Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis, according to the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen.
Andersen said humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences and warned that failing to take care of the planet meant not taking care of ourselves.
Leading scientists also said the Covid-19 outbreak was a “clear warning shot”, given that far more deadly diseases existed in wildlife, and that today’s civilisation was “playing with fire”. They said it was almost always human behaviour that caused diseases to spill over into humans.
To prevent further outbreaks, the experts said, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people.
They also urged authorities to put an end to live animal markets – which they called an “ideal mixing bowl” for disease – and the illegal global animal trade.
Andersen, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said the immediate priority was to protect people from the coronavirus and prevent its spread. “But our long-term response must tackle habitat and biodiversity loss,” she added.
“Never before have so many opportunities existed for pathogens to pass from wild and domestic animals to people,” she told the Guardian, explaining that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come from wildlife.
“Our continued erosion of wild spaces has brought us uncomfortably close to animals and plants that harbour diseases that can jump to humans.”
She also noted other environmental impacts, such as the Australian bushfires, broken heat records and the worst locust invasion in Kenya for 70 years. “At the end of the day, [with] all of these events, nature is sending us a message,” Anderson said.
“There are too many pressures at the same time on our natural systems and something has to give,” she added. “We are intimately interconnected with nature, whether we like it or not. If we don’t take care of nature, we can’t take care of ourselves. And as we hurtle towards a population of 10 billion people on this planet, we need to go into this future armed with nature as our strongest ally.”
Human infectious disease outbreaks are rising and in recent years there have been Ebola, bird flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), Rift Valley fever, severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), West Nile virus and Zika virus all cross from animals to humans.
“The emergence and spread of Covid-19 was not only predictable, it was predicted [in the sense that] there would be another viral emergence from wildlife that would be a public health threat,” said Prof Andrew Cunningham, of the Zoological Society of London. A 2007 study of the 2002-03 Sars outbreak concluded: “The presence of a large reservoir of Sars-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a timebomb.”
Cunningham said other diseases from wildlife had much higher fatality rates in people, such as 50% for Ebola and 60%-75% for Nipah virus, transmitted from bats in south Asia. “Although you might not think it at the moment, we’ve probably got a bit lucky with [Covid-19],” he said. “So I think we should be taking this as a clear warning shot. It’s a throw of the dice.”