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A landmark biodiversity agreement is within reach, say multiple heads of delegation at the United Nations nature conference called COP15, but advocates are concerned the diplomatic stalemate may only be broken by watering down the proposed pact.

At a news conference Saturday afternoon, COP15 president and Chinese Minister of Ecology and Environment Huang Runqiu said consensus was emerging after six countries, including Canada, were paired up to stickhandle the three most pressing issues still under negotiation.

Like the Paris Agreement — which set a goal of holding global warming to 1.5 C and outlines ways countries should reduce their greenhouse gas emissions — the global biodiversity framework aims to chart a course for the next decade to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. The world’s biodiversity — animals, plants, insects, and more — are going extinct from habitat loss caused by resource extraction, and the relentless burning of fossil fuels that is cooking the planet.

Environment minister Huang, who launched the consultations between countries, said those discussions have helped create room for agreement.

“I feel quite exhausted because these meetings have been going on and on like a marathon… (but) we’re going to see the finishing line soon,” said Huang.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault, who is playing host to the conference in his home riding of Laurier—Sainte-Marie in Montreal, echoed Huang’s view, and rejected characterizations of the conference reaching an impasse in its final days.

“We’ve made tremendous progress,” he said, adding that potential landing zones have been found on tough topics like financing nature conservation, how countries could share or benefit from scientific advancements made using biodiversity within their borders and, ultimately, what the target for nature conservation enshrined in the agreement will be.

However, even as the president and host of the biodiversity conference promote an optimistic view, nature advocates said time will tell if world leaders will be successful at pulling the planet back from the brink. With time running out, pressure is on to make an ambitious and accountable agreement that provides the cash to help developing countries protect nature.

“If Montreal fails, that's the end of the road. It's game over for the (global biodiversity framework). There will be no second bite of that cherry,” said head of international advocacy with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) UK Bernadette Fischler Hooper.

At a news conference Saturday afternoon, #COP15 president and Chinese Minister of Ecology and Environment Huang Runqiu said consensus was emerging, writes John Woodside @Woodsideful #cdnpoli #biodiversity #ForNature GlobalBiodiversityFramework

The biggest challenge in negotiations revolves around finance and ambitious targets for nature conservation, because the two are tethered to each other. Essentially, if an ambitious conservation target is negotiated, it will take more financial resources. Meanwhile, negotiating finance to meet that goal involves debates around how much money should be on the table and how it can be accessed — tough conversations to have without an agreed target.

“The other big issue that’s getting a lot of attention in the resource mobilization discussions is whether ... we need a new fund and what that should look like,” said Andrew Deutz, director of global policy, institutions, and conservation finance with the Nature Conservancy. “I’ll note though that the biggest issue isn’t how many funds or how many mechanisms we have, it’s how much money is there.”

Gesturing to a pitcher of water on the table at the news conference he was speaking at, he said what matters is how much water is in the pitcher, “not how many glasses we pour it into.” Still, Deutz said it appeared countries were signaling compromise and an agreement was likely to be reached.

The amount of water is important, but the glasses available are a real concern, too. If countries can’t access the funds, then meeting the agreement’s goals will fail. A lack of finance was at the root of why the previous biodiversity targets failed to be met, said WWF Germany policy advisor Florian Titze.

Past failure

12 years ago in Japan, world governments agreed to 24 conservation targets called the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. Those targets expired in 2020, and not even one was met. In Montreal, governments are setting new 2030 targets, and hope to avoid the resounding failure of the last attempt.

“In the current negotiation the lack of agreement is essentially about two things,” said Titze. “One is the amount of financial resources that are required, and the other is what are the ways these financial resources are supposed to get delivered to where they're most needed.

An agreement “cannot be jeopardized,” he added. “It's way too important. The stakes are too high.”

Senior director of policy and advocacy with WWF International Lin Li says a strong agreement is crucial, but warns implementing it is what matters. The texts currently being negotiated are too weak when it comes to implementation, because it has neither a clear timetable for governments to follow, nor a requirement to increase action if governments fall behind.

The Paris Agreement, for example, requires countries to ratchet up commitment. That means once a target is set, like Canada’s goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent by 2030, future governments cannot walk it back. In the global biodiversity framework negotiated in Montreal, the text only “encourages” countries to increase ambition over time. She said that language must be made stronger, with countries “required” to step up.

“Here in Montreal we’re not only at risk of sleepwalking into making the same mistakes as we did in our Aichi targets — worse — we’re seeing sustained attempts of ending up with a global biodiversity agreement that’s less ambitious than 12 years ago,” she said.

“In the face of an accelerating climate and nature crisis… this is both unacceptable and quite frankly using the words of UN Secretary General: suicidal.”