A historic deal to protect nature appeared to nearly unravel Monday after the Democratic Republic of Congo said it opposed the agreement negotiated over two weeks at the United Nations COP15 biodiversity conference in Montreal.

In the early hours of the morning, a representative from the DRC said the country, which includes most of the Congo Basin and the planet’s second-largest tropical forest, would not accept the agreement to protect 30 per cent of nature by 2030 without a new fund for biodiversity conservation included. China’s environment minister and COP15 president Huang Runqiu appeared to dismiss the concern on a legal technicality, prompting DRC Environment Minister Ève Bazaiba to say she’d lodge a complaint with the UN.

Because the agreement is based on global consensus, the DRC’s objection kicked off a behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort that is not yet fully understood. At a closing meeting Monday night, the deal had been rescued. The conference hall erupted in applause as the DRC announced its support for the global biodiversity plan.

“They confirmed they support it, but at the same time, they wanted to show reservation for a couple of elements in the finance package of the global biodiversity framework,” explained Climate Action Network Canada’s international climate diplomacy director Eddy Pérez. “From there, the presidency, when he heard everything from the minister, reconfirmed some of these elements the DRC had raised just to make sure people felt the presidency and the minister from the DRC shared the same understanding.

“So that really changed the mood in the room because we felt that the Chinese presidency was welcoming the DRC into the agreement, but it was also allowing the DRC to feel their frustration and objections … and that these objections needed to be noted in the final package.”

The end result of the COP15 conference is an agreement that charts a course to halt and reverse a trajectory that puts millions of plants, animals, insects and other species at risk of extinction. Some species are within decades of this fate unless countries make unprecedented conservation efforts due to the climate crisis and habitat loss caused by industrial activities like mining, logging, farming and fossil fuel projects.

The agreement, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, commits countries to protect 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030, recognizes Indigenous leadership as a central pillar of achieving these goals and reaffirms Indigenous Peoples’ right to free, prior and informed consent to development projects taking place on their territories. It includes a call for rich countries to support poorer countries with US$200 billion to protect nature by 2030, including $20 billion per year between now and 2025 and $30 billion per year after that until the end of the decade.

“Just as Paris produced an agreement to keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius, in Montreal, we have reached an agreement that commits to the protection of 30 per cent of global land and water by 2030,” Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a statement.

Canada was among the countries that advocated for the 30 by 30 goal from the start of the conference, he said. “Science tells us this is the minimum needed to protect the future of our planet.”

“If we were to assemble in seven years in 2030 and we were to have accomplished everything that is in this agreement, it will be a very different planet." #COP15 #biodiversity
[Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault descends stairs at the Palais des congrès in Montreal during COP15. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer]

NDP critic for environment and climate change Laurel Collins said New Democrats welcome the COP15 agreement and stressed that Ottawa must lead by example.

“Unfortunately, the Liberals’ track record in the fight against climate change hasn’t been strong,” she said in a statement, adding Guilbeault and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “have been saying all the right things on the international stage, but back at home, it’s an entirely different story.”

Bloc Québécois climate change critic Kristina Michaud called the goal of protecting 30 per cent of land and water “excellent news” but noted there are concerns with how it will be implemented.

“I can't wait to see how Canada will reconcile this with its oil policy, since we have seen the Trudeau government support offshore drilling projects in protected areas,” she said in a statement. “If, in Canada, we can exploit oil, gas or mines in protected areas, we can wonder if the fact of designating a protected area really protects it.”

At a news conference Monday, Basile van Havre, the Canadian co-chair of a United Nations working group on biodiversity, said the agreement was not perfect but good enough to celebrate. Today is “Day 1 of the next step,” he said.

“It’s a good deal because you have the essence of what we’ve been working on for the past four years in that agreement,” he said. “Could there be more in there? Probably, but I think we’ve found that what is important is what is going to happen next, and we see the elements in there.

“If we were to assemble in seven years in 2030 and we were to have accomplished everything that is in this agreement, it will be a very different planet. It is going to be a major change.”

Canadian environmental groups applauded the “historic” deal, specifically credited Guilbeault for his role landing it and cheered a series of announcements Canada made, including more than $800 million to support Indigenous-led conservation, more than $600 million for new international biodiversity finance and agreements with First Nations and governments in Yukon and Manitoba to protect nature.

Canada hosted the conference, while China served as president of COP15, and the two countries worked well together, observers told Canada’s National Observer. China’s environment minister tapped Guilbeault and COP14 president and Egyptian Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad to lead consultations and overcome some of the tougher negotiating points of the agreement. Those consultations were crucial to landing a deal.

[Egyptian Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad and Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault at a bilateral meeting during COP15. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer]

Pérez called the deal a “transformational opportunity for biodiversity justice” and a “moment to secure a safe future away from current colonial, destructive and suicidal pathways.”

Referring to the new spending commitments, Pérez told Canada’s National Observer: “This is a lot more money than what had been committed before” and while it isn’t ultimately enough, “it is definitely a good starting point.”

“It also shows you can't deliver such a big package without more resources,” he said. “So at the end of the day, it's really important to focus on the fact we’re trying to build a new regime — one that puts a focus on implementation.”

Pérez said one weakness of the agreement is it lacks “a proper accountability mechanism” that would require countries to increase efforts to protect biodiversity over time, similar to the Paris climate agreement. Because previous targets to protect biodiversity have been missed — the last set of goals, called the Aichi Targets, expired in 2020 without a single one being met — actually meeting the goals is of the highest importance.

The Paris Agreement “included a transparency mechanism with a very robust set of expectations for countries to really deliver on the kind of reporting and monitoring and review” of progress,” Pérez said. “That is a lot more strengthened than what we have here. Here, everything is a lot more optional.”

The agreement has four big goals for 2050 and 23 targets for 2030 to help keep countries on track. The long-term goals aim to protect ecosystems by slashing the extinction rate tenfold, sustainably using and managing nature’s contribution to people, ensuring the use of genetics resources from the natural world are fairly shared and closing the biodiversity financing gap — estimated to be $700 billion — so that the least-developed countries can fully implement the agreement.

Meanwhile, the 2030 goals serve as shorter-term targets to achieve the long-term vision. They include things like protecting at least 30 per cent of nature by 2030; minimizing the impact of climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to damage already locked in; taking legal, policy and administrative steps to make sure financial institutions and other influential companies monitor and disclose their impact on biodiversity; and ensuring gender equality in meeting these targets, among others.

“These deals are always a mixed bag, but there’s a lot to be optimistic about here,” Nature Canada executive director Graham Saul said in a statement. “We can work on funding and we can work on accountability. But we got agreement for urgent action to halt and reverse nature loss by 2030 and to protect 30 per cent of land and ocean in that time frame — which is the only solution out there commensurate with the scale of the crisis.

“We also have a deal that reinforces Indigenous rights and conservation, which will be critical in ensuring we reach those goals.”