Deforestation and the Risk of Collapse: Reframing COVID-19 as a Planetary Boundary Effect (Executive Summary)


  • Dr Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed


COVID-19, planetary boundaries, EROI, oil, transition, systemic risk, collapse, deforestation


The COVID-19 pandemic was a symptom of the fundamental structures of industrial civilisation, and it is an early warning signal for how this civilisation is rapidly eroding the very conditions of its own existence.

Over the last decade, environmental scientists have warned that human activities are increasingly at risk of breaching planetary boundaries, which define the environmental limits in which humanity can safely operate. As industrial civilisation increasingly encroaches on natural ecosystems, we are reducing this ‘safe operating space’ for human survival.

A reframing of the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of wider biophysical processes reveals that it constitutes a biophysical disruption between the Earth system and human systems, representing an intensifying violation of planetary boundaries which has escalated over a period of decades since at latest the 1970s. A signature event in this process was the 2008 financial crash, which was rooted in a fundamental geological transition into a new era of lower net energy, driving a shift to more expensive and


Deforestation and the Risk of Collapse: Reframing COVID-19 as a Planetary Boundary Effect - Executive Summary and Policy Recommendations

dirtier forms of unconventional energy financed by massive debt-expansion through quantitative easing. This in turn drove continued forms of industrial expansion which only continued to deepen the breach of planetary boundaries. One of the frontlines of this breach of planetary boundaries is the persistent impact of continuing deforestation, which increases the chance of pandemics of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19. However, the latter appeared to originate from the hunting of bats in China, and was thus a symptom of wildlife exploitation. While the COVID-19 outbreak itself may not have been a direct result of deforestation, deforestation is part of a wider set of human activities which are increasingly encroaching on natural environments, and increasing the chance of exotic diseases jumping from species like bats to humans.

Today, COVID-19 is ushering in, at break-neck speed, the demise of the age of fossil fuels. While on the one hand, this might offer renewed hope to avert the most dangerous climate scenarios, it also poses a serious risk to the fundamental supply-chains that sustain the energy flows, manufacturing and food production activities of all societies.

That requires a dramatic shift to new forms of sustainable production across critical industries encompassing energy, mining, agriculture, transport, manufacturing and finance. This should involve a series of interlinked systemic shifts involving a transition to renewable energy systems; introducing new circular economy principles; radical monetary reform; and an economic paradigm shift away from GDP.

One of the most urgent areas for immediate mitigating action is tackling deforestation through transitioning to new modes of sustainable production. While frequent attention is often focused on palm oil, the commodity requiring the most urgent attention is in fact beef, the largest driver of climate-linked deforestation emissions. An inclusive, cooperative approaches involving standardised local regulation of all relevant commodities is recommended, and considerable progress in tackling deforestation in Malaysia is highlighted as a potential best practice case study. Yet such approaches must come in partnership with transformations in the developed world to tackle the ‘endless growth’ dynamic of their economies by restructuring core industrial processes through the preceding interlinked systemic shifts. Overall, the global systemic transformation called for entails a transition to a form of ‘ecological civilisation’ capable of functioning within planetary boundaries.