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Lessons for sustainability — European Environment Agency
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Lessons for sustainability — European Environment Agency

lessons for sustainability? — European Environment Agency

COVID-19: A late lesson from an earlier warning

2020 was a year that saw both voluntary and involuntary changes, thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic. Although there is no consensus on the origin of the infectious agent SARS, CoV-2, Cheng et. al. As an example of early warning, Cheng et al. (2007) was cited. They wrote:

Coronaviruses have been known to undergo genetic mutations, which could lead to new strains or outbreaks. SARS-CoV-like viruses are found in large numbers in horseshoe bats. This is combined with the practice of eating exotic mammals in south China a danger sign. SARS and other novel viruses that can be re-emerged from animals or laboratories should not be ignored. Therefore, it is imperative to be prepared (Cheng et. al., 2007, p.683).

Various institutions and governments have raised concerns about the potential for pandemics in the past (EEA, 2010, 2015. Some countries have developed specific plans and strategies to address these concerns. Following the 2009 pandemic of influenza A (H1N1), the World Health Organization warned the world that it was not well-prepared to handle a severe pandemic. (WHO, 2011). It was right.

Human progress is dependent upon our willingness and ability to learn from past mistakes. Many lessons can be learned from the way we respond to environmental and human hazards early on. These lessons can be used to help create more resilient and better-prepared societies. EEA reports have previously described unintended environmental risks caused by chemicals or other activities (EEA EEA 2001, 2013). These lessons are primarily about the importance of precautionary approaches and how you can strike a balance between uncertain environmental harm and desired economic opportunities.

The potential lessons from COVID-19 go much deeper than that. The COVID-19 epidemic is a stark reminder about how our identity is deeply entangled in the ecosystems of Earth. Our sophisticated societies seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are part of nature and not apart from it.

Globalized societies are causing pandemics

Plagues and pandemics have been a part of human history throughout all time (Waltner Toews 2020). The way we interact with nature and our globalized economies can impact the development of pandemics. There is no doubt that new pathogens can be created at the interfaces of wild and domestic animals and humans. These may sometimes manifest themselves as zoonotic illness (Figure 1). According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 2020, 60 percent of all infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic. 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Six new coronaviruses have been identified in the last century.

The emergence of zoonotic illnesses is a result of several factors. These include the creation of new and diverse contacts between wildlife, livestock and humans. These include (1) population growth and rapid, uncontrolled urbanisation; (2) increased demand for animal protein and consequently an increase in agricultural intensification and trade; (3) inadequate husbandry practices; (4) poorly managed informal wildlife markets and fresh produce markets; and (4) industrial meat processing facilities (UNEP, 2020). It is also evident that diseases are more likely to spread due to the high level of international trade and travel today (UNEP, 2020).

Although the source and nature of SARS-CoV-2 remain unknown, pandemics such as COVID-19 are likely the result of the mechanisms described above. This is a stark example showing how human health and the environment interact.

Figure 1 Pathogen flow at interface between humans and livestock

SourceEEA (2020a) adapted from Jones et al. (2013)

These complexities in policy fields other than epidemiology, public health, and health are receiving more attention. Health crises such as COVID-19 can have profound implications for society and people. Recently, the Council of Europe addressed the relationship between pandemics, democracy and freedom of expression and rule of law. It reminds us not to use the COVID-19 crisis as a pretext to limit the public’s ability access information, and that emergency actions taken by Member States shouldn’t undermine EU’s founding values of democracy, human right, and the rule of law (Council of Europe – 2020).

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, (EC 2020a), and the Farm to Fork Strategy, (EC 2020b), explicitly link COVID-19 to current levels biodiversity loss. The urgency that COVID-19 brings seems to open up a window of opportunity for increased awareness. Many commentators, activists, and researchers are pondering how to harness the increased awareness generated by COVID-19 to increase environmental awareness (Beattie et al. 2020; The Economist 2020). This applies to both nation states and supranational organizations such as The Economist. Directorate-General for Research and Innovation(DG Research and Innovation, 2021), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development(OECD 2021) and a few others Major non-governmental organizations(for instance the European Environmental Bureau(EEB, 2021), which are involved with formulating post-COVID Transformation Strategies.

There is a way, where there is a will.

COVID-19 has shown us that modern societies can act with the necessary force when required. This is a positive lesson (Mahmood & Sanchez, 2020). New regulations can be quickly implemented, with some social practices and economic activities even being banned. Airports, schools, restaurants, and sports arenas can be closed overnight if the reason for closure is legitimate (at most, temporary). EU member states have willingly taken measures to counter COVID-19. These actions have had huge economic consequences and created the risk of severe unemployment.

Can a similar degree of responsiveness be mobilised to achieve transitions towards sustainability (Scharmer, 2020) Strenuous measures are also justified by the World Health Organizations estimate that seven million people die annually from air pollution. COVID-19 makes it difficult to see how economic risks or the risk for recession can be used as arguments against environmental action and transformations towards sustainability.

The post-corona earth: Have we changed?

The global community will need to spend years, if certainly decades, assessing the full extent and implications of COVID-19 for our society, including the impacts on inequalities and health, and the well-being and well-being of citizens (EEA 2020b).

Unprecedented national lockdowns, travel restrictions, and the closing of borders in the first half 2020 have resulted in short-term improvements to the environment in Europe. Reduced traffic, shipping, and aviation led to rapid improvements in air quality, noise levels, and the concentration of nitrogen dioxide.2) in some cities declining by up to 60% compared with the same period in 2019 (EEA, 2020c). The pandemic had the immediate effect that it encouraged people to choose more active travel modes. Particularly, cities have been encouraged to make their cities more bike-friendly by creating new infrastructure and introducing new bikes (Kraus und Koch, 2021; Nikitas. et. al.,2021). A decrease in human activity gave habitats the opportunity for recovery and species the chance to occupy new spaces. Preliminary data also show that EU greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) decreased by 10% between 2019 and 2020 (EEA 2021a).

However, the increased demand for disposable protective and other equipment has led to an increase of plastic production and consumption, and therefore plastic waste (Ford 2020; EEA 2021b).

It’s futile to attempt to restore the status quo. (DG Research and Innovation 2021).

It’s not just citizens who have to change their ways. It was also necessary for policymakers to quickly respond to the pandemic’s socio-economic consequences. NextGenerationEU is a recovery plan developed by the European Commission to help build a post COVID-19 EU that is more green, more digital, more resilient, and better able face future challenges (EC 2021). The EU’s long-term budget and the amount of resources mobilized for climate and environment are unprecedented. This provides hope for a different future. One that is free from the old norm of unsustainable development. However, it remains to see if resources are invested effectively.

We can learn from the past as a society. Although the 2008-2009 financial crisis resulted in lower emissions, it was only temporary (Peters and al., 2012). There is no way to ensure that the post-corona planet, despite the need to emerge from economic recession, and the apparent resilience of unsustainable economic and political priorities, will be more sustainable unless there is a conscious, active, and conscious shift in economic and social practices.

Early signs are not encouraging. The concentrations of airborne pollutant are rising with the resumption in economic and social activity. In some cases, they have returned to pre-pandemic levels (EEA 2020d). Already warnings have been issued about a rapid rebound in global energy consumption and GHG emissions after COVID-19 (IEA 2021; Tollefson 2021), while nationally determined contributions on a global scale (Liu 2021; Raftery 2021) lack the ambition to keep global warming below the 2C degree target. Recent projections on the European scale suggest that GHG emissions could rebound to pre-pandemic levels if additional measures are not taken (Figure 2 (EEA 2021a).

Figure 2 Historical trends and projections for greenhouse gas emissions

SourceEEA (2021c).
More information here

We have had to learn how to manage the crisis during the pandemic. For a while, we had to reorient our priorities and change our daily actions. We also valued the natural world differently and tried new things. The question is still whether we have fundamentally changed.

It is time to make changes

The systemic fragility in our global economy and society was exposed by the COVID-19 Pandemic (EEA, 2020e). It is not unreasonable to state that we are currently facing multiple global crises. These include a health crisis as well as an economic and financial crisis. We can learn from the history of pandemics that more pandemics are to be expected (Waltner Toews, 2020). At the very least, we should be prepared.

COVID-19 serves as a wakeup call and a dress rehearsal for the future. []The pandemic taught us that our choices do matter. Let us choose wisely as we look into the future. A. Guterres (2020), Secretary General of the United Nations

Cheng et. al.’s warning was heeded. (2007) seriously would mean considering a range of measures globally, including tackling illegal wildlife trade, closing down illegal food markets, tightening the regulation of industrial meat production, changing social and cultural food practices and, ultimately, changingunsustainable patterns of consumption, urbanisation and natural habitat destruction (IPBES, 2020).

The OECD (2021) highlighted that returning to business as usual would be missing a crucial opportunity to address interconnected economic, social, and relational issues that predate COVID-19. A well-being approach could guide building back better (OECD 2021), especially if it is backed by the realization that environmental and public health are prerequisites.

We don’t lack the ability to learn and have the ideas to act. Agency is the limiting factor, the agency that can address the driving forces behind this and other global crises.

Whatever form the next crisis takes, it will likely reveal itself as the symptom of the same underlying problem, unsustainable human production/consumption (EEA 2020e). This chronic problem continues to manifest itself in challenges that are either framed as issues to be addressed in premeditated policies cycles or as emergencies that require extraordinary and emergency measures (Lakoff 2017, 2017). Our societies governance approach should address not only the root causes of the problems but also the increasing frequency or simultaneous emergence of what we used think of as exceptional crises.

Social and economic practices across all levels and aspects of society must change to address the sustainability crisis. Our lives, and the way that we eat, move, and power our societies, cannot be the same. The COVID-19 lockdowns were a painful experience for French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour. He suggested a reflection exercise (Latour 2020). He suggested that we think about which suspended activities we would be happy to see go for good and which would we like to resume; what brand-new habits or activities we would like develop in the aftermath a pandemic; how workers and entrepreneurs might be helped to transition to other, more sustainable and resilient roles or activities.

This exercise can be done individually or at institutions. This exercise could serve as inspiration for further development and implementations of the European Green Deal.

COVID-19 was the trigger for sudden and forceful actions. Emergencies come with their own risks and dynamics, including those that affect democracy and legality. We have seen that there is always a way. The unprecedented mobilization and impact of COVID-19 responses can inspire new thinking and help humanity seize the moment to make a difference. If we can temporarily close down certain parts of society in order to survive COVID-19, it seems quite reasonable that we can make significant social changes to prevent COVID-22 or -25.



Strand, R., Kovacic Z., Funtowicz S. (European Centre for Governance in Complexity).

Benini, L., Jesus, A. (EEA)

Review, inputs, and feedback:

Anita PircVelkavrh, Jock Martin (EEA), Catherine Ganzleben(EEA), Claire Dupont [EEA Scientific Committee], Tom Oliver (Reading University), Thomas Arnold DG R&I), Nick Meynen EEB), members the Eionet (EU Environmental Knowledge Community)


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Briefing no. 20/2021
Title:COVID-19: Lessons for sustainability
HTML – TH-AM-21-020-EN-QISBN 978-92-9480-423-5ISSN2467-3196 – doi:10.2800/320311
PDF – TH-AM-21-020-EN-NISBN 978-92-9480-422-8ISSN2467-3196 – doi:10.2800/289185

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