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Environmental degradation contributed to COVID-19 origins, UNEP India says

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The COVID-19 pandemic’s origins can be traced to degradation of environmental space, species’ loss and exploitation, according to a leading United Nations Environment Programme official for India.

As investigations into the origins of COVID-19 continue, United Nations Environment Programme India Country Office Head, Atul Bagai, highlighted the interconnected balance between environmental degradation and public health, noting the role climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity have on India, and on a global scale. 

This comes following the United Nations declaration that the 2021-30 decade should be known as the decade of ecosystem restoration, one where India’s post-pandemic recovery should be underpinned by efforts to prevent and reverse environmental degradation. “The COVID-19 pandemic is a result of the degradation of natural areas, species’ loss and exploitation. This needs to change. India is already making a concerted effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and be part of the global effort to reach net-zero emissions by 2050,” Bagai said. “India must intensify these efforts to prevent, halt, and reverse the degradation of ecosystems.”

Environmental degradation rates in India 

This problem has been clear for the previous decade and is now arguably more apparent than ever. For example, an examination of 88 industrial clusters in India found that air pollution had worsened in 33 of the clusters between 2009 and 2018; water quality deteriorated in 45 clusters; and 35 of the clusters indicated a rise in environmental degradation. 

Speaking to Down to Earth, Nivit Kumar Yadav, programme director of the Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE’s) industrial pollution unit, said, “it is a telling verdict. The CEPI [Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations] data clearly indicates that there has been no action over the years to control and reduce pollution even in areas which were already identified as ‘critically’ or ‘severely’ polluted.”

Improving awareness of environmental degradation  

For India to intensify efforts to prevent and reverse environmental degradation, the country must overcome challenges in improving awareness of the interconnected role and importance environmental spaces play. “My best advice to young people who are concerned about environmental issues is two-fold — get informed and get involved,” Bagai said.

Limited awareness of society’s fractured relationship with nature is underlined by the fact that it has been identified by the UN Decade as one of six primary barriers to scaling restoration. This is alongside the lack of financing for restoration, shortage of legislation and policies that incentivise environmental restoration, limited technical knowledge and capacity for environmental restoration, and limited investment into long-term research.

Environmental restoration and the post-COVID recovery 

Even if reduction of further public health challenges were not a large enough incentive, environmental restoration is thought to offer a way of scaling the post-pandemic recovery. 

The UN notes that for every dollar that is invested into restoration, at least US$9 of economic benefits can be expected in return, and with the number of individuals with an income of US$2 per day or less in India doubled to 134 million over the last year due to COVID-19. As Health Issues India reported previously, this kind of economic stimuli could prove vital. 

Mongaby comment that “while conventional strategies in crisis-recovery often deprioritise nature conservation, generally looked upon as a complementary goal, nature conservation and restoration are not opposing goals but rather serve as a long-term vision for society and for economies.”

So, now more than ever, the link between environmental degradation and the effects of public health challenges feels closely linked. Action on this over the coming years will shape whether this understanding will have a telling impact on change. 

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