Coronavirus: can the health crisis cause an ecological awakening?

Deforestation area in the Amazon (illustration image). RAPHAEL ALVES / AFP

Text by: Marine Jeannin Follow

The Covid-19 pandemic, which has spread to 187 countries, has represented a global health crisis since March 16. But it is also an opportunity to initiate a global structural reflection on another common enemy: the ecological crisis.


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While the Covid-19 pandemic has already caused 46,000 deaths worldwide, Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN, estimated on Wednesday April 1 that Earth was experiencing its " worst global crisis since the UN was founded 75 years ago. But if humanity is going through difficult times, the planet can breathe. Planes nailed to the ground, canceled events, banned trips, factories shut down: if the coronavirus drives the world economy into recession , its corollary is a fall in greenhouse gas emissions.

Health disaster, environmental blessing

In February, China's only CO2 emissions dropped 25%, or 200 million tonnes, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the Energy and Clean Air Research Center. This decrease is equivalent to the annual CO2 emissions of Argentina, Egypt or Vietnam. People around the world are already breathing better thanks to reduced air pollution. In February, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide, produced mainly by vehicles and thermal power plants, dropped drastically in Wuhan: from red / orange, the emissions map turned blue. The same phenomenon was observed in early March by the European Space Agency in northern Italy, an area confined for several weeks to combat the spread of the disease . It would also occur in Madrid and Barcelona, ​​according to the European Environment Agency. And other positive effects are visible: in Venice, the water became clear with the end of the incessant ballet of boats crowded with tourists.

But for researcher Joeri Rogelj, who contributes to the work of the IPCC, we should not cry victory too quickly: the ecological upturn will be short-lived. The emission reductions linked to the coronavirus are not structural. They will disappear as soon as the transport of goods and people is re-established after the epidemic, ”he predicts. Countries are already doing their best to restart production and revive trade. The US Central Bank has already cut rates urgently to stimulate the economy , a first since the 2008 crisis. The G7 countries, the richest economies in the world, are ready to take budgetary measures. Beijing has planned a large support plan for small and medium-sized businesses , with credit facilities. In 2008 and 2009, the financial crisis was followed by " a strong rebound [in CO2 emissions] because of government stimulus measures ," recalls Glen Peters, climatologist at the Cicero research center.

If the coronavirus leads to lower CO₂ emissions, will we get the emissions back a year later?

The 2008/9 financial crisis had a big rebound due to government stimulus, other crises in history were "lost years".

(paper from 2012, figure updated)

Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) March 6, 2020

The coronavirus crisis, "a typical example of an ecological crisis "

The causality between ecological crisis and coronavirus is now proven. " It is 98% certain that Covid-19 has its origin in a bat virus ," explained health ecologist Serge Morand, research director at CNRS, in the columns of Liberation on March 26, 2020 . However, the bat coronavirus is not transmissible to humans: the structure of its genome must evolve so that it can enter human cells. The mutation is therefore most often passed through other animal species, "gateways" making the virus compatible with humans. In the case of the new Sars-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, it seems that it was the pangolin that allowed this humanization .

Where human responsibility is engaged, it is in that the destruction of biodiversity increases the risk of an epidemic. " If we deforest, we urbanize, wild animals lose their habitat and this promotes their contact with domestic animals and humans," summarizes Serge Morand. The fact that viruses that have so far remained in bats in Asia reach humans is new and directly linked to their loss of habitat, which brings them closer to domestic animals. Since the 1960s, more and more epidemics have struck humans, animals and plants - and the interconnection between countries only growing, these epidemics quickly become pandemics. With globalization, all the conditions favorable to the explosion of epidemics are met: loss of biodiversity, industrialization of agriculture and soaring transport of goods and people.

To avoid new crises such as that of the coronavirus, which is according to Serge Morand " the typical example of an ecological crisis ", humanity must therefore admit that health and even human civilization can only be maintained with functional ecosystems. " For that, we have to demondialize, and quickly!" recommends the ecologist. Preserve biodiversity by rethinking agriculture. "

►Read also: Coronavirus: the fall in biodiversity increases human health risks

A necessary awareness

For the environmental sociologist Séverine Durand, who works on the relationships between societies and environmental changes, the conditions are now met for awareness. " Even if for the moment, we do not know the extent of the disaster, we already know that we are going towards a recession equivalent to that of 2008, or even worse, " she explains to RFI. Globalization as we know it is no longer economically viable. In France, we have already started to realize the flaws of our system: hypermobility, globalized economy, interdependence… We saw it with, for example, the shortage of certain drugs which were manufactured in China . "

But globally, she admits, environmental awareness collides with heavyweights like Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. " For there to be a global structural change, it would be necessary that all these climatosceptic leaders, from Trump to Putin, sit together around the table and agree to fight against the ecological crisis ... is not there. For the time being, two scenarios are possible, according to the sociologist. An optimistic scenario, with the end of productivist agriculture, the return to the local and the beginning of a real energy transition, that is to say a "green" recovery after the economic recession which begins; and a pessimistic scenario, that is to say to continue on the path of " unrestrained capitalism " and the destruction of biodiversity.

It is this second scenario that was chosen after each epidemic. In Thailand, for example, to respond to the H5N1 avian influenza virus , local breeds of backyard chickens have been mass slaughtered and replaced by genetically homogeneous breeds from agro-industrial research, intended for large farms confined. A policy promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which nevertheless deplores the disappearance of 30% of chicken breeds since the beginning of the 20th century.

But Séverine Durand still wants to believe in the optimistic scenario. We are like a toad in a pot, which cooks slowly : the temperature has risen gradually for years, but we get used to the heat, we end up forgetting it. But this coronavirus crisis is as if the temperature has suddenly increased. For us, it can be the opportunity to break this sleep, and find the energy to jump out of the pot and change paradigm. The fight against the ecological crisis, reminds the sociologist, is not a moral or ideological question: it should only be the expression of our survival instinct.

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