How China and Britain can lead the biodiversity and climate debate in the Covid-19 era
#Consumption & Lifestyle, #HKUST-IENV
By Christine Loh, a former Undersecretary for the environment and is an adjunct professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
Two top conventions on biodiversity and climate change have been postponed but for the respective hosts, China and Britain, now is the time to lead the global discussion on conservation, linking up pandemics, public health and the environment
Covid-19 has upended the schedules for major gatherings relating to the environment. Two of the world’s most important meetings have been postponed, with new dates still to be agreed – the 15th session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD15), originally scheduled for October, and the 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) originally scheduled for November.
China was to host for CBD15 in Kunming, Yunnan province, and Britain, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Despite the delay, these gatherings remain important politically to the two countries because they both want to play global leadership roles.
Indeed, these two conferences were important enough for Chinese President Xi Jinping and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to have had two direct conversations in February and March, where they agreed to work closely together. They acknowledged biodiversity and climate change should be addressed in tandem, amid discussions about Covid-19.
China and Britain, as host countries, have a responsibility to ensure the conferences run smoothly and have positive outcomes. They need to work closely with the UN and the governments of other countries that will be hosting several rescheduled pre-conference meetings and negotiations, as the two conventions are complex multilateral treaties.
To truly lead, China and Britain must shepherd global discussion to link up pandemics, public health and the environment. What better time than now to impress upon the world their deep connection with our socio-economic well-being. We can then expect strong global commitments from CBD15 and COP26 when they are held.
Without going into the details of what a comprehensive environmentally sustainable agenda for the post-Covid-19 world would entail, global leaders must prioritise those issues linked to viruses, given the worldwide attention and an expectation they will be addressed.
The most obvious relates to wildlife. Covid-19 is a coronavirus. These viruses can be transmitted between animals and people. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) was a coronavirus that wreaked havoc in 2003. The Middle East respiratory syndrome (Mers), in 2012, was another.
Given the extensiveness of the Covid-19 infections, and that its origin is most probably from wildlife, it is a reminder that humans and other species share the same planet and exchange germs and microbes. Experts say two-thirds of new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.
Much of the trade and consumption of wildlife is already illegal around the world. Usually, wildlife is sold in wet markets where all kinds of other food are sold. These markets are busy places, packed with people and animals both alive and dead, such as chickens, pigs, snakes, dogs, civets, birds and bats, making it easier for animal viruses to jump to humans.
Covid-19 may have started in the seafood-wildlife wet market in Wuhan. The World Health Organisation is clear that governments should rigorously enforce bans on the trade and sale of wildlife for food; and for wet markets in general to conform to stringent food safety and hygiene standards. While the Wuhan market has closed, and China has strengthened its regulation of illegal wildlife trade and consumption, the authorities need to show the world they are determined to stamp out bad practices. They do not appear to be doing a good enough job yet.
And China is not the only transgressor. Similar markets are dotted around Southeast Asia, and the illegal trade is dominated by crime syndicates around the world. What better time than now for global leaders to cooperate via Interpol to root out these crimes, as well as for Asian governments to sustain public education to deter wildlife consumption.
In general, reducing the risk arising from wet markets, even where no wildlife is sold, takes public education and political determination. Just look at the resistance in Hong Kong.
Since the outbreak in 1997 of the H5N1 virus known as “bird flu”, the government has sought to establish a central slaughtering facility to reduce risk but plans were dropped due to objections from poultry traders. Is it time to revive the discussion? The public should throw its weight behind such a facility.
Another problem is deforestation, some of which is illegal. Southeast Asia has vast rainforests that make up 20 per cent of forest cover in the world, with the richest biodiversity.
Yet, the region also has the highest rate of deforestation, followed by South America and Africa. Moreover, the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide is compromised when forests are reduced, which has a negative impact on global warming.
China and Britain can do more to stop illegal logging. China, being the largest importer and consumer of timber in the world, is especially important. It can ensure imports are from legal sources, as well as trace supply chains from forests to final products. With more time to reflect and prepare for CBD15 and COP26, there should be greater clarity and urgency on the need for global cooperation to save lives, restart economies at the appropriate time and avert clear environmental crises.