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New pledges by G7 leaders on climate change and biodiversity loss will boost efforts to strike a global pact to protect nature, but an October deadline is likely to be missed without in-person talks, officials and observers said Tuesday.

Nearly 200 countries are expected to agree to the text of a new global treaty to safeguard the planet’s plants, animals and ecosystems at a U.N. summit from Oct. 11 to Oct. 24 in China, which has already been delayed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Basile van Havre, co-chair of the group developing the nature deal for the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), said the equivalent of at least two full weeks of face-to-face negotiations would be needed to prepare for the summit.

“We are facing a perfect storm … a once-in-a-decade negotiation during a pandemic,” he said after six weeks of online talks ended on Sunday.

While work has progressed well, negotiations “may have reached the limit of the online process”, he added.

Better conservation and management of natural areas, such as parks, oceans, forests and wildernesses, are seen as key for protecting the ecosystems on which humans depend and for meeting targets to reduce planet-warming emissions.

But forests are still being cut down — often to produce commodities such as palm oil — destroying biodiversity and threatening climate goals, as trees absorb about a third of carbon emissions produced worldwide.

Last year, a U.N. report showed the world’s governments had fallen short on global targets set in 2010 to protect biodiversity, though conservation efforts showed the destruction of nature could be slowed, or even reversed.

More virtual talks on the new global nature pact are due in August, with the ultimate aim of landing a deal in October similar to the 2015 Paris Agreement under which governments set targets to avert catastrophic climate change.

Youth climate activists, who began their trek in Paradise, California, march across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on Monday. | REUTERS
Youth climate activists, who began their trek in Paradise, California, march across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco on Monday. | REUTERS

The in-person meetings vital to reaching an ambitious nature accord would need to happen in September, said van Havre, adding that vaccinating delegates to allow this would likely prove difficult due to worries around queue-jumping in some countries.

“Can you imagine the Paris Agreement being negotiated online? That’s the kind of scale we’re talking about,” he said.

“We have a significant amount of work in front of us … With the energy and engagement of everybody, we can pull this through — we have no choice,” he added.

Challenges unresolved

Switching the CBD talks online in response to the pandemic has led to connectivity problems for some developing countries, while negotiators and observers in Asia-Pacific have struggled to cope with sessions outside their time zones, said U.N. officials and environmentalists.

Important areas where agreement has yet to be reached include finance and technology sharing, as well as accountability, monitoring and implementation of expected new targets, they added.

“My main concern is a lot of the controversial or difficult issues have been left unresolved,” said Georgina Chandler, senior international policy officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a U.K.-based conservation group.

Chandler, who has attended and followed the negotiations for the last five years, called for clear leadership from key players including the European Union and China, as well as ambition from developing countries.

Van Havre said remaining issues could be overcome given enough time and the right work environment.

On finance, the big challenge is finding the money needed to make economic sectors that directly affect nature — such as agriculture and forestry — more sustainable, which would cost $500 billion to $700 billion annually, he said.

This could be done by redirecting government incentives and subsidies away from harmful things like fossil fuels and fertilizers, he added.

Protesters stand on debris of trees that were cut down near Port Renfrew, British Columbia, in May. | REUTERS
Protesters stand on debris of trees that were cut down near Port Renfrew, British Columbia, in May. | REUTERS

Connected issues

Last weekend, leaders of G7 wealthy nations pledged to protect at least 30% of their land and oceans by 2030 (dubbed “30×30”), and acknowledged the “existential threat” posed by the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

The 30×30 proposal has already been backed by a coalition of about 60 countries. The goal is included in the draft for the global nature pact, is gaining support and is unlikely to be dropped, said Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the CBD.

But it will require governments to respect the rights of indigenous groups and communities living in protected areas, said Mrema, noting that they often played an important role in conservation.

The G7’s recognition of the linkages between climate change and biodiversity loss is significant, Mrema noted. But, for now, the G7 statements “are words” and “we have to see them practically on the ground to really measure their success”, she cautioned.

To curb climate change, countries must also tackle biodiversity loss, land degradation, and pollution of the air and oceans, Mrema said.

Li Shuo, a policy advisor at Greenpeace China, said the 30×30 goal was shaping up as “the headline deliverable” from October’s summit.

“Anyone standing in the way of it needs to carefully consider the reputational ramifications,” he added.

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