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Can the world agree on how to save its last wild animals?

Diplomats at the U.N. biodiversity conference in Montreal, COP15, are angling for a deal to preserve 30 percent of countries’ land and water by 2030

A person walks by the lit up sign during the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal on Wednesday. (Andrej Ivanov/AFP/Getty Images)

As many as a million different species are threatened with extinction. Is there anything we can do to stop them from vanishing forever?

That’s the question at the center of an international summit kicking off this week in Montreal.

Negotiators are gathering in Canada for a United Nations biodiversity conference, known as COP15, to work out a plan for preserving Earth’s fragile ecosystems.

“We are waging war on nature,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a speech in Montreal.

There is a lot on the line. Just life on Earth as we know it. Without some sort of intervention, scientists fear a mass extinction will occur, with dire implications for human beings.

Here’s what you need to know:

What will negotiators be negotiating?

The summit’s headline goal is codifying a commitment from countries to preserve 30 percent of their land and water by 2030. That target has a pithy name: “30 by 30.”

More broadly, conservationists see the meeting as their chance to hammer out an agreement akin to the Paris climate deal in 2015, when nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions — or at least try to.

Climate change is intractably linked to extinction. Rising temperatures threaten to upend the habitats of everything from Antarctic penguins to tropical songbirds. Only by setting aside large swaths of forests and other ecosystems can wildlife thrive.

But there are plenty of other issues to hash out, and much of the agreement’s text still needs to be negotiated by representatives of about 190 countries

What counts as conserved area, for instance? Can wildlife be protected in ways that won’t infringe on the rights of Indigenous people to use ancestral lands?

And how much should rich nations — ones that have already gained by harnessing natural resources — help out poor ones that are still developing?

The biodiversity summit comes on the heels of a U.N. climate conference in Egypt where wealthy countries agreed to create a fund to assist developing nations dealing with global warming.

“Animals don’t look at borders,” said Bradley Williams, an associate director of legislative and administrative advocacy at the Sierra Club. “This is a crisis that has to be a global effort, so I think the wealthiest nations really need to pay their fair share.”

What role will the United States play in all of this?

It’s complicated. For one, the United States isn’t an official party to the negotiations.

In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, the international treaty underlying this month’s negotiations. But the pact has never been able to garner the elusive 67-votes supermajority in the Senate needed for ratification.

Yet the Biden administration has its own “30 by 30” goal of preserving nearly a third of the nation’s land and water by the end of the decade, dubbed “America the Beautiful.”

Given that pledge, Will Gartshore, a senior director for government affairs and advocacy at the World Wildlife Fund, thinks the United States can prod other nations toward an ambitious agreement despite not being a party to it.

“We’re seeing a lot of movement by the U.S. in the same direction, from this administration in particular, to effectively achieve a lot of the goals that are being pursued,” he said.

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The United States says it wants to do just that. “We lean forward to try to figure out ways that we can help other countries to make that commitment,” Monica Medina, a State Department official recently designated a new special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, said in an interview in September.

How have these biodiversity meetings gone in the past?

The success rate is not great.

In 2010, for instance, nations set 20 goals for conserving the world’s biodiversity. The targets included minimizing the impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs and maintaining the genetic diversity of cultivated plants.

More than a decade later, none of those goals set at the conference in Japan have been fully achieved, according to a recent assessment.

It took some perseverance for diplomats to even get to the negotiation table this month.

The conference was originally scheduled to start in 2020 but was delayed several times by the coronavirus pandemic. And the final meeting spot had to be moved from China to Canada.

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There are other signs of progress. At a separate international conference in Panama on wildlife trafficking last month, dozens of countries voted to regulate the global trade of shark fins, the main ingredient of a delicacy called shark fin soup.

What are the stakes?

They’re very high.

Farmers rely on dwindling numbers of bees and other insects to pollinate their crops. Fishers depend on healthy oceans for their food and livelihoods.

The loss of wildlife isn’t just bad for the plants and animal themselves. Extinctions threaten to degrade ecosystems that people rely on for safe water, protein and other vital resources.

“With a bottomless appetite for unchecked and unequal economic growth, humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction,” Guterres said.

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