Behind the scenes of ‘million species’ report

Delegates from around the globe completed a history-making report documenting the dire prospects for all species on Earth. The very jet-lagged Nicola Toki, who was head of the New Zealand delegation, spoke to Newsroom on her return from Paris.

A photo of smiling, hugging people represents a moment in Paris last weekend when agreement was reached that a million species face extinction.

None of the people in the photo would have been happy at the shocking prospects of the world’s animals, insect and plants. What they were happy about was finalising the most comprehensive report on global biodiversity ever completed.

Agreement is reached in Paris. Photo: Twitter

The hope is the stark findings, agreed on by delegates from 132 countries, will influence global, national and local policy decisions and avert an impending catastrophe. The data means there can be no excuses for policy that doesn't take biodiversity effects into account.

“No one can say they didn’t know,” was the message from UNESCO’s director general Audrey Azoulay at the launch of the report summary.

The findings paint a picture where 'business as usual' threatens the survival of the planet and people.

In the room during the pressure-cooker negotiations around the wording of the report were New Zealand delegates including Department of Conservation’s (DoC) threatened species ambassador Nicola Toki.

In her role at DoC she's the voice of New Zealand's thousands of at-risk plants, fungi and creatures. 

She said it was hard to describe her feelings when agreement was reached. The data had been confronting, and days spent negotiating wording long. Nobody had slept much.

“It was really overwhelming. Everybody instantly exploded into applause and stood up.”

In the front two rows of the room were the contributing authors. The past three years of their lives had been focused on compiling the 1500-page report.

“There were definitely tears in the front two rows and I think the rest of us were doing our best to hold it back.”

Toki said despite the grim content of the report, being part of its creation was a career highlight.

“I felt like I was witnessing a real crossroads in global history. This is our chance. This is our opportunity to make good choices.”

One room, one week, 132 countries

The moment of applause and tears marked the end of three years collating information from 145 scientists and 15,000 scientific references into the 1500-page document.

Chapters within the report were circulated to 310 subject matter experts prior to the meeting. In total, these experts made more than 20,000 comments. Over a period of two weeks prior to the Paris meeting, Toki said the report authors considered each of the comments and combined them into the report.

In Paris the delegates, which were a mix of scientists and government representatives, sat in a room for 15 to 18 hours a day for a week deliberating over wording used to describe the data.

Toki, who was the head of delegation for New Zealand, was joined by Dr Elaine Wright from DoC, Dr Anne-Gaelle Ausseil from Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, and Adam van Opzeeland from the Ministry for Primary Industries.

She said the debate wasn't over facts, and the evidence - while often alarming - was robust.

“The data doesn’t lie. The agreements were around how we framed what was happening,” said Toki.

Each country had their set of ecological issues and government context to include, but the negotiation wasn’t political, said Toki.

Some countries wanted to use specific phrases which worked better for their context or were legislatively important in their countries.

At other times it was about not getting left out.

“There was a lot of mention in the report of impacts on Arctic regions. We were really rowdy about making sure that they also included sub Antarctic and Southern Ocean regions as well.”

While land and sea use were the biggest threats for many countries, New Zealand was keen to emphasise the impact of invasive species on island nations, especially for nations with a high number of endemic species.

Toki said New Zealand’s “interventions” - the term used when you press the button on the desk to turn a microphone on and talk - were praised by one of the co-authors of the report for being constructive.

What it means to people

The report does three things according to Toki. It “counts nature” and gives a comprehensive view, for the first time, of the global status of species.

It also captures why the loss of species matters. Losing an insect species could drastically jeopardise crop pollination. Clean water and clean air are related to biodiversity. Coral and mangroves can protect coastal populations from storm surges.

Finally, amid the horrific statistics and dire predictions were three pages of suggestions for how to avert the impending biodiversity disaster.

These include everything from changing financial systems, to governance, food production and consumption, to designing sustainable cities.

“What the global assessment doesn’t do is tie anyone down to any kind of policy. It just says here’s the state of things and here are some examples of how we think you might turn this around.”

What New Zealand can do

Toki said the report comes at a helpful time for New Zealand. A Biodiversity Strategy is being developed to take the country from 2020 to 2040. Also underway is a National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity. Once complete, the policy statement will include legally enforceable measures.

“Given the dire nature of this report and the emergency that's being signalled around the wound, I would really hope that it would give New Zealanders the kind of rocket underneath them to engage with the Biodiversity Strategy.”

A discussion document on the strategy is due to be released by DoC this month.

Outside of the strategy and policy document there’s also a variety of things people can do. New Zealand has the “dubious honour” of proportionally having the highest number of threatened species - 4000 - of any county in the world.

Toki said despite the shocking number of species in danger, New Zealanders care a lot about their environment. For those feeling like the issue is too big for an individual to make a difference she had a suggestion.

“If every New Zealander spent time today learning about one species or one issue so that they could understand that it's not all sunshine and lollipops out here - but there’s heaps we can do to turn things around.

“If we focus on the negative we won’t get out of bed in the morning. But if we each do a little thing, those add up.”

Read more:

Million species facing extinction: report

Hope is not a biodiversity strategy

Sweeping change to stop biodiversity crisis

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