Photo: The Conversation

Halting biodiversity loss will save trillions of dollars, avert millions of deaths in responding to future pandemics: IPBES report on pandemics

A prevention-based model, rather than a reactionary one, will not only reduce pandemic risks but also cost just a fraction of the current response approach

An exhaustive new report on biodiversity has warned that the current COVID-19 pandemic is only a portend into a future where such pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly and cause more fatalities unless there is a fundamental shift in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases. The report, published by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), advocates for shifting from reactionary measures to prevention of infectious diseases as the keystone in mitigating the impending pandemic era.

According to the report, a staggering 1.7 million viruses still lay ‘undiscovered’ in mammals and birds, anywhere between 540,000 and 850,000 of which could jump to humans. The report, co-authored by 22 experts from around the world following a workshop convened by the IPBES in July 2020, states that the current model of dealing with pandemics which are completely reactionary and rely on technological solutions, especially with regards to developing and distributing vaccines, is “slow and uncertain”. The current approach, the report flags, has resulted in widespread human suffering and economic damage– the COVID-19 response is estimated to have burnt a hole to the tune of $8-16 trillion globally until July 2020.

Per the authors, far more effective and economic approach based on prevention of infectious diseases could be achieved at 1/100th the cost of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, a prevention-based approach is also likely to mitigate the risks and frequency of new pandemics emerging.

Among the biggest steps in achieving this is reducing human activity that drive the loss of biodiversity, the report states. The spillover of new diseases from the wild are likely to reduce if the unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions are reduced as this will limit the wildlife-livestock-human contact pipeline that is crucial for the emergence of new infectious diseases, according the report. A report published days ago revealed that 50 of the biggest banks in the world had shelled out upwards of $2.5 trillion towards activities that contributed to biodiversity losses.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop.

The report further recommends the creation of a high-level intergovernmental council to provide the best science behind the emergence of infectious diseases and possibly create a monitoring framework. It also calls for the setting of mutually-agreed goals between countries under the aegis of an international agreement.

According to the report, major development and land-use projects must incorporate pandemic and emerging disease risk health so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognized and explicitly targeted.

The report also explicitly targets global consumption patterns and the need to reduce consumption that has led to unsustainable expansions in agriculture and trade. Instead, the report argues for greater value and inclusion of indigenous voices in designing and planning pandemic prevention programs.

“The report unequivocally establishes the root cause for the COVID-19 pandemic which are the ever-increasing human impacts on the natural environment, driven by our unsustainable global consumption patterns. It is also clear that we are in an era of pandemics and nobody is really safe. The economic costs of the pandemic are far greater than what it would cost to prevent them, primarily by reducing anthropogenic global environmental change,” says Ravi Chellam, CEO, Metastring Foundation & Director of the Preparatory Phase Project of the National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being in India. “Such a change would also result in major gains in human well-being especially for the poorer and weaker sections of our society. It is also evident that business as usual is no longer an option and economic recovery has to be completely re-imagined. A ‘green’ economic recovery which completely avoids further land use change, doesn’t contribute to climate change or pollutes is our only insurance against future disease outbreaks.”

According to Jagdish Krishnaswamy, senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), the report bears special importance for India given recent policy directions in the country. “I think in part it was wishful thinking on the part of some to believe that the current pandemic situation would force governments and civil society to collectively question our development pathways,” says Krishnaswamy. “Instead, The manner in which large dams are being pushed in the Eastern Himalayas which is a global biodiversity hotspot, coal mines pushed in elephant corridors leading to an escalation of human-elephant conflicts, the ripping apart of fragile Himalayan slopes by the Chardham project and loosening of environmental regulations under the new EIA notification are all pointers to a disconnect or a disregard for all lessons from the pandemic and what we thought would lead to sobering introspection of human-nature interactions under current development pathways. The IPBES Report is a valiant attempt to stem the tide. We hope it will persuade some positive policy responses and course correction by both government and civil society.”

About The Author