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Police officers patrol outside the Palais de Congres, during the opening of COP15 on Dec. 6, the two-week U.N. biodiversity summit in Montreal.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

With formal negotiations set to begin on an international agreement to protect nature, officials and observers at the 15th United Nations conference on biodiversity in Montreal are imploring delegates to seek common ground and prevent the meeting from hitting an impasse.

Representatives from 196 countries who are party to the UN Convention on Biodiversity are set to begin talks on Wednesday. The central purpose of the meeting, known as COP15, is to hammer out a new framework under the convention, with agreed targets to be met by 2030. The previous framework expired in 2020 with none of its targets met.

But even as negotiators assemble at the starting line, the road before them appears to be a steeper climb than it did even a few days ago. A working group meeting ahead of the full conference ended on Monday without a draft framework for delegates. Instead the group produced only separate parts of what may nor may not be incorporated into a final agreement.

“There are some governments that are really strong on conservation and want to do the right thing,” said Susan Lieberman, vice-president of international policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We’re not telling them to give in. We’re telling the ones that are kind of holding things up that they really need to get with the program. You can’t put this off for 10 years.”

Dr. Lieberman said she expects that talks could bog down until the 11th hour unless senior officials from member countries give negotiators the freedom to work together toward a consensus.

COP15 was initially intended to take place in 2020 in China, but it has been delayed two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the venue shifted to Montreal.

Over all, the meeting has been billed as the last best chance to put species and ecosystems on a path to recovery by mid-century. It is also seen as essential for reaching global climate goals under the 2015 Paris Agreement, since those goals depend on a large fraction of the world’s carbon staying locked up in the natural environment.

“Nature is a part of who we are. And we’re here today at COP15 to make sure it remains part of who we will be for generations to come,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the meeting’s opening ceremony on Tuesday.

During his speech, Mr. Trudeau was interrupted by Indigenous protesters and their allies. The two-week gathering at Montreal’s Palais des congrès has drawn 12,000 participants, with many more involved in side events around the main meeting, all aimed at focusing public attention on the escalating threats that endanger ecosystems and species around the globe.

At a news briefing before the opening ceremony, Elizabeth Mrema, who heads the UN Secretariat for the convention, reported that the working group had made limited progress “but not so much as needed or expected” to produce a coherent version of the framework to pass on to negotiators to finalize during COP15.

That outcome places a greater burden on COP15 itself, during which negotiators will need to resolve numerous differences in order to reach an agreement by the time the conference ends on Dec. 19.

Among the issues debated by the working group are how countries should share in the benefits derived from nature, and how the rights of communities to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment should be recognized.

At a separate briefing, Guido Broekhoven, head of policy research and development for the environmental organization WWF International, said the wrangling on the wording around those issues meant that participants in the working group had little time for other fundamental questions, such as how much land and marine areas countries would agree to permanently set aside for the protection of nature.

Canada is among the countries that have committed to a target of setting aside 30 per cent of their territory by 2030, often referred to as “30 by 30.″ On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau reiterated the commitment, but the target has not yet been settled as a part of the framework.

During the working group meeting “the target of 30 by 30 was not even discussed, and also ambition on restoration was pushed forward to further discussion at the COP itself,” Mr. Broekhoven said.

Another point of contention likely to challenge negotiators falls under the category of “resource mobilization,” which includes the money public and private entities will need to spend to ensure any agreement that emerges from COP15 can realistically be implemented. A common theme that the biodiversity talks share with climate change is an awareness that the wealthiest countries that have benefitted most from the use of the planet’s resources also bear proportional responsibility for dealing with the fallout.

“We cannot expect developing countries to shoulder this burden alone,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres during the opening ceremony.

An expert report published in 2020 by The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based environmental group, found that the financing gap between the amount required to protect global biodiversity and the amount actually spent amounted to roughly US$700-billion per year.

The report also found that much of that gap could be closed by shifting to a more nature-focused deployment of existing resources, including an end to government subsidies that encourage biodiversity loss.

On Tuesday, Inger Andersen, president of the UN Environment Programme, said COP15 is an opportunity nations can ill afford to squander if the goal is to avoid future calamities, including hunger, disease and death through the continued degradation of nature in its role as the planet’s life support system.

“It’s absolutely critical that negotiators realize it’s down to the wire now,” Ms. Andersen said. “It’s time to come under the big tent … It’s now time for everyone to move a little.”