U.N. biodiversity conference opens with a warning: “We are committing suicide by proxy”

World leaders appear to be in agreement that the world’s land and ocean ecosystems are in trouble, but deep divisions continue to plague talks about how to protect nature for the next generation.

The United Nations Biodiversity Conference — known as COP15 — opened on Tuesday and runs through December 19 in Montreal, Canada, with the goal of adopting a global biodiversity framework and roadmap that includes protection, conservation, restoration and management.

With 190 nations participating — not formally including the U.S. — the idea is to negotiate an accord to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and waters by 2030, a steep climb since only 10% of marine life and 17% of land ecosystems are currently protected in a global accord. Enormous issues are on the agenda, including the elimination of plastic waste in the oceans, cutting pesticide use, and raising $200 billion to fund the effort.

Opening the event, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was greeted with a protest in the room and made it a point of pride, saying that delegates may not agree, but “we all work together, we all listen to each other” to protect the environment.

Trudeau said that if the world “can’t agree … on something as fundamental as protecting nature, nothing else matters.”

“As far as biodiversity is concerned, we are at war with nature,” U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said. “And ultimately, we are committing suicide by proxy.” 

Guterres called for concerted actions by governments, the private sector and financial institutions:

Governments must develop “bold national action plans” in everything from food and finance to energy and infrastructure, redirecting subsidies and tax breaks “away from nature-destroying activities towards green solutions.”The private sector “must recognize that profit and protection must go hand in hand,” with more sustainable production, accountability, and compliance with tough regulatory frameworks. International financial institutions must “align their portfolios” with conservation and sustainability.

“We cannot expect developing countries to shoulder the burden alone,” Gutteres noted, calling for “bold financial support” from wealthier nations.

Although there is some hope for a new accord, many observers are skeptical.

“The chances to get an agreement seems very low,” Oscar Soria, campaign director of Avaaz, a nonprofit NGO, told CBS News.

President Biden has said he is committed to increasing conservation in the United States toward a goal of protecting 30% of its lands and waters by 2030. The U.S. Special Envoy for Biodiversity and Water Resources, Monica Medina, who is leading the U.S. delegation, has underscored priorities including land degradation, plastic pollution, crimes like wildlife trafficking, and the risks of “zoonotic disease spillover” — meaning  pathogens spreading from wildlife into the human population.

But the U.S. will not be part of the formal drafting of an agreement.

“Since it is not part of the convention, the role of the U.S. is very limited. That’s a big part of the problem,” Soria said.

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With almost two weeks of negotiations ahead, some of the organizers are making the stakes known. 

“We can no longer continue with a ‘business as usual’ attitude,” said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, the executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

“Without nature, we have nothing. Without nature, we are nothing,” Guterres said, adding a caution: “Today, one-third of all land is degraded, making it harder to feed growing populations.”

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