MONTREAL - Representatives from nearly 200 countries are to begin the real work Wednesday at a crucial meeting on global biodiversity - hard talks on hard targets for saving enough of the world's ecosystems to keep the planet functioning.

“We need governments to develop ambitious national action plans that protect and preserve our natural gifts and put our planet on a path to healing,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said as the meetings got underway.

Observers say they're optimistic the 196 countries at the COP15 meeting in Montreal can agree that nearly a third of Earth's lands and waters should come under some form protection by 2030.

“There is huge support for it,” said Stephen Woodley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a high-profile group of governments and civil society organizations advising conference delegates.

“I believe there is really significant support for 30 per cent in quality areas.”

The 30-per-cent goal is the result of years of scientific study and consensus.

“Scientists have studied this for years and years, and we know with a great deal of evidence that 30 per cent is the lower limit,” said Aerin Jacob of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Momentum toward that goal has been building for years. It's been endorsed by the G7 industrialized countries and is supported by 112 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, including Canada.

Other major goals include helping to fund the promotion of biodiversity in developing countries.

“We need developed countries to provide meaningful financial support for the countries of the Global South as custodians of the world's natural wealth following centuries of exploitation and loss,” said Guterres.

Estimates of how much money is required range widely, from about $200 billion a year to more than $700 billion.

“Much remains to be done. The text on conservation targets being debated by delegates has more brackets in it than agreed wording.

“We've made some progress,” said Woodley. “It's tough sledding.”

Some of the disputed text concerns Indigenous people.

“There is a significant group who want to ensure that protecting 30 per cent of the Earth is not negative on Indigenous people or community-owned lands,” Woodley said. “It certainly has been in the past, in some cases.”

Others want to ensure that areas being conserved actually contribute to saving species, promoting ecosystem function, protecting against floods or wildfires or storing carbon.

“Those are all value judgments,” said Jacob.

“I would argue we need to protect ourselves against all those things. We can't pick and choose.”

Other issues to be settled include what constitutes protection. It doesn't need to be a park. It could be what is known as “other effective area-based conservation measures,” known in COP-speak as OECMs.

The Vancouver watershed, managed to ensure water quality, is an OECM. So is Manitoba's wildlife-rich Canadian Forces Base Shiloh.

Private groups or land trusts will protect some lands. Others will be conserved by Indigenous management, an approach on which Canada is increasingly relying.

Woodley's group recognizes seven different types of conservation areas, some allowing limited resource extraction, with four different governance models.

In developed countries where natural areas are scarce and small, efforts will focus on restoration.

“There are so many solutions,” Jacob said. “It's about making sure those things can survive and thrive.”

And much will depend on how any plan is implemented. Discussions on finance are to begin later this week.

“An agreement without any action won't help us protect the life of the planet,” said Jacob.

But both she and Woodley agree some kind of deal on conservation targets is likely to happen.

“We absolutely have to do this,” Jacob said.

“It's not a question of no agreement. It's more a question of what the agreement will look like.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2020.

- By Bob Weber in Edmonton