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Delegates hold talks at the COP15 biodiversity conference, in Montreal, on Dec. 15.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Delegates returned to the negotiating table at the COP15 nature talks in Montreal on Wednesday night and Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said he’s confident things are on track to get an ambitious, properly funded agreement to protect and restore nature around the world.

The talks for a global biodiversity framework hit a speed bump early Wednesday when more than 60 nations from the Global South walked out over concerns that pledges from rich countries to fund conservation were too small and too vague.

After a three-hour emergency session midday Wednesday with the heads of delegation for the 196 parties to the UN biodiversity convention, the negotiations resumed around 4 p.m. and lasted until close to midnight.

On Thursday, government ministers joined in, adding political weight to the talks, which are set to end on Dec. 19.

Mr. Guilbeault told The Canadian Press in an interview that China, which is the president of COP15 and overseeing the negotiations, is aiming to have a compromise agreement in place by Dec. 18.

“I’m totally confident,” Mr. Guilbeault said.

That confidence comes even though progress Wednesday night was minimal.

The draft agreement with four broad objectives and 22 targets is still covered in brackets around words and phrases the parties haven’t yet agreed to.

Wednesday night the hope was that negotiators would remove brackets without adding new words, but that didn’t happen. More text was indeed added.

Mr. Guilbeault said he thinks the state of the text isn’t yet reflective of the agreements under way and believes many of the outstanding issues were always going to remain outstanding until the ministers showed up.

He said the hurdle to overcome over the next three days is the perceived impasse between developed countries that want an ambitious target to protect 30 per cent of land and marine areas by 2030, and developing countries that want to make sure the financing is there to help them.

“Those of us who want ambition, in the north, certainly need to understand that we need to be serious about resource mobilization, and those countries in the south who want resources to be mobilized need to understand that there won’t be money unless there’s ambition,” he said.

There is an estimated US$700-billion funding gap annually between what is spent to conserve and restore biodiversity and what’s needed. Developed countries have made clear they cannot fill that gap on their own, and need corporations and philanthropic organizations to help.

Some developing nations and Indigenous communities around the world have raised concerns that the 30 by 30 target will be a land grab, forcing Indigenous peoples and local communities to vacate land they have occupied and worked to protect for centuries.

Marco Lambertini, the director general of World Wildlife Fund International, said the WWF is supportive of the 30 by 30 goal because it doesn’t have to mean Indigenous communities are pushed out.

“I actually firmly believe that the 30 by 30 is an incredible opportunity for Indigenous populations and local communities to see their rights recognized,” he said.

Mr. Lambertini is less confident in the state of the talks than Mr. Guilbeault is.

“We’re stuck,” he said.

Mr. Lambertini said countries “are failing” to come up with the needed money to support conservation efforts and some negotiators are continuing to try and dilute the ambition of the proposed targets.

“Ambition has gone down not up,” he said. “That has to change.”

Mr. Guilbeault downplayed Wednesday’s walkout as par for the course in such negotiations, be it around global climate plans or biodiversity.

“I’ve lost count of the number of times some countries have decided to leave the meeting in a very theatrical way to get attention,” he said.

China has now assigned six countries to team up in pairs and work the room on three areas. Canada and Egypt will work to move the needle on the land and marine-protection goals, Germany and Rwanda are joining up on mobilizing the financing, and Chile and Norway will work on what is known as digital-sequencing information from genetic resources, or DSI.

The DSI debate is one of the more technical discussions at COP15, involving how countries share and benefit from digitally-stored DNA or RNA data from species in their territories. The information is critical to a number of research and commercialization fronts, including in public health, medicine and plant and animal breeding.

Destruction of nature has serious consequences for human health and prosperity, affecting everything from clean air and clean water to food security and economic growth. The destruction of and human encroachment into wild ecosystems is also raising health risks from animal-borne viruses, an issue many people are more acutely aware of as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

The last biodiversity framework, agreed to in Japan in 2010, failed to achieve almost any of its targets, mainly because of a lack of financing and a lack of targets that could be measured to monitor progress.

As the ministers took their seats Thursday, the rhetoric around what it could mean to fail again was intense.

“This is not a gathering to save the Earth, we are here to save ourselves,” said Csaba Krsi, the president of the United Nations General Assembly.

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