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UN biodiversity head warns COP15 nature talks in Montreal are already off course


Negotiators from 196 countries are in Montreal for the next 14 days, where they're expected to hammer out an agreement nature experts say could be the earth's last-gasp attempt at survival.

But even before the COP15 UN nature talks officially opened Tuesday afternoon, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary for the UN convention on biodiversity, was warning things were already off course.

Mrema said people need to pay attention and the negotiators need to get this right because "biodiversity underpins our very existence on this planet."

"It is the food we eat, the water we need, we use, we drink, the clean air we want to breathe, the goods and services, the health, in terms of medicines," she said.

Nature can help prevent devastating losses due to climate change, not just by absorbing more of the carbon dioxide that is contributing to global warming, but also by reducing the impacts of extreme weather.

At COP15, the goal is to negotiate a plan that will both halt further losses of ecosystems by 2030 and begin to reverse the damage that has already been done.

Officially the negotiations begin Wednesday, but countries have been slowly putting together a draft agreement for the last few years. On the weekend, negotiators spent three days in a working group hoping to tame that draft into something more manageable.

It didn't work.

"Some progress has been made, but not so much as needed or expected," Mrema said at a news conference in Montreal Tuesday morning. "And I have personally to admit that I don't feel that the delegates went as far as we had expected."

The post-2020 biodiversity framework sets out 22 targets to be met by 2030 in a bid to stop the decline of ecosystems and to begin to restore habitats and species.

The targets include financing biodiversity protections, reducing the use of plastic, limiting the impact of invasive species, expanding urban green space and working with businesses to monitor and report on how their operations impact biodiversity.

While Mrema said all of the targets are needed because they all rely on each other to work, the big one is known as "30 by 30." That refers to protecting 30 per cent of the world's land and marine areas from further development by 2030.

The target was discussed at a meeting in Kenya in June, but Guido Broekhoven, head of policy at the World Wildlife Fund International, said negotiators didn't even get to talk about it during the pre-COP15 talks.

As it stands there is no agreement about which land and water to protect, or how much.

Canada has its own goal of protecting 30 per cent of land and coastal marine areas by 2030 and has reached about 14 per cent of both already. Globally about 16 per cent of land and inland waters are under some level of protection, and about eight per cent of marine and coastal areas.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said 30 per cent is the minimum that must be protected.

COP15 is the 15th meeting of the "conference of the parties" to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, which covers essentially all the aspects of nature that make the world work -- from forests, wetlands and oceans to millions of wild plants, animals and insects.

The meeting was set to be held in China in 2020 but it was delayed multiple times due to COVID-19. In June when it became clear China could not be the host because of its ongoing pandemic restrictions, the conference was moved to Montreal, where the headquarters of the convention's secretariat are located.

About 17,000 delegates are expected to attend.

The World Wildlife Fund warned earlier this year that since 1970, monitored populations of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians have seen an average decline of 69 per cent.

A report last week warned that one-fifth of all species in Canada assessed for their status are facing some level of risk of going extinct.

In 2019, the UN issued a grim scientific assessment warning that about one-quarter of every species assessed in both animal and plant groups were at risk of extinction before the end of this century. It also said three-quarters of land-based ecosystems and two-thirds of marine environments had been "significantly" changed by human actions.

That includes converting wild ecosystems to agricultural land and encroachments due to population growth and industrial expansion. Climate change is both contributing to and exacerbated by the loss in biodiversity.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2022. Bob Weber in Edmonton, Mia Rabson in Ottawa and Jacob Serebrin in Montreal Top Stories

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