Governments gather in Canada in bid to boost biodiversity


Amid warnings that biodiversity is in freefall, environmental leaders will gather in Montreal to hammer out measures aimed at shoring up the world's land and marine ecosystems and coming up with tens of billions of dollars to fund these conservation efforts.

Delegates from about 190 countries will assemble for nearly two weeks, starting Wednesday, at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference, or COP15, to finalize a framework for protecting 30% of global land and marine areas by 2030. Currently, 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine areas are protected.

The proposed framework also calls for reducing the rate of invasive species introduction and establishment by 50%, cutting pesticide use in half and eliminating the discharge of plastic waste.

The goals — more ambitious than earlier ones that have mostly gone unmet — are expected to be at the heart of the meeting debate. But not far behind will be the issue of finance, with developing countries likely to push for significant monetary commitments before signing onto any deal.

The draft framework calls for raising $200 billion or 1% of the world's GDP for conservation by 2030. Another $500 billion annually would come from doing away with the politically-sensitive issue of subsidies that make food and fuel cheaper in many places.

"The world is crying out for change, watching if governments seek to heal our relationship with the nature, with the planet," Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, said at a November news conference. "The current state of biodiversity is dire with the loss of biodiversity at unprecedented levels in our history."

The United Nations conference comes less than a month after countries gathered to tackle climate change, agreeing for the first time to pay poor countries for the damage being caused by a warming planet.

Climate change coupled with habitat loss, pollution and development have hammered the world's biodiversity, with one estimate in 2019 warning that a million plant and animal species face extinction within decades — a rate of loss 1,000 times greater than expected. Humans use about 50,000 wild species routinely, and 1 out of 5 people of the world's 7.9 billion population depend on those species for food and income, the report said.

"We're clearly losing biodiversity all around the world. Our ecosystems — that's our forests, our grasslands, our wetlands, our coral reefs — are all degrading," said Robert Watson, who has chaired past U.N. science reports on climate change and biodiversity loss. "We're losing species; some are going extinct and others where the population numbers have even halved. We're losing genetic diversity within species. So we're clearly affecting biodiversity badly."

Brian O'Donnell, the director of the conservation group Campaign for Nature, noted how he had lived during a time of "climate stability and natural abundance" but fears that won't be the same for his daughter and her generation.

"We have to ask, 'Will they be able to have well-functioning natural areas to sustain them? Will they benefit from what nature has given us — storm protection, pollination, clean water, food, abundant wildlife? Or will they face the remnants of a once thriving natural system?'" O'Donnell said.

"Will the burden of climate breakdown and nature degradation be placed on the young people of the planet, the vulnerable, and the poor, those least responsible for creating the crises?" he asked.

The challenge, though, will be convincing governments that they should do more to preserve and protect biodiversity and to follow through on their commitments. It will be especially challenging to make the case for cash-strapped developing countries who often need to spend money on more pressing concerns.

"It would be a big deal if a lot of nations commit to 30%," said Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm, referring to the draft goal to protect 30% of the planet for conservation. President Joe Biden has already laid out a vision to conserve 30% of U.S. land and waters by 2030, and then-United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to protect 30% of its land by 2030.

The track record of this convention is not great.

Governments agreed to a set of targets back in 2010 but only six of the 20 were partially met by a 2020 deadline. Some experts argue delegates should be exploring why the world fell short on so many targets rather than setting even more ambitious ones.

"You can agree inside your environmental bubble ... and that's probably what happened back in 2010," U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen told The Associated Press. "But we actually need to have agriculture as part of the conversation. We need to have the financing system as part of the conversation."

Susan Lieberman, vice president of international policy at Wildlife Conservation Society, said part of the problem is that, so far, there hasn't been "sufficient accountability and monitoring" of the goals.

"It's really important to put in place a monitoring framework," she said. "Countries need to report. There needs to be accountability … and the targets need to be clear enough that governments can monitor and report on them."

Among the goals is to close the estimated $700 billion a year gap in what is spent on biodiversity. Part of the problem, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Monica Medina said, is that the world not putting a sufficient price on nature.

"We're desperately trying to change people's mindset about nature, and the fact that the things that we take for granted really aren't free and we need to start actually accounting for their value and for the loss of their value ... when development happens," said Medina, who is leading the U.S. delegation at the conference.

The funding hopes hinge heavily on whether countries reform their subsidies for industries that pollute or otherwise damage the natural world. Delegates face stiff opposition from parties, such as the fossil fuel sector, that would lose out if the reforms were enacted. Environmental ministers also have little influence over whether their countries take this risky step — one that's been known to spark unrest and bring down governments.

Watson, who has chaired past U.N. science reports, said reform is needed. "We need to get rid of subsidies. We need to draw down the subsidies on agriculture, fisheries, mining, energy, transportation, and we need to use that money for sustainable activities," he said. "There's probably over a trillion dollars a year in what we call direct subsidy, direct subsidies on fossil fuel, on fisheries, agriculture, etc. There's also about $4 trillion of indirect subsidies."

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