Land use and climate change as drivers of pandemic risk and biodiversity loss

Commentary, Online Exclusive Feature / 2021

Land use and climate change as drivers of pandemic risk and biodiversity loss

April 6, 2021

A transformative change in the global approach to dealing with infectious diseases is needed. Failing that, future pandemics will emerge more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the world economy and kill more people than COVID-19, warns a report on biodiversity and pandemics by 22 leading experts from around the world (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services (IPBES)).

Photo courtesy of IPBES Report

A seismic shift in approach from reaction to prevention

The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic — or of any modern pandemic,” said Dr Peter Daszak, President of EcoHealth Alliance and Chair of the IPBES workshop. “The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”


Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing the human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity, by greater conservation of protected areas, and through measures that reduce unsustainable exploitation of high biodiversity regions. This will reduce wildlife-livestock-human contact and help prevent the spillover of new diseases, says the report.

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Image by Mark Stoop

We still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge.

“The overwhelming scientific evidence points to a very positive conclusion,” said Dr Daszak. “We have the increasing ability to prevent pandemics — but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability. Our approach has effectively stagnated — we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a much greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.”

“The fact that human activity has been able to so fundamentally change our natural environment need not always be a negative outcome. It also provides convincing proof of our power to drive the change needed to reduce the risk of future pandemics while simultaneously benefiting conservation and reducing climate change.”

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The report says that relying on responses to diseases after their emergence, such as public health measures and technological solutions, in particular the rapid design and distribution of new vaccines and therapeutics, is a “slow and uncertain path”. It underscores both the widespread human suffering and the tens of billions of dollars in annual economic damage to the global economy of reacting to pandemics.

It is estimated that costs in the United States alone may reach as high as $16 trillion by the 4th quarter of 2021. The experts estimate the cost of reducing risks to prevent pandemics to be 100 times less than the cost of responding to such pandemics, “providing strong economic incentives for transformative change.”

Policy options

The report also offers a number of policy options that would help to reduce and address pandemic risk. Among these are:

  • Developing and incorporating pandemic and emerging disease risk health impact assessments in major development and land-use projects.
  • Reforming financial aid for land-use so that benefits and risks to biodiversity and health are recognised and explicitly targeted.
  • Ensuring that the economic cost of pandemics is factored into consumption, production, as well as government policies and budgets.

Photo courtesy of IPBES Report

Land-use change is a globally significant driver of pandemics and caused the emergence of more than 30 per cent of new diseases reported since 1960. Land-use change includes deforestation, human settlement in primarily wildlife habitat, the growth of crop and livestock production and urbanisation. 

Land-use change creates synergistic effects with climate change (forest loss, heat island effects, burning of forest to clear land) and biodiversity loss that in turn has led to important emerging diseases. Destruction of habitat and encroachment of humans and livestock into biodiverse habitats provide new pathways for pathogens to spill over and increase transmission rates. 

Human health considerations are largely unaccounted for in land-use planning decisions. Ecological restoration, which is critical for conservation, climate adaptation and provision of ecosystem services, should integrate health considerations to avoid potential increased disease risk resulting from increased human-livestock-wildlife contact. 

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Photo courtesy of UABB

Key statistics and facts from the report

  • $8 trillion to $16 trillion: Estimated cost of the COVID-19 pandemic
  • >$1 trillion: Likely annual global economic damages due to pandemics
  • $78 billion to $91 billion: Total annual financial allocation for global biodiversity conservation
  • 3 per cent (~35 million hectares): Increase in agricultural area worldwide, 1992 to 2015, mostly converted from tropical forests
  • 1 billion hectares: Anticipated area of land cleared globally by 2050
  • >30 per cent: Emerging infectious diseases attributed to land use change, agricultural expansion and urbanisation

Resource persons who contributed information but were not authors of the report included experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

For the full report, please click here.

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