Plea to G7 as climate summit begins: protect wildlife to avert another pandemic

G7 environment ministers hold two days of talks as Cop26 nears

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 29, 2020 file photo, elephants cross the road in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. Animals have had the country's world-famous wildlife parks to themselves because of lockdown rules that barred international tourists and made it illegal for South Africans to travel between provinces for vacations. (AP Photo/Shiraaz Mohamed, File)
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G7 environment ministers could reduce the risk of a future pandemic by acting to protect wildlife, a leading scientist said.

Britain is hosting two days of online talks at a summit that starts on Thursday as preparations continue for November's Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow.

The UK wants to use its presidency of Cop26 and the G7 to drive action to protect wildlife, which experts say is needed to reduce the risk of diseases like Covid-19 emerging from the animal world.

Andrew Cunningham, a professor of wildlife epidemiology at London's Institute of Zoology, told The National that fostering biodiversity and giving more space to animals would reduce the risk to humans.

“Biodiversity acts in a protective way,” Prof Cunningham said.

“When you have similar numbers of lots of species together, then you can’t get a pathogen taking over because it can’t influence most of those species.

“If we degrade wild habitats and degrade biodiversity, the types of animals that can adapt are the types of animals that tend to have a higher proportion of zoonotic pathogens. We’re talking about rats, bats and species like that.”

Bats are regarded as a likely source of the Covid-19 virus, whose emergence in China in late 2019 put the spotlight on the illegal wildlife trade.

How the coronavirus made the jump to human beings is not yet clear, although scientists suspect that it passed through another animal first.

A report by the World Wildlife Fund last year said that keeping animals in cramped conditions increased the risk of viruses spreading to humans.

Prof Cunningham said intensive animal production was a source of other human pathogens such as swine flu and avian flu.

He said G7 leaders could foster rewilding efforts to promote biodiversity and free up more land for wildlife.

“I think the Covid-19 pandemic has really made policymakers and politicians realise that a continue-as-we-are approach is just not sustainable,” he said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that the politicians now get it.”

Climate diplomacy ramps up ahead of Cop26 

Germany says measures to protect nature and biodiversity will be among the central themes of the G7 talks.

One of the delegates is US climate envoy John Kerry, who spent the past week in Europe on a trip to strengthen co-operation ahead of Cop26.

While in Britain he sought to play down fears that the US government would have to tell people to eat less meat to meet climate targets.

"There's a lot of research being done now that will change the way meat is produced, cattle are herded and fed," he said.

It's human behaviour which is the problem

But Prof Cunningham said that reducing meat consumption could help by cutting the amount of land that needs to be farmed to feed animals.

This would not require everyone to adopt a vegan diet, but perhaps reducing meat consumption to once or twice a week, he said.

“It’s human behaviour that is the problem,” he said.

Reducing animal production would also have the advantage of cutting methane emissions.

Britain, the EU and the US all have ambitious targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

US President Joe Biden’s climate goals envisage a 50 per cent to 52 per cent reduction from 2005 levels of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030.

The UK’s targets call for a 68 per cent cut by 2030 compared with 1990 levels.

Diplomats in the US and Europe are seeking to extract similar pledges from other countries before Cop26.

Mr Kerry and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas raised the spectre of security threats caused by climate change during talks in Berlin on Tuesday and a German expert panel said that fighting climate change was essential to preventing refugee crises in Europe.

The panel’s report said Germany should offer “massive support” to developing countries to prevent environmental disaster from causing waves of migration.

Countries should consider offering “climate passports” to allow refugees from high-risk areas to settle elsewhere, it said.