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Police walk past the Palais des congrès, the site of the COP15, in Montreal Dec. 1.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

When representatives from more than 190 countries assemble in Montreal this week to try to negotiate a landmark agreement on global biodiversity, their focus will be on Mother Nature.

But it’s human nature that will determine the outcome.

That’s why the pivotal meeting known as COP15 has been put off for more than two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Elizabeth Marma Mrema, who leads the United Nations Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

While countries can state their positions easily enough on a conference call, getting participants to compromise to reach agreements requires that all the channels of human communication are open and that sensitive negotiations can carry on face-to-face inside rooms and corridors around the formal proceedings.

“People have to see each other,” said Ms. Mrema. Without the body language, the eye contact and the sense of engagement that comes with being in the same room, “you eventually reach a deadlock.”

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A career diplomat and environmental lawyer from Tanzania, Ms. Mrema has seen plenty of big meetings in her two decades with the UN. But COP15, which is the 15th session of the parties to the 1992 convention, is shaping up to be the biggest and most consequential gathering about the future of life on Earth so far. The meeting is expected to draw more than 12,000 participants.

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Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante and Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, UN Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, hold up bags of milkweed seeds in Montreal, on Nov. 9. Plante made an announcement on the protection of pollinating insects ahead of a UN conference on biodiversity in Montreal.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The stakes are high. Since the last time countries undertook such an effort in 2010, scientists have determined that approximately one million species face extinction if action is not taken. On land and at sea, ecosystems in every region of the globe are threatened. And the growing impact of climate change has only exacerbated the loss of nature through other human activities.

At the same time, the climate crisis has drawn attention to the role of natural landscapes in locking up carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere, said Andrew Deutz, director of global policy institutions and conservation finance for the Washington-based Nature Conservancy and its Canadian affiliate, Nature United.

“We’ve done the math,” Dr. Deutz said. “The science shows that close to a third of the near-term mitigation opportunity is in nature. It’s in protecting forests, restoring forests, improving our management of grasslands and other ecosystems.”

The aim of COP15 is to begin to reverse the loss of those ecosystems by hammering out a new framework for the protection and restoration of global biodiversity.

At a political level, an effective result can do for nature what the Paris agreement has done for climate: provide a scientifically informed common goal around which national policies can be set and international deals supported.

More fundamentally, the point is to prevent the wholesale collapse of biodiversity and instead put the nature on a path toward recovery by mid-century.

The challenge is daunting, and any agreement achieved at COP15 will still have to be implemented, with each country’s progress measured against its promises, with the costs and benefits of conserving nature shared in an equitable way.

“It has to be a whole of society approach – this is everybody,” said Aerin Jacob, national director of conservation science and research at the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an environmental organization that is participating in the Canadian delegation.

As host, Canada has stepped into the spotlight in a way that was not foreseen six months ago. The conference was originally to take place in Kunming, China. Then the pandemic hit, forcing a pause until proceedings could be launched virtually in the fall of 2021.

But the bulk of the agenda, including negotiations for a new framework, were rescheduled for a time when China was ready to host an international meeting. By last June no such time was in sight. Fearful of losing momentum, organizers shifted the venue to Montreal, where the Secretariat of the UN convention is based – though with China still retaining its official role as conference president.

In the interim, the long delay has served to both heighten hopes for a meaningful outcome to COP15 and concerns if nothing substantial emerges.

Ms. Mrema said her threshold for success is not simply the production of “a framework for the sake of a framework.” Rather, success will mean having a document that is “ambitious, transformative, actionable, realistic and achievable.”

Her words reflect the tension between what is needed and what is possible – a dynamic that has shaped the draft of the framework that participants will be asked to consider.

“The parties asked us to have targets that were ambitious in terms of enabling them to reach the goal, but realistic in terms of the capacity to reach them,” said Basile Van Havre, co-chair of the working group that created the document.

A long-time official with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Mr. Van Havre took on the role in 2018, not realizing then that it would become a four-year odyssey. In that time he has seen his work evolve from “draft zero” to an “ugly draft” to a more streamlined version that will inform COP15.

That document includes four key goals which cover the protection of ecosystems, the sustainable use of biodiversity, the equitable sharing of biodiversity’s benefits, including genetic resources that lead to medicines and other valuable assets, and the global allocation of resources to ensure that countries can maintain biodiversity within their own borders.

In addition, the document features 23 targets for achieving these goals. High on the list is that countries should set aside at least 30 per cent of their land and waters for nature by 2030, an idea that Canada has already signed onto.

But the road has been difficult. The text of the document remains littered with some 1,800 bracketed words and phrases that represent points of disagreement. Starting on Saturday, the working group will meet one more time to try to reduce the number of brackets before the official opening of COP15 on Tuesday.

Mr. Van Havre said he is encouraged by one of the only targets that has been accepted without argument. Known as Target 12, it calls on countries to significantly increase access to natural green and blue spaces in urban and densely populated areas.

“I think it says that everybody recognizes the importance of a connection to nature and the role that nature plays in everybody’s life,” he said.

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