COP26, Planetary Health and Natural Ecosystem in a Post-Pandemic World

05.11.2021 6 min read

Following Day 2 of COP26, we see more than 100 world leaders have promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, in the COP26 climate summit’s first major deal. Dr Xiangyu Sheng, Director at Temple, explores the need to plan now and focus on planetary health and natural ecosystem as fundamental components for success in a post-pandemic world while the COVID-19 pandemic is not over.

Building the necessary momentum to fight the climate emergency battle is high on our agenda, especially with COP26 is taking place in Glasgow. Can you imagine a zero-carbon world in 2050? As we know, the UK has legally binding target to reach net-zero by 2050.

What kind of world that would be? Is the air we breathe much cleaner? Do we all drive electric cars then? Where is the electricity coming from? What is the fundamental difference between now and 2050?

In the UK, the lockdown in 2020 has already seen a huge leap in air quality, with
measurements of toxic pollutants down by as much as 60% in some major cities. London’s
Ultra-Low Emission Zone has just expanded since 25th October from central London to cover all areas within the North and South Circular Roads, 18 times larger than the previous ULEZ. However, WHO published new Ambient (outdoor) air pollution guidelines values in September 2021. Fine particulate matter (PM2.5): 5 μg/m3 annual mean; Coarse particulate matter (PM10) :15 μg/m3 annual mean; NO2: 10 μg/m3 annual mean. While UK air quality objectives are: PM2.5: 25 μg/m3 annual mean; PM10: 40 μg/m3 annual mean; NO2: 40 μg/m3 annual
mean. The number speaks for itself. Clearly, to achieve clean air for all, the UK still has a long way to go.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the tension between people and our natural ecosystem. We can think of this pandemic as an emergency health condition, for which all resources must be diverted in order to save lives. On the other hand, the climate crisis can be regarded as a chronic disease. One may be tempted to procrastinate, after all, it is a long-term issue. However, as all health practitioners will tell you, early intervention is key because chronic illness can quickly become acute.

As environmentalists, we continue to place health and wellbeing at the heart of our professional approach for colleagues, clients, and the communities in which we work. We find ourselves thinking about a world beyond the immediate crisis. It is important that we rebuild our society in a way that protects planetary health and creates a resilient, sustainable, and
equitable zero-carbon future.

Planetary health

According to many infectious diseases and environmental health experts, the pandemic is a ‘crisis of our own making and from those in planetary health – an emerging field connecting human health, civilisation, and the natural ecosystems on which we depend. These fields might sound unrelated, but the pandemic and climate and biodiversity are deeply connected. It is a warning siren for us that now, more than ever, we need to be aware of the relationship between ourselves and our planet. In order to understand and effectively respond to COVID19 and other new infectious diseases that humans may encounter in the future, policymakers need to recognise and respond to problems with ‘planet awareness’. This means looking at all health: public health and the health of our natural environment.

Climate change destroys human health on a global scale, as well as making the ecosystem more fragile. It exacerbates existing health conditions in already vulnerable individuals and
negatively affects the health of all who live on this planet. For infectious diseases such as COVID-19, air pollution will increase health risks. Because it is a respiratory disease, like SARS, exposure to air pollution will increase vulnerability and reduce human resistance. At the time of writing, in the UK, the COVID-19 vaccines of 1 dose are being offered to children aged 12 to 15 to give them the best protection, following vaccination program for all adults. Much of the crucial work occurring in hospitals aims to reduce and alleviate symptoms of the virus so that the body can better focus on fighting the virus itself. People in polluted areas who already have compromised respiratory systems naturally struggle more in this fight. Air pollutants such as PM2.5, which are suspended particulates, can also be used as a carrier of pathogens, promoting the spread of viruses and infectious diseases over long distances.

Human health depends on an overall healthy ecosystem. When policies are made during urban development projects, this important factor is rarely considered. Projects include those
in areas such as urban development, energy, or transportation infrastructure. If we want to prevent new infections and the emergence of new pandemics in the future, we must stop
over-exploiting nature and minimise carbon emissions. Therefore, in the long run, we must fundamentally solve the problem by protecting biodiversity and stabilising the climate, thereby minimising the spread of diseases from animals to humans and the impact these diseases have.

Interlinked green and blue spaces

One of the few places where activity has increased through the current lockdown is urban parks and open spaces while people can do daily exercise. A new approach to city planning
should bring open spaces and parks into the heart of cities and a focus on access to core services.

A more holistic approach to planning that combines grey, green and blue infrastructure supports better health, better water management, better accessibility, and climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. Furthermore, larger open spaces within the urban fabric can help cities implement emergency services and evacuation protocols. For example, in population
dense cities such as London, without proper affordable housing provision with adequate public spaces can lead to problems. COVID-19 may prompt changes from temporary measures
which make it more feasible for people to follow social distancing guidelines to more lasting changes.

Future building design

In addition to current WELL Building and BREEAM standards, future building design will need enhanced standards. For example, considering how the internal environmental quality can be more virus-proof using enhanced indoor air quality and ventilation systems, how to select fitout materials that offer maximum virus protection, and how to manage our workspace segregation and rotation of use. As working from home become the new norm, how can we design and build workspaces that can accommodate social distancing requirements for the future?

Green opportunities: early action is essential

One of the main lessons from the current pandemic is that early action is essential. Therefore, we need to maintain ambition in order to mitigate the risks and costs of inaction from climate change and biodiversity losses. The crisis has reminded us that answers need to be found in a concerted manner through a common response. I hope that for our industry there are real lessons that lead to the opportunity to embrace a brave new world post-pandemic.

I hope we see much-needed, and long overdue, upscaled investment in sustainable mobility, renewable energy, building renovations, research and innovation, and the recovery of biodiversity and the circular economy. Urgent action to protect biodiversity must be a part of our response to the global health and environmental crisis. It is the key to ensuring the long-term survival and well-being of our society.

We see resilience is about interdependencies. Working with multidisciplinary teams at the national as well as local levels, in response to this crisis but also other long-term sustainability and zero-carbon challenges – we will empower our clients with more granular, regularly updated data analysis that can provide better evidence for decision-making. Let us ask ourselves the hard question: what is the real alternative to the status quo? Let us seek solutions, not problems.

Key Contacts

Dr Xiangyu Sheng Director - Air Quality, Climate & Carbon