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Nature ‘under attack’ says Trudeau as UN biodiversity conference opens in Montreal

196 countries being asked to hammer out a deal to save and restore ecosystems
Workers set up the Montreal Convention Centre in preparation for the COP15 UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022. A major international conference on preserving the world’s biodiversity is to open Tuesday with speakers including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

In the 73 minutes on Tuesday afternoon that it took for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and five other dignitaries to officially open the 15th global talks to save nature from human destruction, statistics suggest another 4,000 hectares of forest around the world was lost to that same force.

It is the kind of damage the meeting is looking to stop as the world faces a biodiversity crisis that is risking human health, contributing to food insecurity and exacerbating climate change.

“Nature is under threat,” Trudeau said at the opening ceremonies of COP15 in Montreal.

“In fact, it’s under attack.”

Over the next 14 days, negotiators from all 196 countries in the world are being asked to hammer out an agreement to both end and begin to restore the ecosystems we have destroyed and damaged.

It is being called the “Paris for nature” hoping Montreal will see an agreement to slow the destruction of nature the way the 2015 UN conference Paris set the road map for slowing climate change.

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, including agricultural and industrial expansions, consumption patterns and population growth.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was also in Montreal on Tuesday, urging countries to stop treating nature “like a toilet.”

“The loss of nature and biodiversity comes with a steep human cost,” he said.

“A cost we measure in lost jobs, hunger, disease and deaths. A cost we measure in the estimated $3 trillion in annual losses by 2030 from ecosystem degradation. A cost we measure in higher prices for water, food and energy.”

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.

The nature talks in Montreal are looking to agree to set 22 targets to reverse biodiversity loss. That would include everything from using less plastic and increasing urban green space to finding the money to help pay for it.

While all the targets depend on each other for success, the big get would be an agreement to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land, inland waters and marine coastal areas from development by 2030.

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.

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

The negotiations are officially scheduled to 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.

The main goal of protecting 30 per cent by 2030 didn’t even come up because of time constraints, said Guido Broekhoven, head of policy at the World Wildlife Fund International.

As it stands the draft doesn’t agree even on 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.

Trudeau opened the talks Tuesday with a pledge to add another $350 million to Canada’s global financing for international biodiversity protections. Quebec Premier François Legault told the delegates his province will commit to meeting the 30 per cent target within Quebec by 2030.

There are expectations of many protests at the event, which is expected to draw 17,000 delegates over the next two weeks. The first made itself known Tuesday when a small group of Indigenous protesters began drumming and singing during Trudeau’s opening speech.

After about three minutes they were escorted out of the room by security.

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