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Why the U.N. biodiversity talks are crucial for the health of the planet — and ourselves

The future of nature is being negotiated in Montreal this week.

The next week will be enormously consequential for the future of biodiversity on Earth — humans included.

“Humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said Tuesday at the meeting’s opening ceremonies. “This conference is our chance to stop this orgy of destruction.”

Saving biodiversity is good in and of itself. But it’s also crucial for public health in ways that may surprise you. The outcome of COP15 will have profound consequences for the health and well-being of everyone on Earth, both now and in the future.

Those losses have come despite a series of targets countries agreed to 12 years ago at U.N. biodiversity talks in Nagoya, Japan — all of which they have failed to meet, most notably the pledge to halve the loss of natural habitats.

What are countries trying to do?

The overarching debate at the Montreal meeting is how much of their lands and seas countries will agree to conserve. Biodiversity needs space to thrive; protecting natural habitats from human development and deforestation is the best way to save species.


Oceans are lagging even further behind, with only about 8 percent currently protected.


How would that affect human health?

If countries can agree on that 30 percent protection target and figure out a way to ensure those protections go in places with lots of biodiversity, it would go a long way to bolstering public health. Spillover events would be reduced, potentially sparing the globe of avoidable pandemics. Yet-to-be-discovered medications might be preserved in forests that would’ve otherwise been cleared. And preserving healthy, intact ecosystems would help clean the air, filter water and store carbon. All of those things affect human health, too.

Who’s going to pay to protect biodiversity?

Setting targets is the first step, but ensuring protections are actually put in place requires money that many biodiversity-rich nations don’t have. If COP15 stands a chance at succeeding, low- and middle-income countries will need financial assistance from wealthy nations, whose consumption is one of the main drivers of deforestation.

An earlier draft framework proposed that developed nations transfer $10 billion a year to lower-income countries to help pay for biodiversity protections. Some experts are calling for an annual fund six times larger — $60 billion a year. Fights over funding have stalled meetings leading up to the current talks in Montreal.

How’s the meeting going so far? When does it end?

But on Tuesday, a top U.N. official warned that negotiations ahead of the talks had not produced the desired results. “Some progress has been made, but not so much as needed or expected,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary for the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity. “And I have personally to admit that I don’t feel that the delegates went as far as we expected.”

There’s still time left, however: The meeting does not end until Dec. 19.

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