April 22, 2020

By Paige Olmsted


Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Despite stay-home orders around the world, online participation through social media, digital activities, and viewing events is still expected to involve upwards of 1 billion people.

The year 2020 was meant to be the “year of nature” and to spearhead a decade of new efforts for nature protection, building from the momentum of youth driven climate marches, last year’s IPBES Global Assessment that found 1 million species at risk, and the deadline for 194 nations to achieve the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi conservation targets (spoiler: most will not).

Smart Prosperity Institute’s research agenda was designed to reflect this, with new research promised on conservation finance, nature-based climate solutions and other analysis of nature-economy linkages.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Environmental issues historically take a back seat during times of economic strife. A recent survey found that, from January to March, environment ranked number one among Canadians’ concerns. Today it ranks fourth behind coronavirus, health and the economy.

Given the scale of an unprecedented pandemic, these numbers aren’t a surprise. However, as we shift our focus to kickstarting our economies after the threat from COVID-19 has passed, it’s critical to remember the important ways in which a healthy environment supports resilient economies and communities.

Here are four reasons why we still need 2020 to be the year of nature:

1) Conservation and improved natural resource management can reduce the impact of future pandemics. Deforestation and habitat loss increases exposure to wildlife and in turn the potential spread of zoonotic diseases. Wildlife trade -- especially illegal and live markets-- and climate change can exacerbate these risks. Meeting global commitments to significantly increase terrestrial and marine conservation areas (Canada’s Target 1) provides a buffer to reduce transmission.

2) Increasing crop diversity and natural habitat in agricultural landscapes can increase food security, building resilience in our food systems to future pandemics and other shocks.  Climate-smart practices reduce risks of drought and disease while improving soil and water quality. Aligning policies to support managed landscapes including ranching and forestry can produce healthier environments and improve livelihoods for landowners in the long term.

3) Restoration efforts like tree planting and wetland restoration are prime opportunities to create jobs quickly and put people back to work after the economic gut punch from COVID-19. Ecosystem restoration is a smart long-term investment too -- wetlands reduce the impact and cost of floods, tree planting sequesters carbon cost effectively, and both have biodiversity benefits. Nature-based solutions like these can address 30% of needed global GHG reduction, presenting a clear opportunity for smart stimulus policies.

4) Biodiversity loss and climate change haven’t gone away. While the response to COVID-19 has displaced all other global priorities, it is a temporary crisis. When we overcome it, the more complex and potentially more destructive crises we face around a changing climate and loss of biodiversity will be waiting for us. Overcoming COVID-19 should be a reminder to us that by working together the international community can achieve big things. Let’s use that momentum to address our other existential challenges.

During this involuntary pause to business-as-usual it did not take long to see improved air quality and wild animal populations returning where human activity slowed. The lesson is not that climate and biodiversity goals can only be achieved when economies grind to a halt, but transitioning to a future where we are not faced with this trade-off requires doing things differently.

The first Earth Day in 1970 came about in response to devastating air and water pollution, rallying tremendous global support for change. What emerged was the UN Environment Program, robust environmental legislation including the endangered species, clean air, and clean water acts in the US, with many countries including Canada following suit.

Fifty years later we are at another crossroads and can take this opportunity to rethink our approach. We are entering a critical decade to stave off the worst effects of climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy. Mirroring predictions associated with climate change, the pandemic has demonstrated the benefits of taking proactive steps, and the astronomical costs of delayed action. Building up natural systems rather than further depleting them can reduce the impact of disasters and make it easier to adapt to future shocks.

Instead of bouncing back, let’s bounce forward to a future in which we value and invest in the environment, benefitting nature and people.

Paige Olmsted

Senior Research Associate