Crucial Talks on Preserving Nature Are on Now. Here Are the Key Issues.

MONTREAL, Quebec — Remember the big climate talks in Egypt last month? There’s another hugely important environmental summit happening right now in Canada. It’s also about a global crisis that threatens life on earth, but one that’s gotten far less attention: Rampant, human-induced biodiversity loss. That means not only species extinctions, but also staggering declines in the variety of life on the planet.

Don’t stop reading out of dread! The biodiversity talks in Montreal, known as COP15, because they’re the 15th conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, could produce the most significant global agreement to protect and restore nature in history.

Imagine that.

They could also end up with something far less ambitious.

They could even fall apart.

Still, keep reading, because what happens over the next few days in a convention center in Montreal has high stakes for life on earth. (For a better sense of that, check out this visual article about habitat loss.)

What’s the goal of the talks?

Ultimately, the goal is a new 10-year agreement that would enable the world to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. There’s no silver bullet for that, so negotiators are fiercely debating the details of roughly 20 targets that would collectively tackle the problem.

Managing lands and oceans more sustainably. Restoring degraded areas. Creating new protected areas while recognizing the rights of Indigenous people. Helping depleted species recover. Ensuring that the harvest and trade of wild species is sustainable, safe and legal.

Those are just the first five. Reducing pollution, minimizing the impact of climate change and addressing subsidies that harm biodiversity, like funding for damaging agricultural practices, are in there, too. And that’s still not even half. No one said it would be easy.

The clock is ticking, because countries are supposed to achieve these targets by 2030. For that to happen, there also needs to be a plan to track progress along the way. Such monitoring was missing from the agreement reached at the last biodiversity COP, which is widely considered to be a big part of why that deal failed to meet any of its targets at the global level.

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A tiny nation’s diplomatic moves. Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu and its population of just over 300,000 people. The country’s president now wants a top international court to weigh in on whether nations are legally bound to protect others against climate risks.

Transition to renewables. Worldwide, growth in renewable power capacity is set to double by 2027, adding as much renewable power in the next five years as it did in the past two decades, according to the International Energy Agency. Renewables are poised to overtake coal as the largest source of electricity generation by early 2025, the agency found.

A landmark deal at COP27. Diplomats from nearly 200 countries concluded two weeks of climate talks by agreeing to establish a fund that would help poor countries cope with climate disasters made worse by the greenhouse gases from wealthy nations. The deal represented a breakthrough on one of the most contentious issues at the U.N. summit in Egypt.

The Saudi strategy. Despite the scientific consensus that the world must move away from fossil fuels to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, Saudi Arabia is deploying lobbying, research funding and diplomatic activities to keep oil at the center of the world economy.

U.S. climate threats. The effects of climate change are already “far-reaching and worsening” throughout the United States, posing risks to virtually every aspect of society, according to a draft report being circulated by the federal government. The United States has warmed 68 percent faster than Earth as a whole over the past 50 years, the draft report said.

The text is full of brackets, which set apart terms or phrases the parties have yet to agree on. So many brackets. If you want to go on a deep dive, Carbon Brief has been tracking them. With just a few days remaining (the talks are scheduled to end on Monday) a big question is whether they’ll be able to remove those brackets quickly enough.

The splashiest push has been one that would commit countries to protecting 30 percent of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030. Some have claimed that the conference will rise or fall on this target; others say it’s using up way too much oxygen. Either way, the percentage is still in brackets.

Who’s attending?

President Xi Jinping of China addressed the conference via video on Thursday.Credit…Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Delegates from the governments of almost all the countries of the world are here (at least 190 of them). There are also representatives from Indigenous communities, nonprofit groups and businesses. And journalists! Altogether, about 17,000 people have descended on Montreal for the event.

That’s less than half of the number that traveled to Egypt for the climate summit last month. And while presidents and prime ministers typically attend the climate talks, the highest-ranking officials here tend to be environment ministers.

Advocates had hoped to change that this year, pushing for heads of government to attend and bring their political capital. But they were unsuccessful.

The pandemic has complicated and delayed the talks. China currently holds the presidency of COP15, and the country’s Covid policies have made it difficult to bring delegates from around the world together in person. That’s why the talks ended up in Montreal; Canada stepped in to host, and together the two countries have been trying to corral the parties into an agreement.

The United States plays an odd role. Republicans have refused to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity, the global pact that provides for the meeting, so the United States is one of only two countries that are not a party to the talks. (The other is the Holy See.) Still, Monica Medina, an assistant secretary of state who was also recently named special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, is here with a team, working from the sidelines.

Despite everything, Ukraine’s environment minister, Ruslan Strilets, made it, too. In a dramatic moment on Thursday, he spoke of the terrible toll that Russia’s invasion has inflicted on nature in his country.

What are the biggest sticking points?

Money is the main one, although it’s discussed using a term that tries to be more polite: “resource mobilization.”

The Europeans are the biggest financial players here; the European Union has committed 7 billion euros to international biodiversity financing through 2027. The bloc is also pushing for ambitious targets. But countries of the global south are the richest in actual biodiversity, and they want to make sure that they have the money needed to fulfill any promises. Research shows that hundreds of billions of additional dollars per year could be required.

There is a global fund in place, but developing countries have criticized it as difficult to access. They’re calling for a new pot of money.

Earlier this week, countries of the global south walked out of meetings in protest. They say wealthy countries are asking for the conservation of natural resources after reaping the advantages of growing rich by exploiting them. The European Union is against a new fund, saying it would bring years of delays.

On Thursday, the United States noted that, this year, it had doubled its pledge to the current fund (which is called the Global Environment Facility and helps developing countries confront climate change, biodiversity loss and other environmental issues), promising $600 million over the next four years. “A huge percentage” would go to nature and biodiversity, Ms. Medina said.

Despite the tensions, some attendees with years of COP experience are calm, even optimistic. Others feel rattled.

What’s clear is that much work remains before talks are scheduled to close on Monday. Organizers are already warning they will go into overtime.

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