire resistance.
With this in mind, reducing the environmental harm caused by masks could be done in several ways:
– Design with more reusable parts
Evidence suggests reusable cloth masks perform almost as well as single-use masks, but without the associated waste. One life cycle assessment conducted in the UK found masks that could be washed and reused were the best option for the environment. Reusable masks with replaceable filters were the second-best option.
The study also found having a higher number of masks in rotation to allow for machine washing was better for the environment than manual washing.
– Make masks easier to dispose of or recyle
In high-risk settings such as hospitals and clinics, the reuse of masks may not be possible or desirable, meaning they must be disposed of. In medical settings, there are systems in place for disposal of such protective gear, which usually involves segregation and incineration.
But the general public must dispose of masks themselves. Because masks usually comprise different materials, this can be complicated. For example, recovering the components of a N-95 mask for recycling would involve putting the straps, nose foam, filter and valve in one bin and the metal staples and nose clip in another. And some recyclers may see mask recycling as a health risk. These difficulties mean masks often end up in landfill.
Masks would be easier to recycle if the were made of fewer materials and were easy to disassemble.
– Use biodegradable materials
For single-use items, placing synthetics with biodegradable materials would be a first step in circular design thinking.
The abaca plant, a relative of the banana tree, offers one potential option. Its leaf fibre reportedly repels water better than traditional face masks, is as strong as polymer and decomposes within two months. Most abaca is currently produced in the Philippines.
Which mask should you choose?
From a purely environmental perspective, research suggests owning multiple reusable face masks, and machine-washing them together, is the best option. Using filters with reusable face masks is a second-best option.
But when choosing a mask, consider where you will wear it. Unless cloth masks are shown to be as effective as other masks, health-care workers should not use them. But they may be suitable in low-risk everyday settings.
In the longer term, governments and manufacturers must make every effort to design masks that will not harm the planet – and consumers should demand this. Face masks will probably be ubiquitous on our streets for months to come. But once the pandemic is over, the environmental legacy may last for decades, if not centuries.
We are living through the greatest disruption of the postwar era; what is likely to be the defining historical period of our lives. And the disrupter is a piece of RNA surrounded by fat, a virus human beings have never before encountered.
A virus that ticks all the boxes for disaster: it is novel, it is highly contagious, it is transmitted by asymptomatic carriers, and it attacks and kills people whose immune systems have been undermined by disease, inequality, malnutrition, stress and age.
It’s only months since we were overwhelmed with the bushfire disaster. The climate emergency was upon us more viscerally than ever before. Sydney lost its summer to choking smoke; the glorious forests of the Great Dividing Range and eastern sea- board burnt with an unstoppable ferocity. Lives were lost, as were homes, businesses, communities, and a billion native animals. The koalas screaming in agony were heard around the world. This was our global future burning before our eyes.
Then came this virus. And it has shut down much of the world by freezing markets and informal economies that daily feed and service most of the people of the planet. But we should understand the virus as an ecological disaster, just like the climate emergency. They are not causally related. Rather, they are expressions of the same profound overburdening of the planet by anthropogenic excess.
The climate emergency has not abated with the pandemic. Extreme weather is everywhere on the planet. Syria is gripped by its worst drought in 900 years. Locusts are swarming over East Africa. We are warned the climatic sweet spot of the Holocene that has made complex societies possible for the last 6,000 years is coming to an end, to be replaced by unbearable heat in some of the world’s most populous places.
This is the end of the “good times” for the world, but it has been a long time coming. COVID-19 is simply an accelerant. Therefore, it is important now to focus on what has to be done, for all that stands between us and disaster is good government.
Many young people feel deeply pessimistic about the future. They have little confidence organised society can face profound threats, survive them and rebuild. But the world has done so, even within living memory with the astonishing recovery in Europe and Asia after World War II.
Critical moral decisions
In 1945, Europe lay in ruins. Eighty-five million people had perished, most of them civilians, deliberately murdered by starvation or industrial slaughter or burnt alive in their torched villages or fire-bombed cities. Sixty million people were displaced and took to the roads.
The total of lost or orphaned children has never been tallied. The 1944–45 winter had been terrible, crops had not been planted and there was no food. In Berlin, only the Russians seemed to know how to ration food and rebuild civil society: the other Allies were at a loss.
Civil society had been destroyed by oppression, cruelty and hunger. Scarcely any civilian who survived occupation ended the war with a clear conscience. People had to kill, steal, lie, inform on neighbours, refuse to help when asked, fail to fight when needed. And at the end, they had nothing. They amounted to millions upon millions of destitute, damaged people. A friend’s mother who spent the war in Trieste once admitted that there was no human depravity she had not witnessed.
Not only had the physical world been consumed by fire, so also had institutions, communities and infrastructure. Yet out of the carnage, modern Europe and the Soviet Union rebuilt their cities and homes and their civil societies. If the European Union and the former Eastern Bloc have problems now, their flourishing since 1945 has been a miracle. All have experienced a dramatic improvement in living standards in the past three-quarters of a century.
When this pandemic crisis ends, things will be very bad for those with weak, corrupt and incompetent governments. For those with good governments, critical moral decisions will be required: do we reinvest and rebuild positively, or do we inflict austerity to pay down the debt quickly?
The deaths will be proportionately fewer than in World War II, the buildings won’t be smashed, nor the sewers, water pipes and gas pipes shattered. Physically the world will still be there. Farms will still be producing food except where severe weather has destroyed crops. The shock and grief will be awful, and it will be the world’s turning point between collapse or recovery towards a new resilience.
JM Keynes’ 1940 book How to Pay for the War outlined a program of rationing, war bonds and currency creation that could produce the necessary funds without generating inflation. But the minute the second world war ended, 42% of the British workforce was made redundant.
How did the Allies pay for the peace without a return to the misery and chaos that were experienced after World War I? Rationing and austerity continued, but governments did not stop spending. The new British Labour government passed legislation mandating full employment; the existing Labor government in Australia in May 1945, issued its famous white paper, written by Dr HC Coombs titled Full Employment in Australia. We pre-empted the British, but we were of like mind.
Australia, by comparison, got off lightly from World War II. And Australia also had arguably the best government in its history under prime ministers Curtin and Chifley. They believed in the social contract that government was there to serve the people; that our Commonwealth was formed for the “common good”. They were great internationalists. They prosecuted the war, but they also committed from 1943 to building a better Australia for the people who had sacrificed so much to win it.
Their postwar reconstruction scheme, in just four years of war and four years of peace, established a welfare state and addressed historic injustices to Indigenous people who came under Commonwealth laws. They legislated to mandate full employment after the war, despite the demobilisation of the military and of war industries — and it worked.
They reformed the economy from the factory to the farm: General Motors-Holden, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and, this time, soldier settlements that were better planned and more successful. They invested in national and international air travel. They trained hundreds of thousands of unskilled workers to be skilled workers, and sent ex-service people to university. They opened Australia to non- British migration, changing us forever.
They lost office before they could implement Professor Sam Wadham’s massive Rural Reconstruction Scheme. But they also believed that the future depended on education and research, establishing our first research university, the Australian National University, to be a Princeton in the Pacific.
They inaugurated Commonwealth Scholarships and research funding. Our first PhDs began to graduate, and our academic gaze turned away from Oxbridge towards our Asian neighbours for the first time. They invested in the CSIRO. Another term of office may have delivered a national health service. We had to wait almost another 40 years for Medicare, but the four years after the war set up modern Australia.
A new accord?
This story is important to retell because it gives us hope — and a model. We need national reconstruction again: to transition to renewable energy, to restore fairness and security to our economy, to rebuild our rural and regional sectors that are beset by poverty, environmental stress and long-time marginalisation.
Climate change imperils our food security as it does our natural environment and wildlife. If we are to reconstruct Australia as a sustainable economy and society, then perhaps 60% of that effort needs to be in the bush.
National reconstruction requires political will, and political will needs a measure of bipartisan support to be effective. Menzies followed the social democratic Labor lead — social housing, support for universities, infrastructure construction. In the 1980s, the Prices and Incomes Accord was struck between unions and employers under the leadership of the Hawke Government. The accord lost its way after time, but initially it did bring down unemployment and inflation, in return for Medicare and new social transfers.
A new accord would be a different social contract. It would require a summit as before, after consultation and planning. It could be led by First Nations people with a mission to heal the nation and the land, starting with the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
This time its participants would be drawn from across the spectrum: farmers, business big and small, unions, universities and research, state and local government, the health and welfare sectors, culture and the arts. (Universities have played a vital role in changing course for this country in times of crisis and will do so again, just as their researchers, along with the CSIRO, are leading the fight against COVID-19.)
The accord itself could be a commitment to the guiding principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which connect social and economic justice to environmental justice.
This new accord would be a commitment to principles of practice that open doors to funding, tax incentives, advice and collaboration among sectors to build a new sustainable economy, turning Australia into the renewable energy powerhouse that the distinguished economist Professor Ross Garnaut envisages.
There would be no compulsion for businesses to sign on, but if they chose to be outside the tent, then they would not receive any benefits and opportunities.
No nation can truly flourish if its hinterland is degraded and unproductive. Global warming threatens our food security, our pastoralists and, as we saw in the summer of 2019–20, our forests and native wildlife. National reconstruction needs not merely to be bipartisan at the top: it must offer genuine participation in decision-making in how to transition to new industries and farming technologies.
We may need to start growing some crops under cover in highly controlled environments with careful water use and no pesticides. If the Netherlands can become the world’s second-largest food exporter after the United States, then we, too, in a more environmentally sensitive way than the Dutch, can build a high-tech food exporting industry that could replace coal and help feed a hungry world.
To do all this, we need a partnership between farmers, the private sector, workers, government and universities. If employers are to receive funding and research support from the public sector, then as their part of the accord they should commit to providing secure jobs and vocational training. They must be prepared to negotiate improving wages and support more generous welfare provision.
Above all, they need to endorse a government-funded Jobs Guarantee to get people back into the workforce with dignity and security: that is, real jobs with award wages, not work for the dole. The economy will not ‘bounce back’ if no one has money in their pocket.
It is to be hoped that the pandemic will bring an end to the distrust of science and learning that neo-liberalism has spread like poison through the rich world.
It will be time to rethink the tertiary and vocational sectors and fund research infrastructure in universities, alongside restoring the CSIRO and providing more job security for researchers. Our universities could then return to being servants of the public rather than fragile, semi-private corporations.
All this is fiscally possible if we accept that we can only pay back the debt by economic growth. Artificially balancing the budget via austerity leads to further impoverishment; investing in people and their enterprises to get on with it restores prosperity so that we can grow our way out of debt.
A fresh narrative
Government cannot do it all. Business is the larger part of society, and reconstruction cannot be done without their cooperative engagement, expertise, creativity and resources. But what is possible with the new accord is not a series of precise prescriptions for reform, but rather a narrative that can capture the trust and enthusiasm of an electorate that is disenchanted with politics and politicians.
People want our leaders to “come together”. The “Green New Deal” is an American idea; the United Kingdom wants a “green industrial revolution”; but we in Australia know how to strike accords and build institutionalised fairness.
Perhaps it does not matter what we call it: perhaps First Nations people will one day permit us to use their term Makarrata to express a new national social compact. We need to reconstruct Australia, better than we have before, and we need to do it for our very survival.
No one—no politician, no scientist, no economist, no bureaucrat, no business leader, no farmer, no pundit and no political party — has all the answers. But collectively we do, provided we can devolve consultation and much decision-making to the communities and regions directly affected. That will build resilience and draw on the experience and knowledge of those who are experts in their own worlds.
The great power of the human mind is that it can work with other minds: our greatest strength lies in each other.
This is an edited extract from What Happens Next? edited by Emma Dawson and Prof Janet McCalman AC, published by Melbourne University Publishing.