From plummeting carbon emissions to animals taking over cities, the lockdown has given us a tantalising glimpse of a more environmentally harmonious world. As scientists relish the opportunity to capture data in quieter oceans and traffic-reduced cities, the media is awash with talk of green shoots.
Unfortunately, this hiatus for the natural world has followed a devastating loss of livelihoods, and lives. As the tourism industry reels amid a grounded planet, those who rely on it the most are struggling to put food on the table. There’s an uneasiness in the conservation world, too. For every chunk of wilderness thriving with less human intrusion, numerous ecosystems are devastatingly at risk.
Green shoots thrive when nurtured, and so in travel as much as in any other walk of life, now’s the time to reset for a cleaner, greener future.
1. KICKING CARBON
Having spent the last few years coming around to Greta Thunberg’s dogma, some may see NASA’s satellite images of atmospheric pollution clearing over the world during lockdown as nothing short of miraculous. Energy-related carbon emissions are set to fall by eight per cent this year, to the lowest level in a decade.
For climate scientists, this interval has highlighted the enormity of the decarbonising task at hand. The UN predicts that we’ll need similar levels of decline each year if we want to stay below the 1.5-degree temperature-rise cap outlined in the Paris Agreement (which will prevent 60 million people being exposed to severe drought and save miles of coastline from flooding).
Thankfully, everyone from Greenpeace to the World Bank is working on green-minded recovery plans, and the travel sector is no exception. So far in 2020, 86 travel businesses, including Much Better Adventures, Wilderness Scotland and Steppes Travel, have signed up to the new Tourism Declares initiative to work collectively to reduce the hefty eight per cent of global carbon emissions travel is responsible for.
2. FUNDING CONSERVATION
Lockdown camera traps have revealed elusive leopards prowling South Africa’s Walker Bay Fynbos Conservancy and pampas cats roaming close to organic vines at Condor Valley in Argentina. A generation of humpback whales are experiencing silent seas for the first time (as cargo and cruise ships fall still), and, from Costa Rica to Indonesia, green and hawksbill sea turtles are having a bumper laying season on deserted beaches.
While it’s reassuring to see nature thriving in the absence of humans, in reality, much conservation work is at risk; without tourism to fund the protection of ecosystems and wildlife, thousands of acres and species are vulnerable to exploitation.
In Botswana, one of the safest rhino habitats in the world, poaching increased so much in March that critically endangered black rhinos are being relocated. Wildlife protection in the 18,000-hectare Botum Sakor National Park is threatened by their inability to receive clients. ‘Cardamom Tented Camp is a not-for-profit operation, with profits funding the ranger station and patrol activities… everyone has been hard hit and so poaching is on the rise.’ The Wildlife Conservation Society believes that three critically endangered giant ibis were killed for meat in April as a result of the closure of tourism in Cambodia.
Illegal fishing is also on the up in some of Indonesia’s conservation hot spots. In April, rangers at the 120,000-hectare Misool Marine Reserve caught poachers taking advantage of the sudden vacuum created by the collapse of tourism in Raja Ampat. With the support of the marine police, rangers confiscated 150kg of fish, including ecologically sensitive species.
Besides offering a financial incentive to protect wildlife, tourists, rangers and guides provide much-needed eyes and ears on the ground. Without them, decades of conservation is in jeopardy, particularly in places where poaching for bushmeat will increase if people lose jobs due to the decline in tourism.
3. BOOSTING BIODIVERSITY
From primroses peppering mossy woodland glades to ragged-robin splashing hedgerows with pops of colourful brilliance, wildflowers have provided escapism like never before this spring. The UK is one of the world’s most nature-depleted changes, but experts are hopeful that lockdown may turn things around.
May is a lynchpin month for biodiversity, and so with lockdown restricting usual council activities, such as strimming and mowing, flora and fauna could get a much-needed boost. Rewilding advocacy and travel group Scotland: The Big Picture recommends taking photos (if it’s safe to do so) of blooming verges to campaign for permanent change. Meanwhile, Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe, reminds us that, ‘The fact that we can see more wildlife is mostly because we are now seeing the benefits of longer-term efforts: better protection, less poaching, habitat improvements, safe havens, less hunting.’
Having drawn so much solace from natural wonders on their doorstep over the last couple of months, conservation-led places to stay in the UK hope this will boost future bookings. One example is Elmley national nature reserve in Essex, where guests can watch barn owls gliding over reeds or hares feeding just a couple of feet away.
4. BREATHING EASY
Thanks to plummeting car use, city dwellers are breathing the cleanest air in more than 50 years. In April, the concentration of nitrogen dioxide and other toxic particles was down by almost 50 per cent compared to the same period last year, and the knock-on health implications are staggering; in Europe alone, it’s prevented 11,000 deaths. In other parts of the world, smog has cleared to transform city views; the majestic Himalayas are visible from Punjab for the first time in 30 years.
As cities scramble to understand what the ‘new normal’ looks like, there’s hope that a reduction in air pollution will stick, with walking and cycling the safest ways to get about. It seems as if exploring Europe’s cities by bike will be more compelling, too. Milan was the first city to announce an ambitious new scheme to reduce car use post lockdown — since then, London, New York and Paris have followed suit.
Recognising that there may well be a link between the high number of coronavirus casualties and the city’s poor air quality, Milan officials plan to transform 35km of streets into cycling and walking spaces. Meanwhile, Paris has announced a €20-million (£17-million) scheme to get more people cycling, with France’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Elisabeth Borne, calling the bicycle ‘the little queen of deconfinement’.
5. MAKING EVERY TRIP COUNT
Lockdown has offered the chance to hit reset and realign priorities. Community, compassion and nature have helped to pull us through uncertain times and hopefully will remain top of mind for years to come. As travellers weaving our way around the new world order of hiked airfares and varying restrictions, we have the opportunity to make every trip count.
We should think more carefully about the purpose for our trip, rather than it just being the annual routine. I like the mantra “build back better”; that means I want more enriching travel, and to see it supporting local people and places.’