It's fair to say that this World Environment Day 2020 on 5th June there will be some very different talking points than might have been the case just four months ago.
COVID-19 has skewed the conversation around so many topics it's difficult to escape its influence in our everyday life and the environment is no different. In fact, there are many direct and notable links between the global response to the coronavirus and how the environment world-wide has been influenced.
There have been numerous stories regarding the resurgence in habitat and wildlife during the various national lockdown periods as the reduction in human activity has led to an increase in flora and fauna and a decrease in emissions and pollution.
Recently we have seen stories about wildlife venturing into cities and towns across the globe; rivers and canals running clear for the first time in recent memory and skies so perfectly blue and free of smog that landmarks can be seen from miles around. But whilst these events are dramatic and heartening and a great testament to the resilience of nature, it is highly likely that they will prove quite insignificant in comparison to the daily damage caused by the ongoing threat of climate change.
But as economies begin once again to turn, businesses return to full operation, Governments assess policies to move their countries out of the effects of the virus and millions around the world wait to see what a "new normal" may look like, there is an opportunity to reinforce these small improvements and use them as a steppingstone to even bigger accomplishments. It will take huge collaboration across governments, NGOs and business and if serious thought isn't forthcoming and policies put in place to protect and encourage the improvements we have seen in 2020, these small gains could be very quickly wiped out.
Sadly we are not known for acting quickly when it comes to combating climate change. In 2015, during the 21st Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris (also known as COP21 UNFCCC or the UN Climate Change Conference) it was agreed by nations across the planet that a concerted effort should be made to keep global warming below 2c above pre-industrial levels. This was presented as a victory considering the planet was on track for a raise of 3 - 5c. Yet this was still short of the 1.5c generally accepted as been the minimum required to see off the very worst environmental impacts of climate change.
Frustratingly, since COP21 little has changed. Two years after the Paris agreement not one of the major industrialised countries had started to implement the measures they had agreed to put in place in order to meet their own climate targets. A year after that a major study showed that the Earth was still on track for a rise of 4-5c above pre-industrial levels.
At the next four UN Climate Conferences large amounts of time were given to debating how the Paris Agreement could be fairly implemented without much movement and in the meantime the United States, one of the planet's foremost polluters has announced its withdrawal from the agreement in 2020.
That the environment has seen more positive impacts from four months of a global pandemic than the five years following the Paris Agreement, is telling. This despite the headlines generated sometimes giving a misleading impression that all impacts have been positive.
While there have been many amazing outcomes from the absence of human activity, the Coronavirus has not been an entirely benign influence on the environment. In many developing countries where tourism, especially wildlife related, is at the heart of the economy, the lack of travellers has decimated the income of communities leading to an increase in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade for income and food. At the same time charities and NGOs in every sector have seen their funding understandably evaporate, leaving many working to protect the environment struggling to keep programmes afloat.
And even though we have seen a record reduction in harmful emissions during the global lockdown, the largest drop since World War 2 in fact, that reduction is still only 17%, even though it seemed like the huge industries and economies of the world had shut down, roads and skies became empty and everyone stayed indoors.
Yes, more has accidentally been accomplished during the Covid-19 crisis than following five separate conferences of the World's leaders, yet the gain is so small it will not take much to see it disappear. But we must be positive.
The theme of World Environment Day 2020 is Biodiversity, a call to action to combat the massive species and habitat loss that has taken place across the world over the past decades. But in pushing that message it will be difficult to not think about the events of the first half of 2020 itself. From massive wildfires in Australia, to a global pandemic and even political and cultural unrest.
Therefore, this World Environment Day we must appreciate what we have all been through, yet see the glimmer of hope created despite the loss and suffering. And just as the pandemic has proven that we are all in this together, that is also the case when it comes to climate change.
Even though the world's governments are struggling to agree a path through the climate crisis, we must continue to work #ForNature. There may not be time to wait.
Recent events have shown the power of the individual when working as a collective. The results that can happen when the general populace commits to changing their behaviours and working to a greater cause en masse are there to be seen. Extinction Rebellion and the Greta effect may have made the headlines but look what happened to the environment when everyone just stayed in for a few weeks! Change doesn't need to mean actions as drastic as that, but transformative change can happen with commitment to a new direction.
The only way to protect our environment is if businesses work in tandem with NGOs and our elected officials in government, but it is we, the people, that will be key to creating change. We've shown that in the last few months. Let's do it again.