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Pelicans fly over a lake in the Danube delta, one of the most biodiverse regions in Europe, in Romania in 2012. The COP 15 UN summit conference on biodiversity is moving from Kunming, China, to Montreal.Radu Sigheti/Reuters

A pivotal UN summit conference on biodiversity is moving from Kunming, China, to Montreal, putting the Canadian city at centre stage for what could be the most important meeting for threatened wildlife and ecosystems in a dozen years.

Citing uncertainties in China related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, said on Tuesday that the next Conference of the Parties, COP 15, has now been relocated and is set to run from Dec. 5-17.

Because the CBD secretariat is based in Montreal, the city serves as an automatic fallback location for meetings related to the convention. However, Ms. Mrema said, the secretariat’s headquarters is small, and the relocation of a major conference that is expected to draw upward of 10,000 international delegates could not be considered without Canada’s “readiness to speedily step in” to provide a location for the remainder of COP 15.

During the meeting, China will retain its official role as president of the relocated COP.

If an agreement on biodiversity is reached in Montreal, its role and significance would be comparable to that of the Paris climate agreement, which guides international actions to keep the average global temperature from rising more than 2 C above preindustrial levels.

COP 15, which was originally planned to take place in Kunming in October, 2020, has already been postponed several times because of the pandemic. An introductory portion of the conference was held virtually last fall with negotiations set to follow in Kunming in April. But then the timeline slipped again and became less certain, as China enforced its zero-COVID policy while wrestling with the latest wave of the public-health crisis.

Speaking in Nairobi, Kenya, Ms. Mrema said her organization could not risk losing another year in the effort to forge a renewed international agreement to halt the destruction of nature.

“The question is, how long would we have waited to say, now let us give up,” she said.

Deputy executive secretary David Cooper said the decision to relocate follows weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions with China, Canada and other UN centres as officials worked to keep COP 15 on track.

He added that establishing a firm date and location for the meeting “is not only a great relief, I think it now provides a clear focus” for negotiators who are in Nairobi this week to make progress on a new framework for curbing biodiversity loss that can be adopted during COP 15 in Montreal.

COP 15 has the potential to be the most consequential international gathering on nature since 2010, when signatories to the Convention on Biodiversity, including Canada, hammered out a set of targets for safeguarding ecosystems and species.

Those so-called “Aichi targets,” named after the Japanese prefecture where the 2010 conference was held, have largely gone unmet. They expired in 2020 but continue to serve as the foundation for a new round of negotiations that are intended to include a more quantifiable set of goals to protect nature.

During the opening session at the Nairobi meeting, representatives from Costa Rica issued a statement on behalf of 48 countries, including Canada, that advocates for new targets for COP 15 that are “specific, measurable, ambitious, relevant and time bound.”

The statement also says that more than half the world’s gross domestic product, or about US$44-trillion, is estimated to be moderately or significantly dependent on global biodiversity and that the negative impacts of biodiversity loss are disproportionately felt by the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Justina Ray, president and senior scientist of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and a member of Canada’s delegation to talks, said that the new framework will need to incorporate equity, Indigenous rights and public health – all of which are increasingly seen as integral to achieving a workable balance between humans and the planet’s natural life support system.

She added that while Canada has plenty of work to do in developing and realizing its own biodiversity goals, its positions carry weight at the international conference table.

“The ultimate goal is that the global biodiversity framework gets results in Montreal,” Dr. Ray said. But coming forward on short notice to host COP 15 “already says a lot about Canada’s commitment.”

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