The draft text of a new agreement to protect nature from destructive human behaviour is still littered with disagreement as COP15 talks in Montreal barrel toward their conclusion on Monday.
With one million species facing extinction this century and a majority of both land and marine environments already significantly altered by human activities, the 196 nations in the UN biodiversity convention are seeking a bold new agreement that halts further destruction of nature and seeks to restore what has already been lost.
Nature experts warn that failing to halt the devastation will have drastic consequences for human health affecting everything from clean air and water to food security and the transmission of viruses.
“The day after tomorrow we will know if governments have failed people and planet or not,” warned Bernadette Fischler Hooper, the head of international advocacy at the World Wildlife Fund UK.
“If this goes right, it will be a historic moment. Leaders will have pulled the planet back from the brink. But if this goes wrong, there will be no coming back.”
With talks set to conclude Monday, ministers were racing between meetings Saturday trying to find a way to get consensus.
Canadian Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault asked COP15 delegates to find a “bold agreement” to protect nature in Montreal the way they did for climate change in Paris in 2015.
“We did this in Paris, we can do it here in Montreal,” he said. “The entire world is watching. We have the power to change the course of history. Let’s give nature the Paris moment it deserves.”
Countries have been working on the text for four years and the Montreal meeting — delayed two years and ultimately moved to Canada from China because of COVID-19 — offers the final opportunity to reach a consensus.
Some has already emerged on a number of targets and, significantly, on how they will be implemented and monitored for progress.
But there are still big divides on the biggest ticket targets on financing and ambition.
Developed nations want all to agree to conserve 30 per cent of the world’s land and marine areas by 2030. Developing nations want help to pay for their conservation efforts from the wealthiest countries, whose economic growth has long been built off the backs of initiatives that destroyed nature both inside their own borders and beyond.
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The result has been something of a staring contest, with developed nations repeatedly saying that financing will not come without ambition or vice versa.
Environment ministers from Rwanda and Germany spent the last two days trying to bridge the gap between the two groups on financing without a lot of success.
“Listening to all groups, we had the feeling that over the last 36 hours, parties flexibilized their positions, but to be honest, not to the extent that is needed,” said German environment minister Steffi Lemke.
Rwanda’s environment minister Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya said the parties do seem to agree that developed countries need to commit to the equivalent of C$275 billion a year by 2030 from all sources, including government funds and private-sector contributions.
That’s $100 billion more at least than what the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy estimated was spent on nature conservation in 2019.
In the last few days developed nations have been trying hard to prove their commitment to the financing. Canada, for example, added another $255 million to its offerings on Friday, bringing its total commitment in the coming five years to more than $1.5 billion.
But developed countries, including Canada, have warned they cannot fill the entire gap on their own and accuse developing countries of making demands that simply can’t be met.
“Some of the numbers that have been mentioned are unrealistic,” said Katrin Schneeberger, director of Switzerland’s Federal Office for the Environment, during Saturday’s plenary session.
“Focusing on unrealistic and unfeasible elements will not bring us forward.”
But more than the amount of money on offer, the disagreement holding back progress on a final text is how the money will flow.
The European Commission and some of its member states have been adamant that the existing Global Environment Fund is the best choice, arguing creating a new fund would take years.
Developing countries believe a new, dedicated biodiversity fund is the only way forward because the GEF, as the existing fund is commonly referred to, is bulky, inefficient and oversubscribed.
Lemke said there is the potential for a compromise proposed by Colombia to create a dedicated biodiversity fund within the GEF, but that has not yet been agreed to.
The 30 by 30 target amounts to conserving the equivalent of all the terrestrial land in Russia, Canada, China and the United States, and marine areas bigger in size than the Atlantic and Arctic oceans combined.
Currently about 16 per cent of land and eight per cent of marine territories are in conservation areas.
Questions remain about what conservation would mean, including whether activities such as mining, logging or tourism could take place in protected spaces.
Indigenous communities also fear this will be another big land grab forcing them from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation despite the fact they are already conserving them.
— By Mia Rabson in Ottawa, with files from Morgan Lowrie and Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.