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Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault visited South America to rally support for biodiversity and nature conservation ahead of a critical United Nations conference being held in Montreal.

After two years of delays, countries that signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity will meet for the 15th “Conference of the Parties” — commonly referred to as COP15.

From Dec. 7 to 19, delegates will meet in Montreal to try to agree on a framework to halt biodiversity loss by 2030. China, the original host country, is presiding over the conference.

“This is not just any COP, it is the COP of the decade,” said Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network Canada. Massive biodiversity loss — accelerated by climate change — is well underway and poses innumerable risks to humans.

When natural ecosystems collapse, it affects everything from water and food security to health, migration and poverty and can exacerbate political conflict, according to the World Health Organization. In just under half a century, wildlife populations have declined nearly 70 per cent, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Federation. And that’s not even counting invertebrates, which provide key ecosystem services like pollination.

“We are losing our suicidal war against nature,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told world leaders at the virtual United Nations Biodiversity Conference held in Kunming, China, this time last year. Climate change, pollution, overexploitation of natural resources like logging or fishing and land use change, including agriculture and urbanization, are some of the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss.

To turn the tide at COP15, countries must agree on a biodiversity framework that supports the legal right to a healthy environment, ends nature-harming subsidies and mobilizes resources to help countries protect nature, Guterres has said on multiple occasions.

As environment minister of COP15’s host country, Guilbeault has to convince governments to attend and work towards a successful resolution, said Pérez. With less than two months before the conference, the challenge is to build enough momentum and ensure heads of state are in the room “to agree on a very, very big political package,” he said.

And that’s exactly what Guilbeault is trying to do.

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault visited South America to rally support for biodiversity and nature conservation ahead of a critical United Nations conference being held in Montreal. #cdnpoli #Chile #Colombia #Argentina #COP15

During a week-long visit, Guilbeault met with ministers from Colombia, Chile and Argentina to discuss COP15. Canada’s National Observer interviewed Guilbeault by phone after his meetings with Colombia and Chile.

On Oct. 12, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault met with Chile’s Environment Minister Maisa Rojas. Photo provided by Steven Guilbeault’s staff

“We talked about our views of what we're hoping a good outcome would be coming out of Montreal and how we can work together, and especially how these two countries could help maybe do some outreach in the region here in the leadup to COP15,” Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer on Oct. 13.

Canada has been very vocal about its commitment to protect 30 per cent of its land and oceans by 2030, in line with a global target, but Guilbeault says this isn’t the only key focus.

“We want to ensure that the concept of halting and reversing biodiversity loss is part of the agreement so that by 2050, we're in a nature-positive world as opposed to continuing to lose ground … year after year,” he said. Another important element he pointed to was ensuring all countries have the resources to achieve these goals.

Guilbeault said there “isn't a strong desire to try to come up with a big number” for resource mobilization, given the tight timeline to prepare for COP15. He also said, “We shouldn’t repeat the mistake” made by rich countries in 2015 when they pledged US$100 billion in climate finance to help poorer countries adapt to and fight climate change without a clear framework for where the money would come from, what it would be used for and how it would be disbursed.

This time, Guilbeault says countries first need to agree on some parameters, like what the needs are and mechanisms for support, before pledging a dollar amount. Then, the conversation on sourcing those funds can begin, he said.

“If it's just public money, we can't get there,” said Guilbeault. “And we know that there's not enough public money, so we would argue that private sector money should be part of it, philanthropies should be part of it.”

Right now, 20 per cent of Canada’s $5.3-billion climate finance commitment to developing countries goes toward nature-based climate solutions and projects that contribute biodiversity co-benefits, but Pérez says more and new funding is needed and anticipates it will be a “tricky issue” at COP15.

On Oct. 13, Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer delegations from both Chile and Colombia will attend COP15. At the time of writing, he had not yet met with Argentina’s government officials. He also met with environment and energy ministers and local biodiversity and climate groups.

On Oct. 13, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault inaugurated an accessible and inclusive path partially funded by the Canadian embassy in Rio Clarillo National Park, Chile. Photo provided by Steven Guilbeault’s staff

Both Colombia and Chile have relatively new, progressive governments “with whom we see eye-to-eye on a number of different issues,” said Guilbeault. Ex-rebel fighter Gustavo Petro, who campaigned on wealth redistribution and a green economy, became Colombia's president on Aug. 7. His vice-president, Francia Márquez, is an environmental activist and lawyer.

“Colombia has such a big role to play when it comes to the conservation, protection and restoration of the Amazon [Rainforest],” said Pérez. Because of Argentina’s large agricultural footprint, Colombia’s natural resources and the new Chilean government’s “more progressive” stance on recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights in its constitution, “you can't underestimate the political importance of the region,” he added.

Of the three countries Guilbeault visited, Colombia overlaps most with the rapidly disappearing Amazon Rainforest. But Brazil by far has the biggest slice of this critical ecosystem. The country’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro rolled back environmental protections after he was elected in 2019. Since Bolsonaro took office, a chunk of the Amazon larger than Taiwan has already been torn down, The Guardian reported in early September. And, in July, BBC wrote that deforestation of the rainforest in Brazil has hit a six-year-high, according to the national space agency.

The “Bolsonaro effect” on achieving climate and biodiversity protection globally “is devastating,” said Pérez.

Brazil is currently in the midst of a tight, high-stakes presidential election that pits Bolsonaro against Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who became the country’s first working-class president in 2002 from humble roots as a former metal worker and union leader.

“If Lula wins the presidency, there might be an opportunity for some of these progressive countries in the region to come together with a very strong voice, calling for not just a stronger biodiversity outcome but one that is centred on equity,” said Pérez. After a close first-round vote that saw Lula and Bolsonaro get 48 per cent of the vote and 43 per cent, respectively, a second round will take place at the end of October to decide the winner.

The presidential inauguration is typically on Jan. 1, so “in all likeliness, the current government delegation will continue to represent the position of the current government in COP15,” Guilbeault noted. But a Lula victory would still “boost political momentum” and pressure countries like Canada and China to deliver, said Pérez.

“We definitely need that kind of message … that the citizens of Brazil are able to send hope to the world, that we can have a leader in such an important country that cares about climate and cares about nature,” he said. “Just that political momentum could have huge implications for the way forward.”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer