COVID-19 Symposium: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Limits of International Environmental Law

COVID-19 Symposium: The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Limits of International Environmental Law

[Leslie-Anne Duvic-Paoli is Lecturer in Law and Deputy Director of the Climate Law and Governance Centre at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.]

What can a global health crisis tell us about international environmental law? To answer this question, this short piece maps the interconnections between the COVID-19 pandemic and international environmental law at three stages of the crisis: its origins, policy responses, and consequences. It argues that the pandemic sheds light on the weaknesses of international environmental law.

1. The disconnect between humans and nature at the origins of the new coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic draws attention to the profound disconnect that exists in modern societies between humans and their environment. As a zoonotic disease, COVID-19 is the latest newcomer in a long list of what Jared Diamond calls the ‘deadly gifts from our animal friends’ (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, 1997). It has long been clear that human health is inextricably linked with that of animals and the environment, but this phenomenon has been exacerbated by increased rates of environmental degradation combined with high levels of urbanisation. The COVID-19 pandemic has its origins in the inability of the international community to protect our forests, its wildlife and govern land use, which have led to the disappearance of the traditional buffer zones that used to separate humans from animals and their pathogens (UNEP 2016). Constrained by traditional legal structures, international environmental law has been unable to fully adopt an ecosystemic approach that appreciates the interconnections between the health of our planet, biodiversity, and humans. More specifically, if the hypothesis that the virus originated in a live animal market in Wuhan were confirmed, it would be a painful demonstration of the failure of existing legal regimes to protect the wildlife. The possibility that the pangolin might have been an intermediary host turns the spotlight on the challenges facing the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While the Convention transferred all eight pangolin species to its Appendix I, prohibiting their international commercial trade, in 2016, pangolins remained nevertheless the world’s most trafficked mammal (Wildlife Justice Commission).

2. Analysing responses to the pandemic through a climate lens

Other difficulties faced by international environmental law are highlighted when comparing the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic with those given to the climate crisis. Both global health and climate change are collective action problems, and similarities are plentiful: for instance, both crises rely heavily on scientific knowledge and require individual actions that might not be clearly linked to a collective outcome and can suffer from policy and behavioural lethargy. The warnings of the World Health Organisation about ‘alarming levels of inaction’ from governments will sound oddly familiar to all those involved in the climate fight. However, the unprecedented measures taken by governments to limit the spread of the disease have been exponentially more drastic than those designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A few weeks ago, we thought that changing our ways of life drastically to mitigate climate change would be impossible. We were told that economic growth would always be prioritised over environmental protection. We were told that governments did not have the budget to finance the energy transition in our countries and abroad. And yet, the pandemic has suddenly shown that when the threat becomes evident, all this becomes possible at great speed and scale. The lexicon used to describe both problems may have been the same – ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ – but their implications in the climate context have been much more timid. When compared with responses to the pandemic, the inability of the international community to act decisively to solve the climate crisis becomes even more striking.

3. Impacts of the pandemic for environmental protection

The third and final interconnection between the pandemic and international environmental law is perhaps the most evident one and pertains to the direct consequences of the pandemic for environmental protection. In the short-term, the pandemic appears to be having a positive impact on the environment, with emissions of air pollutants and greenhouse gases decreasing significantly in areas affected by the virus. As a result, existing environmental obligations might be met more easily, in particular quantitative and qualitative targets that are unlikely to be exceeded as a result of the economic slow-down. At the same time, caution needs to be exercised.

Firstly, the response to the pandemic might nevertheless bring unforeseen environmental impacts, linked for instance to last-minute constructions of hospitals without prior environmental impact assessments; large scale, repeated spraying of disinfectants in cities and towns to eradicate the virus; or temporarily scrapping the plastic bag levy to avoid risking spreading the virus through reusable bags. Additionally, the pandemic could hinder the implementation of environmental treaties: for instance, reporting, financial or capacity-building duties might not be met as a result of shifting priorities.

Secondly, the pandemic is likely to delay global efforts for environmental action, as it is certainly distracting the high level policy attention that was needed in 2020. This year was supposed to be a transformational year for international environmental law. The schedule of intergovernmental meetings was packed, including the climate COP 26 in Glasgow expected to raise climate ambition, the biodiversity COP 15 in Kunming (China) to agree a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, as well as talks to adopt a new treaty on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The pandemic has shed significant uncertainties about the holding of these important environmental talks and risks delaying action and losing momentum.

As for the longer-term impacts of the pandemic for environmental protection, they remain to be seen. As prosperity declines, the crisis might drain funding and political will from sustainability traditions (International Energy Agency). Alternatively, the crisis could give us a unique opportunity to completely rethink the existing structures (including legal) that have failed to protect the planet. Two months ago, the changes needed to respond to the environmental crisis were seen to be so drastic that they were considered to be nearly impossible. But the pandemic has un-locked us from path dependent trajectories, giving us the chance to create green jobs, catalyse structural investment, and facilitate behavioural change.

Conclusion and personal reflections

The COVID-19 pandemic is a striking image of the Anthropocene era: human impacts on Earth have been so profound that they have constituted a new geological epoch. We have destabilised the fragile equilibrium of our planet’s ecosystems and are now facing the direct consequences. The pandemic is nevertheless a chance to remedy this and build new foundations.

As I write this post, I am thinking about the future of higher education and how the crisis will impact an already fragile sector, as evidenced by strike action across UK universities just two weeks ago. The chance, however, is that, as we move our teaching and research online, we realise that we can do much more to reduce our emissions. While higher education has made significant contributions to building and disseminating knowledge on climate change, it has however shied away from rethinking its existing structures and modes of operation. As we explore new tools for doing our work online, we can reimagine higher education and lead the way for climate change action.  

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Environmental Law, Featured, General, Symposia, Themes
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