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Jeff McNeely: NATURE AND COVID-19: The Pandemic, the Environment, and the Way Ahead



This article deserves to be widely circulated and read. It appeared earlier this year in Ambio (2021, 50:767-781), a journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Copyright RSAS/KVA 2021.

In 15 pages, with numerous links to sources of detailed information, Jeff McNeely describes the environmental conditions that prevailed when the new coronavirus arrived, explains how COVID-19 has affected the environment, looks at some of the links between emerging infectious diseases and the environment, and concludes by suggesting policies to bring nature back into the mainstream of helping human societies adapt to emerging challenges.

Jeff McNeely has been a conservationist for over 50 years, with fieldwork in Asia followed by 30 years at IUCN before retiring as Chief Scientist in 2009. He is author or editor of over 50 books and hundreds of scientific articles covering biodiversity, protected areas, and related topics. He is a co-founder and Senior Advisor of the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group, and a Senior Fellow of InterEnvironment Institute. Originally from California, he lives in Hua Hin, Thailand. e-mail:

Abstract "The COVID-19 pandemic has brought profound social, political, economic, and environmental challenges to the world. The virus may have emerged from wildlife reservoirs linked to environmental disruption, was transmitted to humans via the wildlife trade, and its spread was facilitated by economic globalization. The pandemic arrived at a time when wildfires, high temperatures, floods, and storms amplified human suffering. These challenges call for a powerful response to COVID-19 that addresses social and economic development, climate change, and biodiversity together, offering an opportunity to bring transformational change to the structure and functioning of the global economy.

"This biodefense can include a 'One Health' approach in all relevant sectors; a greener approach to agriculture that minimizes greenhouse gas emissions and leads to healthier diets; sustainable forms of energy; more effective international environmental agreements; post-COVID development that is equitable and sustainable; and nature-compatible international trade.

"Restoring and enhancing protected areas as part of devoting 50% of the planet’s land to environmentally sound management that conserves biodiversity would also support adaptation to climate change and limit human contact with zoonotic pathogens.The essential links between human health and well-being, biodiversity, and climate change could inspire a new generation of innovators to provide green solutions to enable humans to live in a healthy balance with nature leading to a long-term resilient future."


From COVID-19 to a new flowering of human society

Henri Matisse, Landscape at Collioure, 1905. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. PD-US only.

"The social energy generated by the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to design and implement a wide diversity of new ways to build a sustainable and adaptable relationship between people and the rest of nature. The public may well be ready for a recovery that will include an effective and sustainable biodefense with elements that address human health, biodiversity conservation, and adaptation to climate change as a package based on principles of sustainable development."

The author then lists 10 linked policy directions to consider as part of biodefense and human well-being. Here is the final one, Number 10:

Build cooperation to address climate, biodiversity, and emerging infectious diseases together

Henri Matisse, Countryside at Coullioure, 1905. PD US-only.

"A biodefense approach addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, biodiversity loss, and climate change crises together could use economic incentives for greening national economies. Investments to support their recovery could include effective responses to climate change rather than supporting fossil fuels (especially coal); such green investments yield more jobs per dollar invested than do fossil fuel investments and are being embraced by the mayors of large cities in many parts of the world (McCormick 2020). The co-benefits for health could provide stronger support for strong climate change mitigation measures (Haines 2017) that also benefit wild species and ecosystems.

Other useful steps include providing tax incentives for reforestation on private lands; removing subsidies from construction in areas vulnerable to climate change; ensur- ing that all new infrastructure is designed and built to address the climate changes that are coming (Aizawa 2019); locating solar and wind installations away from important wildlife habitats and migration corridors; remediating degraded natural habitats and supporting the outdoor economy; and supporting research on long-term carbon sequestration and adaptation to climate change."


"COVID-19 has focused the world’s attention on a global threat, and globalization has enabled the spread of the pandemic. So can today’s world respond by generating a new approach that will set Planet Earth on a new path to sustainable development? As a start, the global crisis of COVID-19 calls on governments, the private sector, international organizations, and public interest groups to address the major global environmental problems together, as a package of traditional knowledge and science-based responses that can earn the confidence of all sectors of society and to which all can contribute to the extent of their capacity.

COVID-19 provides a powerful incentive and opportunity to address the interconnected issues of human health, climate change, and biodiversity loss in a coordinated and effective manner: to develop a biodefense system for Planet Earth. The biodefense can start by ensuring that substantial post-COVID-19 stimulus funding is provided to environmental issues that could include: investments to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services that serve significant public needs both immediately and in the long term; support rural livelihoods that encourage sustainable production and consumption that includes agriculture and forest conservation; provide means to enable urban people to become reintroduced to nature; address national climate change objectives, especially using distributed and low-carbon options such as solar power; and support cultural diversity that can apply traditional knowledge to modern sustainable development activities.

The Convention on Biological Diversity is in the midst of preparing a new 10-year Global Biodiversity Frame- work, and this provides an opportunity to discuss innovative ideas, such as Half Earth, and seek broader support for global cooperation to support a more equitable and environmentally sound form of sustainable development. The many other such initiatives that will be helping the world recover from COVID-19 should learn from its lessons: sound preparation, sound science, public participation, and early response are keys to successful responses to the global crises that are arriving at an accelerating pace. COVID-19 can be a catalyst to set the global society on a new path to a sustainable relationship between people and the rest of nature: a greening of human society."*


Aizawa, M. 2019. Sustainable development through quality infrastructure: Emerging focus on quality over quantity. Journal of Mega Infrastructure and Sustainable Development 1: 171–187.

Haines, A. 2017. Health co-benefits of climate action. The Lancet Planetary Health 1: E4–E5.

McCormick, A. 2020. Big city mayors around the world want green stimulus spending in the aftermath of COVID-19. The Nation September 9.


About the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group

The IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group is part of the World Commission on Protected Areas of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Specialist Group works to strengthen the ability of conservationists to serve urban people, urban places, and urban institutions. Protected and conserved areas are a central theme. We focus on problems and opportunities that have been overlooked or neglected by others.

OUR WEBSITE: HTTPS://THEURBANIMPERATIVE.ORG CONTACT: Secretariat P.O. Box 99, Claremont, California 91711 US Please use email Ted Trzyna, Chair David Goldstein, Co-Chair Steering Committee ABOUT THE SPECIALIST GROUP: History / Our own strategy / Urban people and wild nature depend on each other / Timeline FLAGSHIP PUBLICATIONS: * Urban Protected Areas (in English, French, Portuguese, Chinese) * The Urban Imperative OUR PEOPLE: Photo gallery / Membership / Leadership FOCAL CITIES List / Spirit of place as a practical conservation tool SPECIALIST GROUP THEMES URBAN PROTECTED AND CONSERVED AREAS Online resources / Urban protected areas: A matter of critical concern DARK SKIES Managing artificial light to protect natural systems and for appreciation of the night sky LONG-DISTANCE TRAILS Long-distance trails as conservation tools RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC IUCN & URBAN DIMENSIONS OF CONSERVATION Defining an urban role for IUCN / IUCN Resolution NATURAL NEIGHBORS GLOBAL BEACONS OF HOPE See below

NATURAL NEIGHBORS This project aims to connect people to natural areas and historic sites where they live. It does so by promoting metropolitan and regional alliances of conservation and historic preservation agencies, museums, zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, and their allies.

When people understand the place where they live, they are more likely to want to protect its identity, heritage, and quality of life -- and they are more likely to support conservation of biodiversity globally.

A priority is relating local trends to global climate change and loss of biodiversity.

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GLOBAL BEACONS OF HOPE This initiative originated in the Natural Neighbors project, which made us realize that places associated with extraordinary people, events, and ideas can serve as tangible symbols of the kind of imagination, exploration, and moral behavior that is needed to move the world toward greater justice and sustainability. We believe putting a spotlight on them will help change minds and inspire action. Global Beacons of Hope is an independent project still in early stages.

MORE . . .

Natural Neighbors and Global Beacons of Hope are registered service marks.

The secretariat of the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group is provided by InterEnvironment Institute, an IUCN Member since 1980.

OUR URBAN MANTRA - To copy this image from a web page, go to

NEWS | IDEAS | CONNECTIONS Newsletter of the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group Published in cooperation with InterEnvironment Institute Editor This is not an official IUCN newsletter. Views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of IUCN or the persons or other organizations mentioned. Designation of geographical entities does not imply any opinion concerning the legal status of any country, territory, or area, or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of frontiers or boundaries. IUCN privacy policy By unsubscribing to this newsletter, you are unsubscribing from all future announcements from the IUCN WCPA Urban Conservation Strategies Specialist Group and InterEnvironment Institute.

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