Links between Pandemics, biodiversity, and climate change

The experts of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES) released their Report of an earlier workshop on October 29,  warning that “the risk of pandemics is increasing rapidly, with more than five new diseases emerging in people every year, any one of which could potentially spark a pandemic.”  The problem, as stated in the report: “The majority (70%) of emerging diseases (e.g. Ebola, Zika, Nipah encephalitis), and almost all known pandemics (e.g. influenza, HIV/AIDS, COVID-19), are zoonoses – i.e. are caused by microbes of animal origin. These microbes ‘spill over’ due to contact among wildlife, livestock, and people……Pandemics have their origins in diverse microbes carried by animal reservoirs, but their emergence is entirely driven by human activities. The underlying causes of pandemics are the same global environmental changes that drive biodiversity loss and climate change. These include land-use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, and wildlife trade and consumption. These drivers of change bring wildlife, livestock, and people into closer contact, allowing animal microbes to move into people and lead to infections, sometimes outbreaks, and more rarely into true pandemics that spread through road networks, urban centres and global travel and trade routes.”

Prevention 100 times cheaper than reactive policies

The IPBES Report asserts that pandemics are not inevitable. The authors advocate a dramatic shift in policy to prevention, rather than the current reactive scramble to treat diseases through vaccines etc. – an approach which brings enormous human suffering, and economic costs. The report estimate the economic costs of the reactive approach at “ likely more than a trillion dollars in economic damages annually.”  – likely 100 times the costs of prevention.

Given that the IPBES is an intergovernmental body linked to the United Nations, it is perhaps not surprising that one of their key recommendations is to establish a high-level intergovernmental council on pandemic prevention, which would provide decision-makers with scientific research,  economic impact estimates, and a global monitoring mechanism. They also suggest an international accord or agreement with mutually agreed upon targets. Finally, they suggest specific measures, such as taxes or levies on meat consumption, which would impact consumption patterns, and reduce the globalized agricultural expansion and trade that have led to pandemics.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was established in 2012, with 137 member states as of 2020 (including Canada and the U.S.) . In 2019, the IPBES published a landmark report,  Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services .  A  key IPBES scientist, Cambridge Professor Partha Dasgupta,  was named by the government of the United Kingdom to lead an Independent Review on the Economics of Biodiversity, in preparation for the 15th UN Biodiversity Conference , now postponed till May 2021.  The Dasgupta Review Interim Report was published in April 2020.  (discussed in  “Halt destruction of nature or suffer even worse pandemics, say world’s top scientists”   in The Guardian (April 2020) .  

Also in 2020, the 13th annual edition of the Living Planet Report  was published by the WWF, linking pandemics to ecosystems, and reiterating the message that “unsustainable human activity is pushing the planet’s natural systems that support life on Earth to the edge.” In addition to compiling data about the loss of natural species, the report offers nature-based solutions to prevent ecological collapse and to mitigate climate change – especially in the companion report, Too Hot To Handle: A Deep Dive into Biodiversity in a Warming World .  

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