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The world is negotiating a new plan to protect nature. Here’s how it works

Thousands of delegates representing 192 countries will spend the next two weeks meeting in Montreal, hammering out a once-in-a-decade agreement meant to protect, conserve and equitably share nature. Here's your guide to why it matters, who will be there and what to expect.

Expect difficult negotiations as delegates finalize plan to protect nature for the next decade

Thousands of delegates representing 192 countries will spend the next two weeks in Montreal, hammering out a once-in-a-decade agreement that will aim to build a more sustainable relationship between humans and nature.

The UN biodiversity summit, known as COP15, officially kicks off Dec. 7 in Montreal. If all goes according to plan, the conference will produce a new agreement outlining global biodiversity goals for the next 10 years.

The conference is supposed to wrap up on Dec. 19, but negotiations may run into overtime.

Here's what you need to know.

What's the difference between COP15 and COP27?

COP, in United Nations jargon, simply means Conference of Parties. It is a decision-making body made up of countries that have signed a convention.

COP15 is different from the climate change summit, COP27, which was recently held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. That conference was under the umbrella of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The Montreal summit, COP15, is a meeting under the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 1992, 150 government leaders first signed that convention at the Rio Earth Summit.

While biodiversity and climate change are related issues, the two conventions are separate.

This meeting marks the second part of COP15, sometimes referred to as the Nature COP or the UN biodiversity summit. The first part was held last year as a mostly virtual conference based in Kunming, China.

Though it's being hosted in Montreal, the summit is chaired under the presidency of China.

Why should you care?

The biodiversity summit is a big deal, because it's likely to result in a new framework or agreement, outlining goals for how the world should protect nature and use it more sustainably and equitably.

"The food we eat comes from biodiversity, the water we drink comes from biodiversity. The air we breathe [comes from biodiversity]," said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The ultimate goal is to stop biodiversity loss and build a sustainable relationship with nature in response to unprecedented rates of declining nature and species extinction.

Why do we need a new plan?

The pressure is on to create a new agreement with better monitoring and financing built in after countries, including Canada, failed to meet the 2020 goals of the last biodiversity plan, known as the Aichi targets.

Basile Van Havre helps to mediate negotiations as co-chair of the Convention on Biological Diversity's Open-Ended Working Group for a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

"The lesson from the Aichi system is that, when you put easy to understand numerical targets, they get attention," he said. "We need to put in place a much more robust system that enables progress to be measured as we go."

A key goal of the former Aichi plan was to conserve at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020.

The new target under the draft agreement is the much-talked about 30 by 30 goal: preserving 30 per cent of land, freshwater and oceans by 2030.

Canada has already committed to that pledge. The latest figures show Canada has conserved 13.5 per cent of its land and freshwater and 13.9 per cent of marine territory.

What are the key goals and challenges?

The draft agreement is still littered with items that need to be negotiated and finalized, but generally speaking the key points include halting nature loss, preventing human-caused species extinction, reducing pollution, sustainable management of agriculture and forestry industries and sharing the benefits of genetic resources fairly and equitably.

There have been many calls from various environmental and Indigenous groups for the framework to also recognize the leadership of Indigenous communities as stewards of nature.

"The global community, in looking to protect 30 per cent of lands and waters, is in some ways catching up to Indigenous ambitions of conservation," said Valérie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative and a member of the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh, Quebec.

"We understand that our very survival is dependent on the health of these landscapes … we know that if we take care of the land, it will take care of us."

As far as sticking points in negotiations, Van Havre said there are three key ones: how ambitious the plan should be, how it will be financed and how to ensure progress is measured and reported transparently.

"The negotiation will be difficult, no doubt. There is a huge change at play," he said. "But I have not seen anybody saying they don't want an agreement."

Asked how likely he thinks there will be an agreement by Dec. 19, he said it's possible talks will go into overtime.

"Will we be done by 6 p.m. on the 19th? Maybe not. Will I have granola bars in my pocket that day? A lot."

Who is attending?

A total 15,723 people, including government representatives, NGO members and journalists, have registered to attend the UN biodiversity summit in person, though the actual number of people who show up may be less.

While the summit is being hosted in Montreal, it's chaired by China. The only head of state expected to attend is Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. China will be represented by its minister of environment and COP 15 president Huang Runqiu.

Traditionally, world leaders do not attend the biodiversity summits, but instead send ministerial representatives to negotiations.

Mrema said state leaders don't need to attend, as long as they signal they are committed to the process.

"Hopefully at the end of the day there will be an agreement, a consensus … which is transformative and ambitious," she said.

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