The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the urgency of these crises and their unequal impacts across regions and communities. The pandemic has also shown us that we can tackle crises when there is political will and social solidarity.
Ottawa (1 June 2020) — Today marks the start of Canadian Environment Week, a time for reflection and action on environmental sustainability.
Canadian Environment Week, established in 1971, encompasses Canada Clean Air Day (June 3) and United Nations World Environment Day (June 5). This year, it comes as a reminder to take urgent necessary action on climate change and safeguarding biodiversity.
Clean air takes on a new importance
Air pollution has serious implications for public health, as well as for the environment. This issue has become more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The BBC reports that preliminary evidence suggests that air pollution has exacerbated COVID-19. People who have been living in high-pollution areas and breathing in that air for years are at greater risk of COVID-19 because air pollution weakens the immune system. Furthermore, new studies in the U.S. suggest that air pollution particles can act as vehicles for spreading the virus. A recent Italian study also identified a correlation between COVID-19 death rates and high levels of pollution.
This evidence brings new urgency to the need to reduce harmful emissions and air pollution.
Biodiversity under threat
This year’s theme for World Environment Day is biodiversity.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) has previously sounded the alarm on species loss and the need to protect biodiversity. Many species are at risk due to habitat loss, pollution, and global warming—all caused by human activity. Declining biodiversity will jeopardize ecosystems, community livelihoods, human health, and food security in Canada and around the world.
Once again, there are important lessons we must learn from this pandemic.
COVID-19 and biodiversity
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Environment Day have highlighted the connection between coronaviruses and biodiversity:
The emergence of COVID-19 has underscored the fact that when we destroy biodiversity, we destroy the system that supports human life. The more biodiverse an ecosystem is, the more difficult it is for one pathogen to spread rapidly or dominate; whereas, biodiversity loss provides opportunity for pathogens to pass between animals and people.
Human actions, including deforestation, encroachment on wildlife habitats, intensified agriculture, and acceleration of climate change, have upset the delicate balance of nature. We have changed the system that would naturally protect us, and have created conditions that allow particular pathogens — including coronaviruses — to spread.
These insights must inform our path forward.
Building back better
As governments shift from immediate pandemic response to long-term recovery, we are presented with a unique opportunity to transition to a healthier, more equitable, and more sustainable economy.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a manifesto for a healthy and green recovery from the pandemic. It specifically identifies clean air and biodiversity as components, along with investment in essential public services like health care and promoting sustainable food systems.
The manifesto points to the need for a global green-energy transition, which would both reduce global warming and “improve air quality to such an extent that the resulting health gains would repay the cost of the investment twice over.” The manifesto also underlines the need to safeguard species and ecosystems.
Let Canadian Environment Week renew our commitments to addressing the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, and their unequal impacts across regions and communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the urgency of addressing these interconnected crises. It has also shown us that we can tackle crises when there is political will and social solidarity.
The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE