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Why protecting the planet is essential to preventing future pandemics

<i>Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>This aerial view taken on November 19
AFP via Getty Images
Alexis Huguet/AFP/Getty Images
This aerial view taken on November 19

Opinion by Marco Lambertini, Gim Huay Neo and Elizabeth Mrema for CNN Business Perspectives

Almost two years since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientific breakthroughs powered by international collaboration have helped us create vaccines and other treatments that can help tackle the health crisis. But our broken relationship with the natural world continues to make us vulnerable to pandemics and that is something that global governments and businesses need to fix.

Both habitat loss and the wildlife trade increase the likelihood that diseases will make the jump from animals to humans. Our increasingly intensive agriculture and food systems require greater land use and animal farming, and they are a key driver of deforestation. This reduces habitat for wild animals, meaning they come into more regular contact with people, which increases opportunities for potential pathogens to emerge. And many zoonotic diseases thrive in the increasingly warmer, wetter conditions sparked by human-induced climate change.

At the same time, biodiversity loss is undermining nature’s ability to provide things like clean water and a stable climate. The science about the ripple effects of this loss has been on the table for decades, and now we are seeing real-life impacts, including the emergence of new infectious diseases, with increased frequency.

The latest World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report reveals that world leaders now rank biodiversity loss as one of the most severe risks facing humanity in the coming decade, alongside climate action failure and extreme weather events. With more than half of global GDP coming from industries that rely on nature, such as construction and food, businesses are also calling for action to protect and restore nature, which is essential for a resilient global economy.

Unfortunately, the awareness of these nature-related risks has not translated into action that would help head off future pandemics. Too many Covid-19 recovery plans have so far demonstrably failed to place the environment at the heart of the world’s economic recovery from the pandemic; for example, through incentivizing farmers and rural workers to embrace productive and regenerative agriculture, which would reduce habitat loss, thereby reducing opportunities for zoonotic diseases to develop. And while world leaders have committed to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030, action on the ground remains piecemeal and nowhere near the pace and scale required.

Business and government leaders need to take bold steps now to ensure a regenerative approach to nature and reduce the risk of future global pandemics. Here are some things they can do.

Commit to financial support

Ecosystems, such as forests and mangroves, are critical to both a variety of wildlife and the resilience of the surrounding communities. That’s why it’s so important for governments and businesses to work together in funding conservation and restoration efforts.

Kenya, for instance, has encouraged financial sector innovation by developing a domestic green bonds market, which promotes green investments in areas such as sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. Other initiatives, such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures, are helping financial institutions and companies address their impacts and dependencies on nature. And in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains, WWF is working with the government, the private sector and other civil society organizations to support both reforestation and the creation of green jobs. Importantly, the project incentivizes community management of natural resources.

Set targets

Companies can also help reverse biodiversity loss by setting science-based targets for nature and by taking action to ensure their supply chains don’t contribute to deforestation.

Political leaders have an obligation to show they are committed to delivering an integrated response to our planetary and health emergency by demonstrating action on existing nature commitments, including the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, which requires endorsers to address the direct and indirect drivers of biodiversity loss and deliver a green response to the Covid-19 crisis, among other actions.

This year, the world’s governments will meet in Kunming, China, to agree on a new biodiversity action plan. This represents a momentous opportunity to secure a healthy future for people and the planet. But heads of state must move from words to action by tasking their negotiators with ensuring a strong and comprehensive draft biodiversity agreement, while taking action on the ground.

Leaders can no longer afford to ignore our escalating nature crisis. They must remember that protecting biodiversity and securing a nature-positive world is more than a moral responsibility: It is fundamental to reducing pandemic risk and meeting the Paris climate goals. We need to collectively break the inertia of an economic model that doesn’t factor in our impact on the environment, and build new incentives and innovations for a planet where people live in harmony with nature.

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