Researchers advocate green economy to surmount crisis caused by COVID-19
June 24, 2020
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – The construction of new paths for economic development based on the valorization of biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as water supply and climate regulation, will be crucial not only to avoid crises triggered by future pandemics but also to surmount the coronavirus pandemic currently in progress.
This was one of the conclusions reached by the researchers who participated in the online seminar “Biodiversity, climate crisis, economies and pandemics,” an initiative of the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BPBES) and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC).
The webinar was supported by FAPESP via its Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP) and by the Brazilian Academy of Science (ABC).
The event took place on May 22 to coincide with International Biodiversity Day.
“It’s vitally important to understand that biodiversity conservation and economic development are not mutually exclusive but interdependent. Development isn’t viable unless we sustain the natural processes that generate ecosystem services, also known as nature’s contribution to human well-being,” said Cristiana Seixas, a professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and a member of BPBES’s steering committee.
The mass production of food, textile fibers, timber and other goods by current methods has led directly to the expansion of croplands and pasturelands into natural areas in biomes, such as the Amazon. The forests that contain large numbers of different species of animals, plants and fungi, whose interactions are the basis for ecosystem services, also store carbon and are reservoirs of viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms that inhabit wild animals and can jump to humans, as did the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2.
The destruction of natural areas causes a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, exacerbates the climate crisis, and increases the risk of pandemics, Seixas noted. “Current levels of consumption of food, clothing, household utensils and so on clearly have direct implications for the conservation or destruction of natural areas and heighten the risk of pandemics,” she said.
To halt the loss of natural areas, minimize climate change and foster long-term sustainable development, it will be necessary to promote changes in public policies and consumer habits and to invest in new models of agricultural production that conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services.
It will also be necessary to develop industrial production systems that operate according to the logic of a circular economy, avoiding environmental pollution; invest in renewable energy, basic sanitation and effluent treatment to avoid water pollution; and account for biodiversity and ecosystem services in the costing of economic processes.
“Ecosystem services generated by interaction among animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms are not usually included in the calculation of production costs,” Seixas said.
Pollination by bees, other insects and birds is a key ecosystem service, for example. The annual value of the pollination of important crops, such as soybeans (Glycine max) and oranges (Citrus sinensis), was estimated to be BRL 43 billion in 2018 (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/29901).
The total value of the ecosystem services provided by nature in the Americas is equivalent to the region’s aggregate gross domestic product (GDP), which exceeds BRL 24 trillion, Seixas said.
Stimulating the green economy
The economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to a contraction of between 5% and 10% in world GDP, which reached USD 87 trillion in 2019. This contraction is equivalent to between three and five times Brazil’s GDP, which ranks ninth in the world and is estimated at BRL 1.8 trillion, according to Carlos Eduardo Frickmann Young, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and a specialist in environmental economics.
“The level of unemployment due to the crisis will certainly be higher than at any time since World War II,” Young said.
In most countries, the pandemic stopped the economy in its tracks. The plunge in tax revenue has brought a fiscal crisis in its wake. Nevertheless, to revive the economy, governments have to increase public spending very substantially. The criteria used to grant incentives and funding to boost economic recovery should prioritize activities that contribute to a green or low-carbon economy and do not aggravate current socioeconomic problems, according to Young.
“The risk we face now is a return to the economic model in place before the pandemic, which is predatory and creates unemployment. Instead, we should design a set of economic incentives that improve socioeconomic conditions,” he said.
The economic model chosen by Brazil, for example, is based on agriculture and mining and is not at all inclusive. The agricultural sector has shed 3.6 million jobs in the past two decades. “The prevailing economic model in Brazil doesn’t create jobs or the dynamism and economic growth we need. At this time, it’s vitally important to opt for a different way of driving the economic recovery,” he said.
For Eduardo Brondizio, a professor at Indiana University in the United States, the crisis offers a window of opportunity for rethinking the planet’s economic and social development trajectory. “We’re at a turning point. To an unprecedented extent, countries will start investing, subsidizing and helping rebuild various sectors of society. We have the opportunity to choose new ways forward. Otherwise, we’ll reinforce the existing model that only serves the interests of private groups,” he said.
Brondizio is a Brazilian-born researcher who has lived in the US for more than 20 years. He was one of the three cochairs of the first global assessment report published in 2019 by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
The report produced by the UN body, which inspired the creation of the BPBES, warned that global animal and plant species extinction was occurring on an unprecedented scale and that pandemics were likely (read more at: agencia.fapesp.br/30553).
“The report showed that we’re steadily eroding biodiversity, the most basic foundation for our economy and the guarantee of health, food security, available water and well-being,” Brondizio said.
“We must incentivize technological innovations that help to reduce carbon emissions, environmental pollution, and the negative impact of economic activities on ecosystems and human populations.”
Lack of governance
For Bráulio Dias, a professor at the University of Brasília (UnB) and a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), scientific progress in recent decades has permitted the development of solutions to reverse the global loss of biodiversity.
For any solution to work, however, it is essential to have good governance that assures compliance with environmental laws, properly functioning institutions to protect the environment, and decisions based on reason and science, Dias said.
“Unfortunately, in Brazil, for example, we’re seeing efforts to dismantle environmental institutions and policies and to undermine or repeal legislation without listening to the arguments of reason and science. This behavior will obviously result in major collective damage, for Brazilian society and for the world, especially because Brazil has more biodiversity than any other country,” he said.
Brazil was once respected for its environmental policies, considered the most advanced in the world, according to Carlos Joly, a professor at UNICAMP and a member of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee.
“This is a critical point in the destruction of Brazil’s environment legislation, and of all the institutions responsible for managing, policing and monitoring the environment in Brazil,” Joly said.
Congress is currently debating a land tenure regulation bill (PL 2633/20) that would make land grabbing easier in the Amazon and endanger the preservation of biodiversity, according to Ildeu Moreira, President of the SBPC.
“All entities that have anything to do with the environment and are concerned about Brazilian biodiversity are lobbying against this bill,” he said. “Our biodiversity is an immense treasure that belongs to all Brazilians. We must defend it at this critical time for our country, as we face a very intense public health, economic and social crisis.”
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