During the pandemic, most people stopped meeting up, some started exercising more, and everyone put a hold on their travel plans. Although many of us view the pandemic in a negative light, numerous climate activists agree that the safety restrictions imposed upon us helped reduce pollution. But what if the pandemic never happened? While many people believe that the only way we can clean Earth is to have more pandemic-like lockdowns, scientists argue that there is another green (and less troublesome) way to help stop global warming: planting trees.
Every year, we cut down 15 billion trees and replant 2 to 5 billion. With only 3.04 trillion trees left (54% of Earth’s original trees), if this trend continues, all trees on earth will be destroyed in the next 300 years. Planting 1 trillion trees, however, would not only get rid of around a quarter of Earth’s greenhouse gases, but would also delay future pandemics.
Epidemiologists estimate that three quarters of human infecting pathogens come from animals that live in forest habitats. By destroying their homes (cutting down trees), we release more air pollution (which raises our chances of dying from COVID-19) and allow these virus-carrying animals to make contact with more humans, thereby infecting us and potentially beginning another pandemic. A study in April 2020 led by Stanford researchers found that habitat fragmentation in Uganda increased encounters between people and primates. As Ugandans venture into the forest for wood, animals leave their habitat to steal crops. Additionally, deforestation decimates biodiversity. Species that survive this destruction are more likely to host contagious illnesses. Disease outbreaks have increased in the past few decades due to rising deforestation and more contact with foreign animals. Ecological analyst Kate Jones from the University College London studied 3.2 million records of ecological studies around the world and found that populations of species known to host human infecting diseases grew as landscapes became more urban. These species used to be exotic and difficult to find, but with the changing environment, we see more of these animals such as rodents, bats, and primates.
By stopping deforestation, we can reduce exposure to new pathogens as well as the spread of current viruses such as Zika, malaria, cholera, or HIV. Most of these diseases advance from rainforest habitats. Over the course of 50 years, around 17% of the Amazon has been decimated, raising the chances for nearby people to catch these diseases. Studies have found that a 10% increase in deforestation would result in a 3.3% increase in malaria cases (or 7.4 million people). Epidemiologists are exploring wild habitats and testing animals and nearby humans for possibly contagious viruses. Currently, scientists are focusing their efforts on developing vaccines, diagnosing patients early, and containing the spread of these diseases. In short, they are treating the symptoms and ignoring the underlying cause.
However, an end to cutting down trees would not solve all our problems. Almost 20% of the global population rely on deforestation. Rural communities, particularly indigenous people and small farm holders, need wood for income. Additionally, a third of the world uses wood as their primary energy source. Essential items such as toilet paper, infrastructure, and PPE also use wood components. Reliance on these forest goods is likely to see a sharp increase if the pandemic continues.
Climate experts speculate that with sustainable forest management and resilient economies, we can slowly but surely replant trees without severely damaging people’s livelihoods. Restoring forests can open up more job opportunities such as reforestation, afforestation, forest management, and more. These careers are labor intensive and have a low capital investment. Countries such as India, Iceland, and Pakistan are already addressing deforestation issues through employment around forest restoration and other projects. For example, Jharkhand (“Land of Forests”), a state in eastern India, has implemented an afforestation based income generating program. Around 500,000 families and migrant workers will receive 100 fruit-bearing trees, saplings, and plants over the next 5 years to cultivate. This program introduces more nature to the planet and these families are able to survive off the resources produced by these trees.
Additionally, governments do not need to focus solely on tree-related issues. Currently, 30% of the world (or 2.2 billion people) do not have access to clean water, meaning that 30% of the world lives in dirty environments where the spread of diseases is almost imminent. Ensuring clean water to these communities would not only decrease the amount of illnesses throughout the world, but also provide them with a basic necessity. The spread of diseases is also bolstered by unsanitary working conditions. Governments should aim to put an end to all wet markets and stop illegal wildlife trade. H7N9, an extremely deadly virus with a 30% mortality rate, emerged from these markets. A worldwide pandemic of this disease would be catastrophic. Furthermore, legislators must regulate the care of animal factories. There are no laws that set humane care standards for these factories and many of these places are abusive to animals and extremely unsanitary. In fact, the 2009 swine flu pandemic emerged from a pig farming factory, killing over 10,000 people in America. The estimated annual cost of these actions range from 22 to 33 billion USD, which is much less than the 5.6 trillion price tag on the COVID-19 pandemic. This budget includes 19.4 billion for ending wild meat trade in China and 9.6 billion to restrict tropical deforestation. These implementations will address 6 of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals: guarantee of healthy lives, clean water, zero hunger, responsible consumption and production, sustainably managed land, and climate action.
Although we may not be able to introduce massive bills to our government, we can combat this crisis by maintaining an environmentally friendly lifestyle. Eating less meat not only lessens the demand for crops and pastures, but also improves our overall health. Similarly, consuming less processed food reduces the demand for palm oil, an industry that contributes a lot to environmental degradation. Population growth also increases the demand for forest goods. We can mitigate the exponentially growing population through education and easy access to contraceptives (which actually addresses another one of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals: quality education). Finally, we should support projects and organizations that focus on environmental activism. For example, The Canopy Project plants one tree for every dollar donated. They aim to plant billions of trees to help assuage the tonnes of pollution in our atmosphere.
Scientists speculate that in the next few decades, we will see more and more pandemics as a result of the billions of trees cut down every year. Trees are an essential resource to human survival, but with sustainable forest management, not only can communities continue relying on trees, but we can also eliminate a lot of pollution as well as the looming threat of pandemics. Although we failed to stop the spread of COVID-19, we can still prevent the next pandemic.
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Tollefson, Jeff. "Why Deforestation and Extinctions Make Pandemics More Likely." Nature, 7 Aug. 2020, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02341-1.
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