(Updates with details on pre-summit negotiations, comment from CBD, UNEP, Canada)
By Gloria Dickie and Allison Lampert
MONTREAL, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Countries gathered Tuesday for the start of a key U.N. nature conference in Montreal, aiming to broker a new global agreement to protect what's left of Earth's wildlife and natural spaces.
Negotiators hope that the two-week summit, known as COP15, yields a deal that ensures there is more "nature" - animals, plants, and healthy ecosystems - in 2030 than what exists now.
But how that progress is pursued and measured will need to be agreed by all 196 governments under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). And already, before the talks begin in earnest on Wednesday, the process was looking like a struggle, observers warned. Three days of pre-summit talks that ended Monday failed to deliver a clean draft agreement for negotiation ahead of the summit's close on Dec. 19.
"Some progress has been made, but not so much as needed or expected," CBD executive secretary Elizabeth Maruma Mrema told a news conference. "I don't feel the delegates went as far as we had expected."
More than 10,000 participants, including government officials, scientists and activists, are attending the summit amid calls by environmentalists and businesses to both protect natural resources and halt what scientists have labeled the sixth mass extinction.
"We need governments to adopt a clear and urgent mission to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030," said Eva Zabey, executive director of Business for Nature, a global coalition of businesses and conservation groups.
More than 1 million species, especially insects, are now threatened with extinction, vanishing at a rate not seen in 10 million years. As much as 40% of Earth's land surfaces are considered degraded, according to a 2022 U.N. Global Land Outlook assessment.
"It's down to the wire now," said Inger Andersen, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme.
The U.N. biodiversity talks, held every two years, have never garnered the same attention as the world's main environmental focus - the annual U.N. talks on climate change. But there is increasing awareness that protecting nature and controlling climate change go hand-in-hand.
Healthy ecosystems such as forests and seagrass beds are key to controlling global warming. At the same time, rising global temperatures are increasingly threatening many ecosystems as well as species unable to adapt quickly or to move to cooler climes.
Overall, the U.N. hopes to persuade all countries to pledge to put at least 30% of their land and sea areas under conservation by 2030 - a target often referred to as the "30-by-30" goal. Currently, only about 17% of the world's land area falls under some sort of protection, while less than 8% of the global ocean is protected.
Another 22 potential targets are also being considered, from curbing pesticide use to canceling some $500 billion in subsidies for activities that cause damage to nature.
But the draft deal is still riddled with bracketed phrases - indicating a lack of agreement, negotiators said. While previous iterations of the agreement had about 900 brackets, that number ballooned up to about 1,400 during the discussion in the days ahead of COP15.
Some of toughest areas include whether to include efforts to curb climate-warming emissions, whether to impose a deadline for phasing out pesticides, and how to ensure poor nations will have the funding needed to restore degraded areas.
"Financing could be the issue that unrails these negotiations at the end," said Florian Titze, an international biodiversity policy adviser with World Wildlife Fund.
Even the 30-by-30 goal gets tricky in the details, given that some nations hold vast land or ocean areas teeming with wildlife, while others do not.
Canada's Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault was upbeat about the talks delivering "an ambitious agreement where we will collectively agree to protect 30% of our land and oceans by 2030." Speaking to Reuters on Monday, he noted that many countries including Canada had already made the pledge.
Unlike the U.N. climate talks, Montreal's summit will see few world leaders, which negotiators say could make it tougher to reach an ambitious agreement.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is attending the summit's opening ceremony on Tuesday.
China was due to hold the summit in the city of Kunming but postponed the event four times from its original date in 2020 due to COVID before agreeing to hold the talks in Montreal.
Meanwhile, Montreal police have put up a 3-meter (10-foot) fence around the downtown summit venue, Palais des congres, and are preparing for thousands of student protesters expected to swarm the Montreal's streets to demand a strong deal to protect nature.
(Reporting by Gloria Dickie; Additional reporting by Jake Spring in Sao Paulo and Simon Jessop in London; Editing by Katy Daigle and Lisa Shumaker)