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What is the UN nature conference in Montreal and what will it achieve?

Countries are gathering to negotiate another environmental deal under a UN treaty – this time to try to halt and reverse declines in nature.

Here are the key questions about the “Cop15” conference on biodiversity answered.

– What is Cop15? 

It is the latest meeting – conference of the parties or Cop – under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

It is colloquially known as the “Nature Cop” because it focuses on protecting and restoring biodiversity.

It is taking place in Montreal, Canada, but is being chaired by the Chinese, who had been due to host it in Kunming in 2020 before the pandemic struck, and who held part one of Cop15 a year ago, partly online.

The talks have been moved to Canada while China continues to battle Covid-19 with lockdowns and tough restrictions.

– What is up for discussion?

The aim is to secure agreement on new efforts to tackle the nature crisis.

Countries including the UK have formed a “high-ambition coalition for nature and people” which is pushing for a new deal that will halt and reverse declines in nature by 2030.

They want to see measures including protecting at least 30% of land and ocean by 2030.

Also up for debate are targets to halt species extinctions, getting more of the world’s land under effective restoration for nature, efforts to tackle pollution and pesticide use, ways of reviewing and tracking countries’ progress, and who benefits from information on genetic material in nature.

And, of course, there is the issue of money to pay for it all.

– So is it like the climate Cops we keep having?

Yes, and no. Like the UN climate change Cops, the process was formed under one of the treaties agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992, although the big CBD meetings only happen once every two years, unlike the annual climate talks.

Conservationists have been pushing for this meeting to secure a “Paris-style deal for nature” – similar to the comprehensive treaty agreed in the French capital in 2015 to curb dangerous global warming.

The two issues of climate and nature are closely interlinked, with destruction of habitats such as forests hitting wildlife and driving up carbon emissions, rising temperatures harming species, and solutions – such as restoring woodlands, peatland and mangroves – beneficial to both crises.

But any targets that are agreed in Montreal will not be legally binding.

And a key difference is the US is not a party to the treaty, only an observer, so there will not be the powerful US-China dynamic there is on climate change, and more influence from other countries – from the EU to African nations such as Gabon – in the talks.

Cop15 in Montreal is also not to be confused with the deeply troubled climate Cop15 which took place in Copenhagen in 2009.

– Why do we need it?

Nature is in big trouble, and because all human activity – from food production and water resources to livelihoods, health, wellbeing and culture – depends on a healthy natural environment, that means we are too.

Scientists warn up to a million species are at risk of extinction, some in a matter of decades, hundreds of vertebrates such as animals and birds have already been lost, and global wildlife populations have declined by 69% on average in 50 years.

The biggest cause of wildlife losses is change to the way land or marine environments are used by humans, followed by direct exploitation of animals and plants, climate change, pollution and invasive species.

Three-quarters of the world’s land has been significantly altered by human activity, with forests cut down and grassland ploughed up for crops or livestock and the spread of cities, industry and infrastructure such as roads.

A quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are caused by clearing land, growing crops and using fertilisers, largely to produce meat and dairy, hundreds of billions of pounds of annual global crops are at risk from pollinator losses, and our intrusion into nature is pushing up the risk of pandemics.

– What about the UK?

The UK is positioning itself as a leader on nature, and ministers say they want to see an ambitious outcome at the Montreal talks.

But the UK has been labelled “one of the most nature-depleted” on Earth.

The Government is championing the protection of 30% of land and sea by 2030, and has pledged to deliver that domestically, but a recent assessment by conservationists suggests just 3.22% of England’s land and 8% of its seas is properly protected.

Green groups have also criticised the Government in England for delays in rolling out nature-friendly farming payments,  improving national parks for wildlife and reintroducing key species such as beavers, and for legislation that they fear will undermine EU-era environmental protections.

– What will the talks achieve?

It is too early to say what the final deal will include.

But a series of targets set in 2010 in Aichi, Japan, under the CBD process, were all missed, so the agreement alone will not deliver the action needed to restore nature, it will take action by countries and finance flows to secure a result.

A UN-backed report in 2019 warned of the need for a transformation in economies and societies.

This includes shifting away from concentrating on economic growth, bringing in wildlife-friendly farming, restoring habitats, cutting food waste, creating marine protected areas and effective quotas for fishing, reducing pollution and creating more green space in cities.

And just as with climate action, there are powerful interests determined to preserve the status quo.

– Any other controversies?

Some human rights groups, such as Survival International, fear efforts to protect 30% of the Earth’s land will create more protected areas that exclude indigenous people and local communities, which they say lead to abuse and devastate the livelihoods of millions of people.

They, along with a number of environmental groups, are calling for a “rights based” approach in the deal that recognises the land rights of indigenous people and local communities and their key role in nature conservation.

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