Human progress is no excuse to destroy nature. A push to make ‘ecocide’ a global crime must recognise this fundamental truth


WWF Australia

Anthony Burke, UNSW and Danielle Celermajer, University of SydneyScientists recently confirmed the Amazon rainforest is now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, due to uncontrolled burning and deforestation. It brings the crucial ecosystem closer to a tipping point that would see it replaced by savanna and trigger accelerated global heating.

This is not an isolated example of nature being damaged at a mass scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this month confirmed global heating is now affecting every continent, region and ocean on Earth. That includes Australia, which is a global deforestation hotspot and where the Great Barrier Reef is headed for virtual extinction.

In the face of such horrors, a new international campaign is calling for “ecocide” – the killing of ecology – to be deemed an international “super crime” in the order of genocide. The campaign has attracted high-profile supporters including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis and Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

Making ecocide an international crime is an appropriate response to the gravity of this harm and could help prevent mass environmental destruction. But whether it does so will depend on how the crime is defined.

bare earth with small patch of trees
Destruction of the Amazon has fuelled the push for a new international crime of ‘ecocide’.
Greenpeace

Defining ecocide

The global campaign is being led by the Stop Ecocide Foundation. Last month an independent legal panel advising the campaign released a proposed amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It would make ecocide a crime, defining it as:

unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.

Defining a new international crime is a tricky balance. It must:

  • capture the gravity, nature and extent of the harm
  • set appropriate, but not impossible, standards of proof
  • set moral standards that other international laws should follow.

The draft definition marks an important step in getting ecocide on the international agenda. And it does a good job of defining and balancing the core elements of ecocide – “severe” and either “widespread” or “long-term” damage to “any element of the environment”.

Laudably, these core elements show a concern for ecosystem integrity, human rights to a healthy environment, and the way grave damage to ecosystems can have devastating local and planetary consequences well into the future. This is a significant achievement.

Despite these strengths, lawyers and scholars, including ourselves, have identified problems with the definition.




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person in mask holds sign which says 'ecocode'
The proposed definition of ecocide is flawed.
ITSUO INOUYE/AP

Towards an ecological approach

A key concern is that the proposed definition considers only “unlawful” or “wanton” acts to be ecocide.

Most environmental destruction is not illegal. We need look no further than Australia’s land clearing laws or, indeed, federal environment law which has comprehensively failed to protect nature.

Under the proposed definition, lawful acts are only ecocidal if they are “wanton” – defined as “reckless disregard for damage which would be clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic and benefits anticipated”.

This condition assumes some ecocidal damage is acceptable in the name of human progress. According to the panel, such “socially beneficial acts” might include building housing developments and transport links.

This assumption furthers the human-centred privilege and “get-out-of-jail” clauses that have so weakened international environmental law to date.

We are not saying that housing, transport links or farms should not be built. But, in a period some scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction, they cannot come at the expense of crucial species and ecosystems. Sustainable development must respect this boundary.

The assumption also fails to recognise the gravity of ecocide. Such trade-offs – formally known as “derogations” – are rejected by international conventions governing slavery, torture, sexual violence, and fundamental human rights.

For example, the Convention Against Torture states:

no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.

An international crime of ecocide must meet a similar standard. It should recognise that all forms of life, and the ecological systems that support them, have value for their own sake.

This perspective is known as multispecies justice. It holds that human well-being is bound to flourishing ecosystems, which have an intrinsic value outside the human use for them.

Earth from space
Human well-being is bound to Earth’s flourishing ecosystems.
Shutterstock

Genocide – the annihilation of human groups – is recognised as a crime against humanity. As political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, genocide is an attack on human diversity that erodes the “very nature of mankind” and poses a grave threat to global order.

In the same way, the definition of ecocide should recognise that acts which destroy biological diversity, and lead to species extinction, threaten the very nature and survival of Earth’s multi-species community.

In Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, the Balkans and more recently Myanmar, millions were killed and dispersed under a crime against humanity known as “ethnic cleansing”. Yet this killing and dispersal is happening to non-human communities as we write. The vast habitat destroyed by deforestation is as important to displaced animals as our homes are to us.

And this is a shared calamity. Mass environmental destruction is an attack on the foundations of all life that makes up the biosphere, of which humanity is only a part.




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Man with pile of elephant tusks
The loss of one part of nature damages all life on Earth, including humanity.
Ben Curtis/AP

What should be done?

The Stop Ecocide Foundation says the proposed definition will now be “made available for states to consider”.

As they do so, we ought to work towards a definition of ecocide that puts non-human lives at its centre. The crime of ecocide must be defined in a way that honours its victims – the myriad beings of the Earth.

In the meantime, political efforts to rein in biodiversity destruction must become an urgent global priority. And citizens can press their governments to criminalise the ecocidal acts that have become business as usual.




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The Conversation


Anthony Burke, Professor of Environmental Politics & International Relations, UNSW and Danielle Celermajer, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Spending time in nature has always been important, but now it’s an essential part of coping with the pandemic



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Catherine Knight, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

A living wall filled with plants
Time spent in green spaces has been shown to mental and physical well-being.
Shutterstock/vsop, CC BY-SA

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of green spaces and urban parks, especially during periods of lockdown.

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.

Nature’s fix

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.

In more recent studies, exposure to nature or urban green space has been associated with lower levels of stress, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improved cognition in children with attention deficits and individuals with depression.

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.




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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.

Tree overhanging an urban stream
Even a gentle stroll delivers health benefits.
Shutterstock/Ian Woolcock, CC BY-SA

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 iNaturalist reported 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.




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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.

Road running through green spaces.
Most people live in cities, which often lack green spaces.
Shutterstock/krug, CC BY-SA

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.




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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.The Conversation

Catherine Knight, Senior Research Associate, Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

COVID-19 wasn’t just a disaster for humanity – new research shows nature suffered greatly too



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Marc Hockings, The University of Queensland

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 gorilla and man wearing mask
Protected areas are a boon for nature, and can help prevent pandemics.
Jerome Starkey

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.




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Closed entrance to Grand Canyon national park
Around the world, the pandemic forced the closure of national parks – including the Grand Canyon, pictured here.
Lani Strange/AP

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.




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UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature


Man holds up leopard skin
When poverty strikes, vulnerable people can turn to poaching and other illegal means to survive.
James Morgan/AP/WWF-Canon

Humans and animals pushed closer

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.




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Rangers managing forest with fire.
Investment is needed in protected areas to ensure important conservation and land management continues.
Shutterstock

2021: a crucial year

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.The Conversation

Marc Hockings, Emeritus Professor of Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Taking care of business: the private sector is waking up to nature’s value



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Megan C Evans, UNSW

For many businesses, climate change is an existential threat. Extreme weather can disrupt operations and supply chains, spelling disaster for both small vendors and global corporations. It also leaves investment firms dangerously exposed.

Businesses increasingly recognise climate change as a significant financial risk. Awareness of nature-related financial risks, such as biodiversity loss, is still emerging.

My work examines the growth of private sector investment in biodiversity and natural capital. I believe now is a good time to consider questions such as: what are businesses doing, and not doing, about climate change and environmental destruction? And what role should government play?

Research clearly shows humanity is severely damaging Earth’s ability to support life. But there is hope, including a change in government in the United States, which has brought new momentum to tackling the world’s environmental problems.

Koala lies dead after a bushfire tears through forest
Now’s a good time to talk about how humans are wrecking the planet.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

Poisoning the well

An expert report released last week warned Australia must cut emissions by 50% or more in the next decade if it’s to meet the Paris Agreement goals. Meeting this challenge will require everyone to do their bit.

Climate change is a major threat to Australia’s financial security, and businesses must be among those leading on emissions reduction. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case.

The finance sector, for example, contributes substantially to climate change and biodiversity loss. It does this by providing loans, insurance or investment for business activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions or otherwise harm nature.

In fact, a report last year found Australia’s big four banks loaned A$7 billion to 33 fossil fuel projects in the three years to 2019.

Protest banner on coal pile at terminal
Australia’s big banks have been criticised for investing in fossil fuels.
Dean Sewell/Greenpeace

A pushback for nature

Promisingly, there’s a growing push from some businesses, including in the finance sector, to protect the climate and nature.

Late last year, Australian banks and insurers published the nation’s first comprehensive climate change reporting framework. And the recently launched Climate League 2030 initiative, representing 17 of Australia’s institutional investors with A$890 billion in combined assets, aims to act on deeper emissions reductions.




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Some companies are starting to put serious money on the table.
In August last year, global financial services giant HSBC and climate change advisory firm Pollination announced a joint asset management venture focused on “natural capital”. The venture aims to raise up to A$1 billion for its first fund.

Globally too, investors are starting to wake up to the cost of nature loss. Last month, investors representing US$2.4 trillion (A$3.14 trillion) in assets asked HSBC to set emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement. And in September last year, investor groups worth over $US103 trillion (A$135 trillion) issued a global call for companies to accurately disclose climate risks in financial reporting.

HSBC sign lit at night
HSBC’s investors are pushing for stronger climate action.
Shutterstock

Climate change is not the only threat to global financial security. Nature loss – the destruction of plants, animals and ecosystems – poses another existential threat. Last year, the World Economic Forum reported more than half of the global economy relies on goods and services nature provides such as pollination, water and disease control.

Efforts by the finance sector to address the risks associated with biodiversity loss are in their infancy, but will benefit from work already done on understanding climate risk

Of course, acknowledging and disclosing climate- and nature-related financial risks is just one step. Substantial action is also needed.

Businesses can merely “greenwash” their image – presenting to the public as environmentally responsible while acting otherwise. For example, a report showed in 2019, many major global banks that pledged action on climate change and biodiversity loss were also investing in activities harmful to biodiversity.

Logs felled in timber operation
The global economy depends on the goods and services nature provides.
Shutterstock

Getting it right

In the financial sector and beyond, there are risks to consider as the private sector takes a larger role in environmental action.

Investors will increasingly seek to direct capital to projects that help to reduce their exposure to climate- and nature-related risks, such ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture.

Many of these projects can help to restore biodiversity, sequester carbon and deliver benefits for local communities. But it’s crucial to remember that private sector investment is motivated, at least in part, by the expectation of a positive financial return.

Projects that are highly risky or slow to mature, such as restoring highly threatened species or ecosystems, might struggle to attract finance. For example, the federal government’s Threatened Species prospectus reportedly attracted little private sector interest.

That means governments and philanthropic donors still have a crucial role in the funding of research and pilot projects.




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Governments must also better align policies to improve business and investor confidence. It is nonsensical that various Australian governments send competing signals about whether, say, forests should be cleared or restored. And at the federal level, biodiversity loss and climate change come under separate portfolios, despite the issues being inextricably linked.

Private-sector investment could deliver huge benefits for the environment, but these outcomes must be real and clearly demonstrated. Investors want the benefits measured and reported, but good data is often lacking.

Too-simple metrics, such as the area of land protected, don’t tell the whole story. They may not reflect harm to local and Indigenous communities, or whether the land is well managed.

Finally, as the private sector becomes more aware of nature and climate-related risks, a range of approaches to addressing this will proliferate. But efforts must be harmonised to minimise confusion and complexity in the marketplace. Governments must provide leadership to make this a smooth process.

Swift parrot flies through treetops
Threatened species habitat restoration may struggle to attract private sector funding.
Eric Woehler

The power to change

Last week, a major report was released highlighting grave failures in Australia’s environmental laws. The government’s response suggested it is not taking the threat seriously.

Businesses and governments hold disproportionate power that can be used to either delay or accelerate transformative change.

And although many businesses wield undue influence on government decisions, it doesn’t have to be this way.

By working together and seizing the many opportunities that present, business and government can help arrest climate change and nature loss, and contribute to a safer, more liveable planet for all.




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The Conversation


Megan C Evans, Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

UN report says up to 850,000 animal viruses could be caught by humans, unless we protect nature



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Katie Woolaston, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher

Human damage to biodiversity is leading us into a pandemic era. The virus that causes COVID-19, for example, is linked to similar viruses in bats, which may have been passed to humans via pangolins or another species.

Environmental destruction such as land clearing, deforestation, climate change, intense agriculture and the wildlife trade is putting humans into closer contact with wildlife. Animals carry microbes that can be transferred to people during these encounters.

A major report released today says up to 850,000 undiscovered viruses which could be transferred to humans are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts.

The report, by The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), says to avoid future pandemics, humans must urgently transform our relationship with the environment.

Covid-19 graphic
Microbes can pass from animals to humans, causing disease pandemics.
Shutterstock

Humans costs are mounting

The report is the result of a week-long virtual workshop in July this year, attended by leading experts. It says a review of scientific evidence shows:

…pandemics are becoming more frequent, driven by a continued rise in the underlying emerging disease events that spark them. Without preventative strategies, pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, kill more people, and affect the global economy with more devastating impact than ever before.

The report says, on average, five new diseases are transferred from animals to humans every year – all with pandemic potential. In the past century, these have included:

  • the Ebola virus (from fruit bats),
  • AIDS (from chimpazees)
  • Lyme disease (from ticks)
  • the Hendra virus (which first erupted at a Brisbane racing stable in 1994).

The report says an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 540,000-850,000 could infect humans.

But rather than prioritising the prevention of pandemic outbreaks, governments around the world primarily focus on responding – through early detection, containment and hope for rapid development of vaccines and medicines.

Doctor giving injection to patient
Governments are focused on pandemic responses such as developing vaccines, rather than prevention.
Shutterstock

As the report states, COVID-19 demonstrates:

…this is a slow and uncertain path, and as the global population waits for vaccines to become available, the human costs are mounting, in lives lost, sickness endured, economic collapse, and lost livelihoods.

This approach can also damage biodiversity – for example, leading to large culls of identified carrier-species. Tens of thousands of wild animals were culled in China after the SARS outbreak and bats continue to be persecuted after the onset of COVID-19.

The report says women and Indigenous communities are particularly disadvantaged by pandemics. Women represent more then 70% of social and health-care workers globally, and past pandemics have disproportionately harmed indigenous people, often due to geographical isolation.




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It says pandemics and other emerging zoonoses (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans) likely cause more than US$1 trillion in economic damages annually. As of July 2020, the cost of COVID-19 was estimated at US $8-16 trillion globally. The costs of preventing the next pandemic are likely to be 100 times less than that.

People wearing masks in a crowd
The cost to governments of dealing with pandemics far outweighs the cost of prevention.
Shutterstock

A way forward

The IPBES report identifies potential ways forward. These include:

• increased intergovernmental cooperation, such as a council on pandemic prevention, that could lead to a binding international agreement on targets for pandemic prevention measures

• global implementation of OneHealth policies – policies on human health, animal health and the environment which are integrated, rather than “siloed” and considered in isolation

• a reduction in land-use change, by expanding protected areas, restoring habitat and implementing financial disincentives such as taxes on meat consumption

• policies to reduce wildlife trade and the risks associated with it, such as increasing sanitation and safety in wild animal markets, increased biosecurity measures and enhanced enforcement around illegal trade.

Societal and individual behaviour change will also be needed. Exponential growth in consumption, often driven by developed countries, has led to the repeated emergence of diseases from less-developed countries where the commodities are produced.

So how do we bring about social change that can reduce consumption? Measures proposed in the report include:

  • education policies

  • labelling high pandemic-risk consumption patterns, such as captive wildlife for sale as pets as either “wild-caught” or “captive-bred” with information on the country where it was bred or captured

  • providing incentives for sustainable behaviour

  • increasing food security to reduce the need for wildlife consumption.

People inspecting haul of wildlife products
Cracking down on the illegal wildlife trade will help prevent pandemics.
AP

An Australian response

Australia was one of the founding member countries of IPBES in 2012 and so has made an informal, non-binding commitment to follow its science and policy evidence.

However, there are no guarantees it will accept the recommendations of the IPBES report, given the Australian government’s underwhelming recent record on environmental policy.

For example, in recent months the government has so far refused to sign the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. The pledge, instigated by the UN, includes a commitment to taking a OneHealth approach – which considers health and environmental sustainability together – when devising policies and making decisions.

The government cut funding of environmental studies courses by 30%. It has sought to reduce so called “green tape” in national environmental legislation, and its economic response to the pandemic will be led by industry and mining – a focus that creates further pandemic potential.




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Finally, Australia is one of few countries without a national centre for disease control and pandemics.

But there are good reasons for hope. It’s within Australia’s means to build an organisation focused on a OneHealth approach. Australia is one of the most biologically diverse countries on the planet and Australians are willing to protect it. Further, many investors believe proper environmental policy will aid Australia’s economic recovery.

Finally, we have countless passionate experts and traditional owners willing to do the hard work around policy design and implementation.

As this new report demonstrates, we know the origins of pandemics, and this gives us the power to prevent them.The Conversation

Katie Woolaston, Lawyer, Queensland University of Technology and Judith Lorraine Fisher, Adjunct Professor University of Western Australia, Institute of Agriculture

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley is in a tearing hurry to embrace nature law reform – and that’s a worry



Graeme Samuel, left and Environment Minister Sussan Ley.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Peter Burnett, Australian National University

The Morrison government on Monday released a long-awaited interim review into Australia’s federal environment law. The ten-year review found Australia’s natural environment is declining and under increasing threat. The current environmental trajectory is “unsustainable” and the law “ineffective”.

The report, by businessman Graeme Samuel, called for fundamental reform of the law, know as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The Act, Samuel says:

[…] does not enable the Commonwealth to play its role in protecting and conserving environmental matters that are important for the nation. It is not fit to address current or future environmental challenges.

Samuel confirmed the health of Australia’s environment is in dire straits, and proposes many good ways to address this.

Worryingly though, Environment Minister Sussan Ley immediately seized on proposed reforms that seem to suit her government’s agenda – notably, streamlining the environmental approvals process – and will start working towards them. This is before the review has been finalised, and before public comment on the draft has been received.

This rushed response is very concerning. I was a federal environment official for 13 years, and from 2007 to 2012 was responsible for administering and reforming the Act. I know the huge undertaking involved in reform of the scale Samuel suggests. The stakes are far too high to risk squandering this once-a-decade reform opportunity for quick wins.

A dead koala outside Ipswich. Federal environment laws have failed to protect threatened species.
Jim Dodrill/The Wilderness Society



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Let there be no doubt: blame for our failing environment laws lies squarely at the feet of government


‘Fundamental reform’ needed: Samuel

The EPBC Act is designed to protect and conserve Australia’s most important environmental and heritage assets – most commonly, threatened plant and animal species.

Samuel’s diagnosis is on the money: the current trajectory of environmental decline is clearly unsustainable. And reform is long overdue – although unlike Samuel, I would put the blame less on the Act itself and more on government failings, such as a badly under-resourced federal environment department.

Samuel also hits the sweet spot in terms of a solution, at least in principle. National environmental standards, legally binding on the states and others, would switch the focus from the development approvals process to environmental outcomes. In essence, the Commonwealth would regulate the states for environmental results, rather than proponents for (mostly) process.




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Samuel’s recommendation for a quantum shift to a “single source of truth” for environmental data and information is also welcome. Effective administration of the Act requires good information, but this has proven hard to deliver. For example the much-needed National Plan for Environmental Information, established in 2010, was never properly resourced and later abolished.

Importantly, Samuel also called for a new standard for “best practice Indigenous engagement”, ensuring traditional knowledge and views are fully valued in decision-making. The lack of protection of Indigenous cultural assets has been under scrutiny of late following Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient Indigenous site Juukan caves. Reform in this area is long overdue.

And notably, Samuel says environmental restoration is required to enable future development to be sustainable. Habitat, he says “needs to grow to be able to support both development and a healthy environment”.

Many in the public are concerned at the state of Australia’s environment.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Streamlined approvals

Samuel pointed to duplication between the EPBC Act and state and territory regulations. He said efforts have been made to streamline these laws but they “have not gone far enough”. The result, he says, is “slow and cumbersome regulation” resulting in significant costs for business, with little environmental benefit.

This finding would have been music to the ears of the Morrison government. From the outset, the government framed Samuel’s review around a narrative of cutting the “green tape” that it believed unnecessarily held up development.

In June the government announced fast-tracked approvals for 15 major infrastructure projects in response to the COVID-19 economic slowdown. And on Monday, Ley indicated the government will prioritise the new national environmental standards, including further streamlining approval processes.




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Here’s where the danger lies. The government wants to introduce legislation in August. Ley said “prototype” environmental standards proposed by Samuel will be introduced at the same time. This is well before Samuel’s final report, due in October.

I believe this timeframe is unwise, and wildly ambitious.

Even though Samuel proposes a two-stage process, with interim standards as the first step, these initial standards risk being too vague. And once they’re in place, states may resist moving to a stricter second stage.

To take one example, the prototype standards in Samuel’s report say approved development projects must not have unacceptable impacts on on matters of national environmental significance. He says more work is needed on the definition of “unacceptable”, adding this requires “granular and specific guidance”.

I believe this requires standards being tailored to different ecosystems across our wide and diverse landscapes, and being specific enough to usefully guide the assessment of any given project. This is an enormous task which cannot be rushed. And if Samuel’s prototype were adopted on an interim basis, states would be free, within some limits, to decide what is “unacceptable”.

It’s also worth noting that the national standards model will need significant financial resources. Samuel’s model would see the Commonwealth doing fewer individual project approvals and less on-ground compliance. However, it would enter a new and complex world of developing environmental standards.

The government has said little about improving the environment on the ground.
Eric Vanderduys/BirdLife Australia

More haste, less speed

Samuel’s interim report will go out for public comment before the final report is delivered in October. Ley concedes further consultation is needed on some issues. But in other areas, the government is not willing to wait. After years of substantive policy inaction it seems the government wants to set a new land-speed record for environmental reform.

The government’s fixation with cutting “green tape” should not unduly colour its reform direction. By rushing efforts to streamline approvals, the government risks creating a jumbled process with, once again, poor environmental outcomes.The Conversation

Peter Burnett, Honorary Associate Professor, ANU College of Law, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Can’t go outside? Even seeing nature on a screen can improve your mood



Damon Hall/Unsplash, CC BY

Cris Brack, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli

Are you feeling anxious or irritated during the coronavirus lockdown? Do you constantly want to get up and move? Maybe you need a moment to engage with nature.

Getting into the great outdoors is difficult at right now. But our research soon to be published in Australian Forestry shows you can improve your mood by experiencing nature indoors. This could mean placing few pot plants in the corner of your home office, or even just looking at photos of plants.

Our work adds to a compelling body of research that shows being around nature directly benefits our mental health.

Virtual images of nature have similar effects to being in the physical presence of nature.
Kishoor Nishanth/Unsplash, CC BY

Biophilia

Public gardens and parks, street verges with trees and bushes, and even rooftop gardens bring us a broad range of benefits – boosting physical health, reducing air pollution, and even lowering crime rates.




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Biodiversity and our brains: how ecology and mental health go together in our cities


But inside, in your hastily constructed home office or home school room, you may be unable to take full advantage of urban nature.

Natural products such as wooden furniture can also improve working conditions.
Noemi Macavei Katocz/Unsplash, CC BY

Embracing the notion of “biophilia” – the innate human affinity with nature – while locked down inside may improve your productivity and even your health.

The biophilia hypothesis argues modern day humans evolved from hundreds of generations of ancestors whose survival required them to study, understand and rely on nature. So a disconnection from nature today can cause significant issues for humans, such as a decline in psychological health.

In practice at home, connecting with nature might mean having large windows overlooking the garden. You can also improve working conditions by having natural materials in your office or school room, such as wooden furniture, natural stones and pot plants.

Indoor plants

Our research has demonstrated that even a small number of plants hanging in pockets on along a busy corridor provide enough nature to influence our physiological and psychological perceptions.

These plants even caused behavioural differences, where people would change their route through a building to come into contact with the indoor plants.

We surveyed 104 people, and 40% of the respondents reported their mood and emotions improved in the presence of indoor plants.

They felt “relaxed and grounded” and “more interested”. The presence of indoor greenery provides a place to “relax from routine” and it made the space “significantly more pleasant to work in”.

Our study showed the benefits of indoor greenery.
Author provided

As one person reported:

When I first saw the plants up on the wall brought a smile to my face.

Whenever I walk down the stairs or walk past I mostly always feel compelled to look at the plants on the wall. Not with any anxiety or negative thoughts, rather, at how pleasant and what a great idea it is.

Looking at wildlife photography

Our research also explored whether viewing images, posters or paintings of nature would make a difference.

We photographed the plants from viewpoints similar to those the corridor users experienced. Survey responses from those who only viewed these digital images were almost the same as those who experienced them in real life.

While we can’t say for sure, we can hypothesise that given the importance of vision in modern humans, an image that “looks” like nature might be enough to trigger a biophilic response.




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However, physically being in the presence of plants did have some stronger behavioural effects. For example corridor users wanted to linger longer looking at the plants than those who viewed the photographs, and were more likely to want to visit the plants again. Maybe the other senses – touch, smell, even sound – created a stronger biophilic response than just sight alone.

So the good news is if you can’t get to a nursery – or if you have a serious inability to keep plants alive – you can still benefit from looking at photographs of them.

Looking at photos of nature can improve your mood.
Bee Balogun/Unsplash, CC BY

If you haven’t been taking your own photos, search the plethora of images from wildlife photographers such as Doug Gimesy, Frans Lanting and Tanya Stollznow.

Or check out live camera feeds of a wide range of environments, and travel to far-flung places without leaving the safety of home.

While we haven’t tested the mood-boosting effects of live videos, we hypothesise their physiological and psychological effects will be no different than digital photographs.

Here are seven places to help you get started.

  • The Bush Blitz citizen science app launched a new online tool today. The species recovery program encourages children to explore their backyard to identify different species.

  • “From the bottom of the sea direct to your screen”: watch this underwater live stream of Victoria’s rocky reef off Port Phillip Bay

  • The Coastal Watch website offers live camera feeds on beaches around Australia.

  • Watch the running water, trees and occasional fauna in California’s Redwood Forest River.

  • In pastoral Australia, go on a four-hour drive through the country side along tree-lined roads.

  • Zoos Victoria has set up live cameras that show its animals in natural (and nature-like) environments from Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo.

  • Yellowstone National Park may be closed right now, but webcams are stationed in various locations throughout the park.




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The Conversation


Cris Brack, Associate Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University and Aini Jasmin Ghazalli, Graduate student

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

3 ways nature in the city can do you good, even in self-isolation



Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Lucy Taylor, University of Melbourne; Dieter Hochuli, University of Sydney, and Erin Leckey, University of Colorado Boulder

Spending time at the beach or taking a walk in the park can help us recover from the mental and physical impacts of life’s stresses. But physical distancing measures to contain COVID-19 have included closing beaches, playgrounds and parks, adding to the challenges to our mental health. When we stay home to flatten the curve, how can we help ourselves by taking advantage of the benefits associated with nature?

Public playgrounds have been closed to encourage distancing and limit infection.
Peter Lead, Author provided

The evidence for nature supporting human well-being has grown in recent decades. We researched the links between nature and urban residents’ well-being and found there are benefits of nature that we can still enjoy now, even in lockdown.
Our findings point to some of the ways we can improve our well-being by engaging with everyday nature close to home.




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1. A room with a view

We reviewed the evidence, collected survey data on self-reported well-being and biodiversity indicators, and organised focus groups in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand, to better understand participants’ relationship with urban nature.

If you’re stuck at home, the good news is there is plenty of research that suggests a view through a window of vegetation or a body of water can provide a micro-break. A view of nature through a window has even aided hospital patients’ recovery from surgery. A short, 40-second glance at a green roof supports cognitive restoration better than a view of concrete.

Our research found urban residents had greater self-reported well-being when they had nature nearby or visible from their homes. Participants valued a view of vegetated areas – green space – and bodies of water – blue space. One participant said:

I could live in something that was pretty grim if it had a balcony that looked out [at nature].

Participants in our focus groups also highlighted the importance of seeing changes in the natural world, such as change in the weather or the seasons. Even if your view does not have a lot of vegetation or water, a view of the sky can allow engagement with nature’s dynamism.

A view out a window at nature’s dynamism can improve our well-being.
Lucy Taylor, Author provided



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2. Gardening – indoors and out

If you’re lucky enough to have a yard or balcony, now may be a good time to do some gardening. Gardening can offer benefits such as reductions in stress, anxiety and depression. As a physical activity, gardening can also improve physical fitness and support weight loss.

Gardens can also provide habitat for wildlife, potentially introducing you to new plants, pollinating insects and birds. Urban biodiversity benefits us too.

Our study found strong links between gardening and self-reported well-being. If you don’t have a yard, gardening on a balcony or tending to indoor plants also has benefits. One participant explained:

Having a small vegetable garden and flowers in pots makes me feel happy and content … It is wonderful to see things grow in the city.

Gardening in a yard, on a balcony, or even tending indoor plants does us good.
Peter Lead, Author provided



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3. Green exercise

We know exercise is good for physical fitness and mental health. “Green exercise”, or exercise that takes place in and around nature, can improve your mood and self-esteem.

Our study found strong links between how often urban residents exercised and their self-reported well-being. One participant described how important green exercise is to them:

Being able to walk my dog down at the beach or go up into the hills is a great stress relief and keeps me fit and healthy and, best of all, it’s free.

Another participant described exercising in a public park:

I feel significantly calmer, [my] breathing rate goes down. I love the feel of that moist air going into my lungs from all the trees and I really do feel different.

To limit infection, residents of cities around the world are subject to a range of national and local constraints on when and how they leave the house to exercise. It is important to follow physical distancing guidelines, but it is also important to exercise rather than be both isolated and sedentary.




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Urban nature now and for the future

Nature can support our well-being now, when we all could use the help, but we need to protect it. Climate change talks have been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is clear climate change has not stalled, even taking into account the effect of lockdown on emissions.

There are lasting ways to reduce our emissions and create low-carbon and cooler cities. And the earlier we act, the better the outcomes will be.

If you have a yard, planting trees might be a good lockdown activity now and will ultimately benefit your future.




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Taking time to notice nature – via a glance outside, tending plants in pots or gardens, or via green exercise – will improve your well-being. Appreciating nature and having access to it has never been so important.The Conversation

Appreciating urban nature has never been more important.
Lucy Taylor, Author provided

Lucy Taylor, Assistant Researcher, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Dieter Hochuli, Professor, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney, and Erin Leckey, Research Scientist, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Where the wild things are: how nature might respond as coronavirus keeps humans indoors



AP News

Sarah Bekessy, RMIT University; Alex Kusmanoff, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, RMIT University; Katherine Berthon, RMIT University; Lee Harrison, University of Melbourne; Matthew Selinske, RMIT University, and Thami Croeser, RMIT University

Intriguing things sometimes happen in places deserted by people. Plants creep back, animals return and, slowly, birdsong fills the air.

The coronavirus pandemic means public spaces the world over have been temporarily abandoned. Major roads are all but empty and public squares are eerily quiet.

In response, nature is in some cases “taking over towns”. Some reports – such as dolphins spotted in Venice – are fake news. But others are legitimate.




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A puma has been spotted roaming the streets of Santiago and wild turkeys are gallivanting in Oakland, California. Monkeys have reclaimed city streets in Thailand and deer are wandering through train stations and down roads in Japan.

Of course, COVID-19 has taken a devastating toll on humanity, and this is nothing to be celebrated. But as Australians stay at home and our streets fall quiet, let’s consider how wildlife might respond.

Animals the world over are creeping back into cities deserted due to COVID-19.
SOHAIL SHAHZAD/EPA

The resilience of nature

Throughout history, nature has shown a propensity for reclaiming land once humans have departed.

At Chernobyl, for instance, radiation has not been enough to suppress populations of gray wolves, raccoon dogs, Eurasian boar and red fox.

Likewise the Korean demilitarised zone has become a refugia for numerous threatened species, including red-crowned cranes.

Ecological succession can occur when humans abandon cities. This is where short-lived “pioneer” species initially occupy sites and are replaced over time by shrubs and trees, ultimately supporting more diverse wildlife.

It’s hard to predict exactly how healthy and biodiverse these systems can become, but they will almost certainly be examples of “novel ecosystems”, having crossed irreversible thresholds due to human impact, such as vegetation reclaiming an abandoned building.

A butterfly on a floor in front of visitors in protective shoes at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 2018.
SERGEY DOLZHENKO/EPA

Quieter, darker, greener cities

Cities can be hostile places for urban wildlife due to fragmented habitat, pollution, road collisions and disturbance from and conflict with people. But under a coronavirus lockdown, these threats are greatly reduced.

For example, decreases in economic activity in Europe and China have led to improvements in air pollution, which is known to badly affect urban birds. However, this effect might not last long enough to allow for recovery of sensitive bird species; emissions in China are already rising again.




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Light pollution may also fall in cities as a result of coronavirus – such as if office buildings turn off overnight lighting and sportsgrounds are empty.

This would benefit nocturnal species such as moths and bats. Artificial light can interfere with reproduction, predator and prey interactions, and migration.

At the end of March, traffic congestion in Sydney and Melbourne was reportedly down more than 30% on last year. Fewer cars and trams would benefit species that communicate acoustically (such as frogs and birds).

Empty roads near Circular Quay in Sydney on March 27 this year.
JAMES GOURLEY/AAP

Fewer people actively using city spaces may mean less disturbance of urban bird nesting sites, especially those that are routinely removed from commercial properties.

Depending on whether authorities see weed control as an “essential service”, streets may soon look a bit greener.

Weeds often get a bad rap for taking over gardens and roadsides. However, some, such as dandelions, provide excellent flowering resources for native bees, butterflies and birds.

Deserted roads could potentially add to existing wildlife “corridors” or strips of vegetation along rivers and streams. This would allow species to move from one place to another – potentially recolonising areas.

What next?

Once traffic returns to levels observed before the pandemic, we should preserve observed animal movements using safe passage strategies such as vegetated overpasses that connect bisected habitat or adequately sized underpasses to allow wildlife to safely cross under large, busy roads.

Nature can reclaim places that have been totally abandoned for years, creating novel ecosystems.
Pixabay, CC BY

In the longer term, this crisis may bring innovation in business communication and human behavioural change – including reduced work travel. This could influence land-use changes in cities, potentially giving space back to nature.

The current need for people to stay at home might be triggering a human disconnection from nature. In some cases, this can lead people to become emotionally distanced from what happens to their natural environment. This could be ameliorated by exercising in local parks or other natural environments.

You can also use your time at home to positively contribute to wildlife in your urban area. If you’re looking to keep kids entertained, try developing a “renaturing” plan that aims to care for, or bring back, a species or ecosystems.

There are also many ways to retrofit your home, garden or balcony to help plants and animals.

Or discover the incredible species living alongside us by simply paying attention to nature near your home.




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The Conversation


Sarah Bekessy, Professor in Sustainability and Urban Planning, Leader, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), RMIT University; Alex Kusmanoff, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Inter-disciplinary Conservation (ICON) Science Research Group, RMIT University; Brendan Wintle, Professor in Conservation Ecology, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Casey Visintin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Freya Thomas, Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Georgia Garrard, Senior Research Fellow, Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group, RMIT University; Katherine Berthon, PhD Candidate, RMIT University; Lee Harrison, Honorary Associate, University of Melbourne; Matthew Selinske, Postdoctoral research associate conservation science, RMIT University, and Thami Croeser, Research Officer, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.