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World leaders tackle a tall order: How to preserve life on Earth

Sumatran elephants in Way Kambas, Lampung, Indonesia.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images/Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

It might as well be called the God conference.

Over the next 11 days, 193 national delegations will descend on Nagoya, Japan, in pursuit of a vexing goal befitting a deity: how to preserve life on Earth.

At stake is the fate of the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international agreement signed amid great hope and fanfare in the early 1990s, the status of which has fizzled steadily ever since. The document bound countries to cut mass species loss "significantly" and preserve 10 per cent of the world's ecological regions by 2010. But this year brought the sobering realization that not one country had met those targets.

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After 20 years of high-level talks and treaties, mass extinction continues apace at between 1,500 and 15,000 species a year, depending on the estimate, and leaders are running out of opportunities to turn it around.

"This is the one chance governments have to fix the loss of species and loss of biodiversity, said Bill Jackson, deputy director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Switzerland-based group working closely with governments in Nagoya. "In some ecosystems, we only have 10 or 15 years left before they're gone."

Part of the problem is cosmetic. Since then-prime-minister Brian Mulroney first signed the convention on behalf of Canada in 1992, the issue of biodiversity loss has been overshadowed by sexier environmental fixations such as holes in the ozone, electric cars, acid rain and climate change.

But the tattered biodiversity treaty needs more than a little lipstick to return to strength, and Canada is expected to play a pivotal role in deciding how, or if, talks progress. Three contentious issues have the potential to derail the entire meeting.

1. Let's Share

A powerful faction of 17 developing countries bearing the overbearing moniker Group of Like Minded Megadiverse Countries have formed to accuse their richer counterparts of biopiracy, the plundering of biological resources from poor countries without paying royalties.

The brunt of their complaints focus on pharmaceutical, cosmetic and chemical companies that scour the globe for substances they can synthesize for mass production - sometimes worth billions of dollars.

The Megadiverse - which includes developing powerhouses India, China and Brazil - wants regulations in place that would compensate them for pirated resources. With Canada leading the way, Western nations have largely resisted, according to those involved in the negotiations.

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"There has been a lot of reluctance from developed countries like Canada," said Merle Alexander, a Vancouver lawyer and North American representative for the Convention's Indigenous Negotiators Group. "It's been a pretty painful process."

But federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice defended Canada's role, saying that access and benefit sharing, or ABS, will represent the most difficult area of negotiations this week. "I don't know if we are going to arrive on an agreement regarding ABS," he said. "That work may carry on beyond Nagoya, and Canada will remain and active participant."

2. Who Pays

The startling failure of even a single country to meet its biodiversity targets can be attributed largely to a lack of cash. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development puts roughly three times more money into climate-change mitigation than biodiversity projects. Most Western governments mirror that ratio. But most developing countries fall well short for obvious reasons - and now they're demanding that rich countries bankroll their conservation efforts.

That wealth gap is reflected in worldwide trends for species loss. A recent World Wildlife Fund inventory of world biodiversity over the past 40 years found that while extinction rates continue unabated in the developing world, they have levelled off in the West, where expensive conservation projects have a ready place in national budgets.

Member countries will hash out new funding models such as biodiversity offsets, the phasing out of subsidies to ecosystem-damaging industries such as fishing and Payments for Environmental Services, a system that would provide subsidies to landowners who manage their land in a way that encourages plant and animal life.

The current government favours investments in the Global Environmental Facility, a global fund that invests in biodiversity projects. In May, Ottawa increased its support for the fund by 50 per cent to $238-million over the next four years.

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3. What's Next

With its ambitious targets undermined by inaction, the future viability of the convention hangs in the balance. Several groups have suggested new 2020 targets, most with a heavy emphasis on marine habitat, the most neglected of all ecosystems over the past decade.

The Montreal-based CBD Secretariat (funded in part by $800,000 in federal funds) has proposed 20 new targets that include the elimination of subsidies harmful to biodiversity, reducing by half the degradation of forest ecosystems, eliminating destructive fishing methods and protecting 15 per cent of land and sea areas.

Mr. Prentice will attend the final days of negotiations as a symbol of how seriously Canada takes the convention.

Missing the 2010 targets should inspire us all to do better. I do hope we will successfully negotiate a new protocol," Mr. Prentice said. "It's an extremely important summit because biodiversity is an area where we all need to improve. This is a real issue for us and our children."

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