More than 10,000 scientists, government officials and activists will gather in Montreal this week for the world’s most important biodiversity conference, eager to hammer out a deal to stem habitat loss around the world and preserve sensitive ecosystems.
The UN Cop15 biodiversity summit opens on Tuesday, and will see countries negotiate this decade’s targets for protecting nature after more than two years of pandemic-related delays and just over two weeks since the end of the Cop27 climate meeting in Egypt.
There is growing hope that the summit will not only bring about a plan to save the natural world but could also begin to mend the deep rifts between the co-hosts, China and Canada.
In recent weeks Canada has charged a Chinese national for espionage, alleged that China interfered in a federal election, and opened an investigation into an alleged secret network of illegal “police stations” operated by China in Toronto. At the recent G20 summit in Jakarta, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, publicly rebuked the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, after Canadian officials leaked details of their conversation.
“When you look at what happened recently, Canada is not the flavour of the month in Beijing. President Xi has very little regard for Prime Minister Trudeau,” said Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada’s former ambassador to China. “And while China owes Canada for hosting this summit, officials won’t want to go out of their way to praise Canada in any way or be seen as grateful.”
The Cop15 summit, delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and China’s strict public health policies, was originally scheduled to be held in Kunming in China, but was moved to Montreal when Canada agreed to co-host the event.
Trudeau plans to attend, but China has not issued invitations to world leaders, and Saint-Jacques suspects officials are keen to keep the event at a “working level”, shunning much of the pomp associated with global gatherings.
“If it had been held in China, you’d bet there would have been invitations sent out to use it as fully as possible for propaganda purposes,” said Saint-Jacques, who previously served as Canada’s chief negotiator and ambassador for climate change. “But China’s reputation has taken a beating in recent years … and so in many ways, they’re possibly looking to Cop15 to burnish their image.”
China remains the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, responsible for nearly 30% of the global total, and despite its best efforts to halt desertification in its northern regions, the country is grappling with a major biodiversity problem. Yet China is also the country that invests the most in renewable technology, especially solar and wind.
Despite the recent spat with Canada, Saint-Jacques noted that the two countries have long collaborated on environmental projects – a possible area of common ground in the weeks ahead.
For decades, Canada helped fund environmental projects in China through its international development agency, including forestry management, studying grassland ecology and training scientists and engineers. Canada also helped develop, fund and host the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development. In his first visit to China in 2016 as prime minister, Trudeau outlined a plan by Parks Canada to help develop a network of national parks in China.
Lynette Ong, a professor of political science and China scholar at the University of Toronto, said Beijing increasingly sees the need for prompt and bold action on the environment.
“The stake is too high for bilateral quibbles to get in the way,” she said.
Experts who study the politics of climate policy say the nature of the meetings themselves could help mend rifts.
“People often think of these massive conferences as a big talkfest,” said Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia who focuses on climate policy. “It’s easy to be cynical because, honestly, we’ve made so little progress.”
However, Harrison said the negotiations involved civil servants and bureaucrats who do not feel the pressures of broader diplomatic feuds. “It’s easy to underestimate how many people there are at these meetings who are deeply committed to trying to move things forward in a positive way and who really care about climate and biodiversity. That’s why they’re there.”
Canada’s foreign and environment ministers both said they were optimistic the two countries could work together again.
“Despite some of the challenges and difficulties we have on other fronts … global problems can be solved by working together,” said the environment minister, Steven Guilbeault. “No one country, no matter how powerful economically, politically or militarily, can do it all by themselves.”