As the spring weather becomes rather pleasant in the northern hemisphere and environmentalists across the globe get ready to virtually celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the bulk of our time will continue to be confined inside.
Head of the U.N. Environment Program, Inger Andersen, noted last month that nature is sending us a message amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the U.N. environmental chief, governments should initially focus on tackling the coronavirus, however, the international community must also address habitat and biodiversity loss as key drivers of climate change and the spread of infectious disease.
If there’s anything for Latin America and other developing regions of the world to learn from the onset of the coronavirus, it is that reactive policies are too little, too late. As the pandemic continues to highlight social inequalities within and among countries, it also provides needed context for the growing environmental movement—mainly that the climate crisis could become the greatest threat to human health and prosperity, with outcomes conceivably more dire than the current pandemic we face today.
With the global health crisis still in full-swing, continued debate is ongoing as to when some sense of normalcy may return. Northern European countries, such as Denmark, Norway, and Austria—which were not as hard hit as Italy or Spain and remain attentive to the potential spread of the virus—are slowly edging to a point of reopening their economies. In the United States, the Trump administration has been tirelessly working to paint the economic fallout of the virus as problematic, often criticizing the social distancing measures needed to lessen the loss of human life.
But it is Latin America, with its robust social distancing and persistent, ironclad quarantines, that has the most to lose. With relatively fragile healthcare systems and government institutions already facing weak economic projections, a backlash over social inequality has the region scrambling to surmount the tremendous challenge of responding to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, as countries jockey for much-needed medical supplies and equipment, it appears all too likely that scarcity will prevail as developing nations are crowded out of international purchases and wealthy countries implement export restrictions. As Latin American nations attempt to respond to the rise in the number of cases and deaths from COVID-19, climate change should not take a back seat. Fortunately, there have been some countries that have become effective on both fronts, while others such as Brazil and Nicaragua continue to offer a dismal response.
Most recently, Suriname and Chile have become the only South American nations, among seven worldwide, that have updated their national climate plans (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Earlier in the year, Suriname pledged to increase protected areas for forests and wetlands by up to 17 percent of the country’s territory, among other areas targeting emissions from electricity, agriculture, and the transportation sector.
For Chile, a more ambitious plan means capping annual emissions in five years and reducing deforestation by 25 percent within the coming decade. Given the recent protests, perhaps most important is Chile’s focus on aspects related to climate equity. How countries address unequal social outcomes as climate change becomes a critical part of the equation will increasingly become more important to answer in coming years.
Threats to such progress still weighs heavily however, with the postponement of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change (COP26) effectively highlighting another major blow to environmental multilateralism. Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States made attempts at propping up oil markets through planned cuts to production, only to see prices in the futures market go negative for the first time in history.
The continued assault on multilateralism, highlighted by the inability to properly coordinate an international response to the pandemic, as well as the politicization of medicine and science through ubiquitous misinformation across the Western world, all seem to indicate that the pandemic may not be the needed wake-up call for more aggressive actions in tackling climate change.
However, before giving in to cynicism, much progress has indeed occurred since Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, a symbolic event that sparked an international movement to recognize the importance of vital ecosystems and the general health of our planet. Environmental protection through much needed regulations, have been a bulwark against unfettered development that threatens the health and livelihoods of people, as well as important biodiversity and wildlife.
As countries in Latin America begin to think of ways to recover and grow their economies, important decisions will need to be made to ensure regional development is sustainable, and that preparations for an increase in extreme weather events will be factored in more rigorously than before. Given the current crisis, it would be incredibly misguided to continue business as usual. Instead, on Earth Day, we should take time to reflect on the world we wish to see post-pandemic.
Stephen Hammer and Stéphane Hallegatte at the World Bank, discuss how a sustainability checklist can help “green” certain elements of economic recovery to ensure stimulus investments support both economic and environmental outcomes. Policymakers in the region would be well-advised to consider how stimulus investments can generate more resiliency and sustainable outcomes, as the current crisis calls for creative solutions.
As the pandemic generates much uncertainty, it should hopefully represent a turning point for how governments view social safety nets and the environment. If the international community can heed this massive wake-up call today, perhaps younger generations—those that do not grasp the severity of why they must stay inside—will have less of an uphill battle and a greater appreciation of nature tomorrow.
They will certainly look back on this point in history as a pivotal moment. Will we?
Maximiliano Bello (@max_bello_m) is a global fellow in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, and serves as the COP26 Ocean Champion alongside the International Advisory Panel on Oceans at the University of Edinburgh.
Anders Beal (@AndersBeal) is an associate in the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program.