WHO’s and UNEP’s Plans for Returning to a Greener 'Normal' Post COVID-19
As the world begins to open back up with social distancing regulations still in place, one major question remaining is “how do we go back to normal?”. Across the minds of many others is the question “should we go back to normal?”. A near global shut down has provided a unique opportunity for the potential implementation of major societal changes as economies and countries start opening back up and transitioning to a post-COVID world. The World Health Organization (WHO), has developed a list of key changes to preserve human health as well as the wellbeing of the Earth. Some of the key values recommended by WHO to be prioritized include investments in clean water systems, cleaner energy sources, the sustainable growth of food, and clean infrastructure (1).
With over 60% of infectious diseases originating from animals, WHO has pushed the importance of minimizing the human impact on wildlife to prevent the emergence of diseases directly at the source (1). The Convention on Biological Diversity reported the necessity of biodiversity, vaccine development, and disease regulation, with emphasis on how changes to species distribution and abundance via habitat changes caused by human activity and how these changes increase the occurrence of infectious diseases (2).Human activities, such as agriculture, utilize natural habitats resulting in mass biodiversity loss, with “over a third of the world’s land surface and nearly 75% of freshwater resources” taken over for agriculture purposes (2). Increased agricultural takeover of natural habitats can lead to increases in diseases like malaria, as the mosquitoes that carry the disease have increased exposure to insecticides used by the farmer thus increasing the mosquito’s resistance (2). Levels of coronavirus diseases, such as COVID-19, have been found to change with levels of wildlife breeding and trading, as the increased shared contact between the animals and humans may lead to increased transmission of infectious diseases (2).
Clean water and clean energy are also important necessities to ensure healthier populations. WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a report focused on drinking water inequalities between 2000-2017, reporting that 18% of the 2017 global population (1.4 billion people) were found to have limited access to a hand washing facility (3). The importance of washing one’s hands has been reasserted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, yet so many are lacking the proper facilities to access clean water. WHO has re-emphasized the importance of providing access to clean water for those who currently do not have it as a priority change that is needed in the midst of COVID-19 (1).
Another recommendation by WHO is the transition to greener, and ultimately healthier, cities. A report by UN Habitat reported that 78% of the world’s energy is consumed by cities, while cities simultaneously account for over 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (4). WHO recommends building on protocols that have already been utilized for social distancing purposes, including the pedestrianizing of streets, like in Guelph, Ontario, where a motion has been passed allowing for streets in downtown Guelph to be closed to cars, which allows for pedestrians to walk on the roads while patios can expand onto sidewalks (1,5).
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has also released a set of key development goals to work towards a more sustainable future post COVID-19. Like WHO, the UNEP plan also looks at the connection between human takeover of natural habitats and zoonotic infectious disease outbreaks (5). While WHO is focusing on getting communities access to clean water, the UNEP plan focuses on protecting the ocean (5). The single-use plastic waste, such as masks and gloves, have found their way into ocean and other marine ecosystems, thus causing the UNEP to focus on the reduction of pollution as well as supporting efforts to reduce ocean acidification. These issues were originally supposed to be discussed at the UN Oceans Conference, which has been postponed due to COVID-19 (5). Another main area of focus for the UNEP’s approach to a greener future post-pandemic includes implementation of greener policies, creation of greener jobs, more sustainable production, and increased consumption of greener products (5). Some of the aspects of this goal include working with public and private sectors to shift the economy to support the transition to more sustainable jobs and products through transitioning industries, such as green public transport and sustainable agriculture practices (5).
Whether these suggestions will be implemented and carried through into the future is still unknown, but we can start working towards these changes now to ensure a greener ‘normal’ post COVID-19.