KUALA LUMPUR/NAIROBI - Vital talks aimed at hammering out a new global pact to protect and restore nature did not make sufficient progress last week and are on the brink of failure, environmentalists have warned, urging political leaders to step in to salvage negotiations.
About 195 countries are set to finalise a deal to stem human damage to plants, animals and ecosystems - similar to the Paris climate agreement - at a U.N. summit, known as COP15, now set for December after being switched from China to Montreal.
The talks have been delayed due to logistical difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Negotiators met in Nairobi last week to work on a draft agreement after the first in-person session in two years in Geneva in March fell short.
Marco Lambertini, director general of green group WWF International, said governments had moved forward on "very few elements of the draft" text during the last six days of talks.
That, he warned, leaves "the chance of securing an ambitious global agreement capable of tackling the world's accelerating nature crisis hanging by a thread".
"We risk facing a 2030 world with even less biodiversity than we have today, driving entire ecosystems to collapse - that is just unacceptable," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Improving conservation and management of natural areas, such as parks, oceans, forests and wetlands, is seen as vital to safeguarding the ecosystems and wildlife on which people depend and limiting global warming to internationally agreed goals.
But forests are still being cut down worldwide - often to produce commodities like palm oil, soybean and beef - destroying biodiversity and undermining climate action, as trees absorb about a third of planet-warming emissions produced worldwide.
The aim in Nairobi was to clean up and simplify the draft accord and reach consensus on its targets - but instead greater complexity was added amid a lack of ambition, said Lambertini, who singled out Brazil for undermining discussions.
"World leaders that have committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030 ... need to show leadership," he added. "We need to see their commitments matched by both ambition at the negotiations and action on the ground."
Basile van Havre, co-chair of the group developing the deal for the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), agreed a "significant" amount of work remained but said it was "do-able", urging ministers to engage with the process to secure a good global biodiversity framework.
He had seen Brazil play a constructive role in the past week, with no country blocking progress, he added.
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, CBD executive secretary, said the Nairobi talks had entered into serious negotiation and laid the groundwork for compromises on the accord before Montreal.
But environmentalists largely took a more pessimistic view.
Li Shuo, a policy advisor at Greenpeace China, said Nairobi had brought the nature deal process to a "crisis point", and warned the COP15 gathering could end in failure, like the acrimonious U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.
"All the problems we have lamented before - the lack of preparation and leadership, the imbalanced agenda and the persistent negligence on finance and implementation - were in full display, resulting in very limited progress, and in certain areas backsliding from the last session in Geneva," he said.
"Biodiversity seems to be left as an orphan on the global stage," said Li, calling on leaders to intervene urgently and instruct negotiators to be ready for commitments and compromises in Montreal.
The CBD plans to convene another round of talks just ahead of the Canada summit - but some observers said this may be too little, too late to get things back on track.
A central pillar of the planned nature pact is a pledge to conserve at least 30% of the planet's land and oceans by 2030.
Little progress has been made on this element, said Linda Krueger, director of biodiversity at The Nature Conservancy, with the text still to be agreed and no discussion of the 30% figure itself in Nairobi.
While there is wide backing for the direction of the target, with about half of the world's governments publicly declaring their support, the potential exclusion of freshwater - limiting protection to land and sea areas - is a concern, she added.
Brian O'Donnell, director of the non-profit Campaign for Nature, said the draft accord was now nearly an "unreadable jumble of unagreed-upon text".
He branded Nairobi "an insult to the children of the world who are facing a future on a degraded planet without action".
WAKE UP CHINA
After much prevarication, host China agreed to move the COP15 summit from the city of Kunming to Canada last week, due to COVID-19 restrictions - and new dates were set for Dec. 5-17. Observers largely welcomed the announcement, which fixed a deadline for the deal, but called for bigger diplomatic efforts.
"We need China to wake up to lead this process," said Oscar Soria, campaign director at advocacy group Avaaz.
"Instead of halting biodiversity loss, Beijing's apathy halted the global political momentum to tackle the ecological crisis ... Montreal is the last chance to correct this."
Soria also urged leaders to use key global forums such as the U.N. General Assembly, the G7 and the G20 to press other heads of government to attend COP15 and make commitments.
Finance provided by rich countries to help developing nations meet the targets of the expected deal remains a challenging issue, nature campaigners said.
To spur on the talks, China launched a multi-million-dollar biodiversity fund last year.
Donor governments, meanwhile, are looking at doubling foreign aid for biodiversity to $20 billion per year, according to The Nature Conservancy.
But developing countries and activists are calling for tens of billions more, given the scale of the damage to nature.
Toerris Jaeger, secretary general of the Oslo-based Rainforest Foundation Norway, said countries should own up to their global responsibilities to protect rainforests and other biodiversity-rich ecosystems, including by boosting funding.
"We are wasting time at a moment when action is urgent, key species are dying and resources are becoming increasingly scarce," he said.
(Reporting by Michael Taylor in Kuala Lumpur @MickSTaylor and Nita Bhalla in Nairobi; Writing by Michael Taylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)