Why the 'ugly duckling' of nature conferences is about to come out in Canada

Why the ‘ugly duckling’ of nature conferences is about to come out in Canada

Once upon a time in Rio de Janeiro, twin treaties were born. One was designed to stop climate change; the other to save nature – forests, rivers, oceans, grasslands, bogs, tundra and all other wild places, and all the animals that depend on them.

The “parents” of the two treaties, the international delegates to the United Nations-led Earth Summit in 1992, had high hopes that these sister conventions would save the planet.

The climate change convention has grown in the spotlight. Every time delegates have gathered to negotiate it – most recently in Egypt last month – heads of state, civil society leaders and the global press have descended. But after 30 years of disappointment, many have become disenchanted with the treaty’s prospects of stopping global warming.

The Nature Accord, officially known as the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, has received far less attention.

“I’ve always felt that the Convention on Biological Diversity was a bit like the ugly duckling of global international politics,” says Faisal Moola, a professor at the University of Guelph and former executive director of the environmental group of the David Suzuki Foundation.

But over the next two weeks in Montreal, the treaty will have what could be its exit party. More than 20,000 delegates from around the world are arriving to negotiate a new agreement that will create a roadmap for the next decade to halt the loss of nature – a decline so deep that researchers say we are facing an event of mass extinction.

Canada should push for an ambitious new goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030, and the government has already committed to achieving this goal at the national level. But the international agreement could still be undermined by mushy language, insufficient funding and withered political will – powerful anxiety after the still-fresh disappointment of what was widely seen as a failure of the climate talks in Egypt.

Nonetheless, those heading to Montreal are expressing what appears to be genuine optimism.

“Can we get there? Yes,” says Aerin Jacob, director of science and research at the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

“Are we going? We have to.”

Another major source of optimism, and much of the reason Canada has made progress towards its goals, is due to the desire to prioritize Indigenous-led conservation. Millions of hectares in Canada, including tracts of untouched wilderness the size of entire foreign countries, have been designated as Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, under the belief that the best stewards of these lands are those of the original .

“We are seeing a trend towards recognition of the work of Indigenous peoples around the world,” says Valérie Courtois, Executive Director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative.

Then-U.S. President George Bush is watched by First Lady Barbara Bush as he signs the Earth Pledge during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, June 12, 1992.

While the so-called “30 by 30” target is important, Courtois said, she also wants to see recognition of Indigenous rights and title built into each target’s language, and something more intangible: an appreciation of the connection between people and the land.

“We care about results because our very future as peoples is at stake when it comes to this work,” Courtois said.

The last time the parties to the convention met was in Japan in 2010. A set of 20 goals emerged from that meeting, including a primary goal to protect 17% of Earth’s land and freshwater. by 2020 and 10% of its oceans. .

None of these objectives have been fully achieved at the international level and the planned follow-up conference has been postponed several times due to the pandemic. China was originally scheduled to host the delayed meeting this fall, but due to uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the venue was moved to Montreal, where the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity has been located since its inception after the Summit of the Land of 1992 (Canada was the very first signatory).

Canada’s achievements in meeting these targets have been mixed. The country has gone from protecting just 1% of its oceans to 14%, although environmental groups have argued that some of the mechanisms used for protection are too porous and leave marine species at risk.

On land, Canada is just short of the 14% protection as well, well below the 17% target. But momentum has been building since 2010 – including funding for dozens of indigenous protected and conserved areas that have been established or are in planning.

One of them is the Seal River watershed, a vast area in far northern Manitoba that’s larger than Costa Rica and almost completely untouched, even by roads.

“The place I call home, where I grew up, is a place that doesn’t really exist in many places in the world. And we understand the enormous importance it has in protecting a place like this,” said Stephanie Thorassie, executive director of the Seal River Watershed Alliance.

“It’s a fully intact watershed. Every area of ​​the watershed affected by water is as it has been since my great-great-great-great-grandparents used to walk and follow caribou.

The watershed is a prime example of why the twin treaties to address climate change and biodiversity loss are in fact conjoined. The region is home to 23 species at risk, including polar bears, beluga whales, grizzly bears and barren-ground caribou. Its peatlands also store two billion tonnes of carbon — the equivalent, Thorassie noted, of eight years of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Nature degradation is accelerating the effects of climate change, while nature conservation provides respite from its worst consequences, experts say.

Moola noted that Canada’s boreal forest stores more carbon than the Amazon forest. It’s actually the largest terrestrial carbon store in the world, and currently holds 11 of Earth’s total.

“We’re one of the places on the planet where if you want it done right, you have to do it here in Canada,” he said.


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