By Krystyna Springer, Senior Research Analyst, ShareAction
Since the coronavirus crisis began unfolding across the world, the message from leading biodiversity experts about the root cause of the pandemic has been clear.
It isn’t the first time we have been warned that our broken relationship with nature is endangering our health.
Covid-19 is the latest in the tide of animal-borne disease outbreaks that have been occurring over the last few decades with increasing frequency.
From Ebola, MERS and SARS to bird flu and Zika virus, the warning signs were there.
Not just wildlife trafficking
As the novel coronavirus has spread around the globe, the world’s attention was drawn to the wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, believed to be the ground zero of the Covid-19 outbreak. On its premises, both live and dead animals are sold for human consumption.
Poorly regulated wild animal markets provide ideal conditions for pathogen spillover between animal species and from animals to humans.
They increase both the risk of transmission and of genetic recombination of viruses – when viruses of two different strains interact, leading to the emergence of a novel virus. This is especially true where live animals are kept in cramped conditions and experience physiological stress.
The banning of live wild animal markets, common throughout Southeast Asia and Africa, has been the focus of the debate over how to avert the risk of future pandemics.
But such a move could hit the world’s poorest communities, particularly in rural Africa, which depend on wild animals for their subsistence. As the number of people at risk of acute hunger is predicted to almost double in the wake of Covid-19, the dependence on wild animals for nutrition and survival among the world’s most vulnerable is likely to grow.
The wider picture
To ensure that the efforts to minimise the risk of future pandemics are successful, action on wildlife trade is urgently needed. But it must be part of a wider approach that recognises the underlying drivers for the emergence of infectious diseases.
Over the last half century, human activities have transformed many of the Earth’s natural ecosystems to an unprecedented degree.
Large-scale deforestation, agricultural expansion, and mining activities have led to an increased fragmentation and disappearance of wildlife habitats. As a result, we are coming into closer and closer contact with other animal species as we compete for the same spaces and resources.
The opportunities for pathogens to spread between wildlife, livestock and humans are becoming more and more abundant as human encroachment on nature continues to drive the decline of species and ecosystems. A 2015 study found land-use change to be a leading driver of emerging zoonotic diseases since 1940.
Several outbreaks of Ebola in West and Central Africa have been linked to forest fragmentation in these regions, which enabled closer proximity between humans and Ebola host species, such as fruit bats and primates.
The rise of intensive animal farming in many parts of the world further amplifies these risks. Livestock often serves as a bridge for pathogen transmission between wildlife and human populations and the cramped conditions that animals are kept in, as well as the widespread use of antibiotics, make both us and domestic animals more vulnerable to disease.
In Malaysia, the emergence of the Nipah virus has been linked to large-scale deforestation which forced bats out of their natural habitats into orchards neighbouring with intensive pig farms. This allowed for pathogen spillover from bats to pigs, and from pigs to humans.
In addition, the types of human activity that are driving the emergence of zoonotic diseases are the same ones that have been fuelling the climate crisis. This means that by delaying action on the underlying drivers of animal-borne diseases we have a great deal more to lose.
The changing climate will have its own negative impacts on human health and the likelihood of disease transmission. These will include not only the impacts of temperature extremes, but also a greater risk of contracting vector-borne diseases, such as malaria.
Research suggests that climate change is also resulting in a shift in animal ranges, as species seek cooler temperatures. This will influence the location and frequency of our encounters with wildlife in ways that are difficult to predict.
The financial industry cannot shy away from the complexity of the biodiversity crisis
Despite the systemic risks posed by environmental decline, the vast majority of the world’s biggest investors are paying very little attention to the impacts of their investments on biodiversity.
ShareAction’s recent analysis finds that only 11% of 75 of the world’s largest asset managers state in their policies that they expect the companies they invest in to mitigate the negative impacts of their operations on the natural environment. Just 13% have policies for high-impact sectors, such as agriculture or mining.
Less than half of the assessed firms engage with portfolio companies on corporate strategy on biodiversity and even fewer ask for better disclosure of the impacts of company supply chains on natural ecosystems.
This is despite many of these companies engaging in activities that are harming natural habitats through land-use change, overexploitation of resources, and pollution.
While the complexity of the biodiversity crisis requires an unprecedented collaborative effort from multiple stakeholder groups, including governments, policymakers and the civil society, the financial industry has a critical role to play.
Through the ownership and financing of companies worldwide, it has the power to influence corporate behaviour and drive change.
The time is now
The world’s leading biodiversity experts have warned that the current coronavirus pandemic is likely to be followed by even more deadly and destructive disease outbreaks – unless we put a rapid halt on the destruction of the natural world.
As we enter a critical decade for biodiversity, the ongoing Covid-19 crisis must motivate asset managers, pension funds, and insurers, to bring biodiversity into the heart of financial markets.
The transformative change that we need to avoid future pandemics and other catastrophic consequences of environmental decline will not happen without the financial sector stepping up to the challenge.