The planet "has a breather", but is far from recovering

The planet

It is exciting to see how the images of wild animals in cities go viral on social networks, but it is naive to believe that nature is better.

We did not know a world like this. We had not woken up without the possibility of leaving the house and seeing a possum that strolls calmly with its young on the platform of a town in Huila.

We were unaware that, in the silence of the night, a melera bear would dare to prowl a renowned restaurant in Valledupar; that Bogotá, the capital of the second most biodiverse country in the world, is also home to the crab foxes. Without knowing such an environment, for most it has been difficult to separate fact, fiction and illusion when we talk about the effects of the pandemic on the environment.

Scientists tell us of a 50 percent reduction in poor air quality in two of India's most polluted cities, Mumbai and Delhi; the same in European countries like Spain, Italy and Germany. They also say that the bays of the most important ports today are crystal clear since there are no ships or cruise ships polluting the ocean. Data and more data fueling our fantasy of a recovering planet. A very romantic idea that can be as inspiring as it is dangerous.

Germán Andrade, a biologist and professor at the Universidad de los Andes, has tried to clarify what is happening through his Twitter account. Faced with each inappropriate tweet, he assures that many of the animals we see near the cities have always been there, while others, due to the silence, have clearly ventured to walk through deserted streets. However, this does not mean that nature is recovering.

There is no science-based sign to claim that a juncture like this produces any recovery of the planet. Social and ecological processes are slow processes”Explains Andrade.

The same happens with the drop in CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, since although it is a reality, it is not enough to say that we have faced the climate crisis and that we will be fine. "First, because it is only a temporary and temporary phenomenon, and second, because as soon as human activity returns to normal, emissions will return.”Adds the professor.

Still, it doesn't mean that some inspiring lessons haven't come from this great event. Scientists are taking advantage of the moment and the enthusiasm of the people to delve into the biodiversity near the cities that we obviously do not know.

This is the case of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, which since the quarantine began in Colombia promoted a citizen science project in which anyone can register the sighting of an animal, while an expert is in charge of classifying it. An invaluable database for future research, such as those already being carried out in other countries on the ecological trap into which certain animals will fall, as they will begin to believe that the city is a habitable place. Sure, it's just a hypothesis.

According to Sindy Martínez, a researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, through the Naturalista page they have registered 7,900 observations; of these, 2,146 species were recorded. "We have had 777 observers and 583 identifiers, something that does not happen frequently." From his observations –adds Martínez– “29 percent are plants, 38 percent are insects; 16 percent, reptiles. In addition, two mammals were observed, an Andean porcupine, near Bogotá, which is under review by academics, and a marmot”.

But, perhaps, the most important thing about this exercise during this quarantine is that many of us are learning that a certain part of these species are in danger of extinction and that they will need more than our isolation to recover.

There are those who believe that nature would be better off without us, and take advantage of the situation to argue in their favor. In reality, these positions denote more a hatred for the human being than love for nature. The reality is that nature today needs us as much as we need her. Without our climate action, nature, in a very short period, will not be the sameAndrade repeats.

Environmental policies at risk

Indeed, in our absence there have been several setbacks in environmental matters, so to say that the planet is recovering is totally naive and hides more worrying realities.

For example, while some view endemic species on Twitter, others continue to traffic them. In Colombia, since the quarantine began - on March 19 - until Easter, environmental authorities seized more than 2,000 wild animals, according to the Association of Regional Autonomous Corporations and Sustainable Development. Regardless of the fact that this illegal traffic and consumption of wildlife was the trigger for the virus that today has half the planet paralyzed.

But it is not all. In early April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a radical stay of enforcement of environmental laws, telling companies that they would not need to comply with environmental standards during the coronavirus outbreak.

A situation that some businessmen in Colombia are also looking forward to. Through a letter, around 25 leaders of some of the most important unions in the country, such as mining and palm, asked President Iván Duque to simplify some environmental procedures. Specifically, the environmental license and prior consultations, to alleviate the negative economic effects that the pandemic will cause.

For now, only the voices against the petition have been heard, such as that of Manuel Pulgar, leader of the Global Climate and Energy Practice of WWF International, former Minister of the Environment of Peru 2011-2016 and president of the COP20 Climate Conference in 2014. "We cannot accept what some businessmen in Colombia have raised, where due to the crisis they ask for environmental obligations to be postponed or requirements derived from environmental impact studies to be relaxed. This would be highly irresponsible.”.

Meanwhile, since April 24, the state of California lifted the ban on plastic bags amid concerns about the spread of the virus through reusable bags. Stores have now been allowed to provide customers with disposable plastic bags.

The problem is that, as is happening in Spain, single-use plastic is increasing during the pandemic. According to the Ecoembes company, “15 percent more single-use plastic has been collected since the start of the state of alarm on March 14, in more than 80 percent of the selection plants distributed throughout Spain”.

A dramatic case of how many are taking advantage of the health crisis to affect the environment is what is happening in Brazil with illegal mining and deforestation. In the first three months of 2020 alone, deforestation in the Amazon region increased 51 percent compared to the same period the previous year, according to the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe).

Regarding illegal mining, the Hutukara association, of the Yanomami ethnic group, reported through a statement that at this time there may be 20,000 clandestine miners on their lands and they fear a possible contagion.

Clearly, Colombia is not alien to these illegal activities, but the information does not flow the same. According to data from the Corporation for Sustainable Development of the La Macarena Special Management Area, this season they have verified the felling and burning of more than three hectares in the department of Meta.

While the Wiwa indigenous community, located in La Guajira, assures that at this moment there are more than 100 illegal miners in their territories extracting gold with explosives.

The change

There is no doubt that we are living in unprecedented times, in which millions of people are under severe mobility restrictions, questioning their relationship with nature. That is why environmentalists are waiting for us to become more aware.If we used to have a leader like Greta Thunberg demanding action, the pandemic will generate thousands of Gretas willing to demand that we recognize the limits of the planet.a ”, says Manuel Pulgar.

And we are not far from achieving it, we have already been training many of these attitudes during isolation: Did you even imagine canceling a business trip and holding a virtual meeting? Did you think you could work without going to the office?

Another of those behaviors that can survive the pandemic, and for which Bogotá is today a global example, is the promotion of the bicycle as a means of safe transport. The World Economic Forum highlighted the capital as one of the five cities in the world to propose an excellent model of temporary bicycle lanes in the midst of the pandemic. And although the bicycle represents only 6.6 percent of trips through the capital, today this figure is clearly not the same.

Without a doubt, we will learn new, more responsible habits with the planet, but if the economic recovery plans after the pandemic are the same as we have promoted, these actions will only be pretty anecdotes.

And it is that according to the latest special reports of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC), if current greenhouse gas emissions (which are largely produced by fossil fuels) do not drop drastically in the next decade, it is It is very likely that between the years 2030 and 2052 the global temperature will increase by 1.5 ° C compared to the pre-industrial temperature. And although it seems like a negligible number, it will be devastating, and it is not theory.

These impacts, increasingly severe and costly in the world, have already been registered: “Two million displaced, 49,000 million dollars in losses, 1,600 deaths in forest fires or the increase in hunger due to droughts are some of the consequences that global warming left us in 2018, ”According to the final report on the state of the world climate in 2018.

That is why drastically changing the economic plans based on oil and coal is the only way that one day we can say: "The planet is recovering."

By Tatiana Rojas Hernandez

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