By Wendy Nelson

The recently released Global Assessment from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services is a wake-up call to all of us.

The report presents overwhelming evidence of deteriorating conditions in the state of the world’s terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems and says one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction. 

Wendy Nelson, Professor in the University of Auckland’s School of Biological Sciences and NIWA Principal Scientist Marine Biodiversity, has been a member of the IPBES Task Force on Capacity Building for the past five years, and stresses that to address species loss, we need to know what’s actually out there.

The tragedy of species extinction is shocking to many people, and the recent IPBES report forecasting the loss of more than a million species paints a very confronting picture. The report clearly shows that loss of biodiversity is not just an environmental issue, nor is it about simply retaining the charismatic species such as rhinos, pandas and kākāpō. These extinctions would affect all aspects of life from microorganisms through to megafauna. And that will have far-reaching impacts.

The benefits provided by healthy biodiversity are wide ranging, affecting water, health, climate, hunger, poverty, oceans, and land.   Biodiversity loss has profound impacts on development, economies, security, as well as social and cultural values. For example, the negative trends presented in the Global Assessment are shown to undermine progress towards 80% of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Species loss is now scientifically recognised as a major driver of ecosystem change, and as serious as the direct effects of global climate change. The impacts of species loss on primary productivity are seen as of comparable magnitude to the impacts of drought, ultraviolet radiation, climate warming, ozone, ocean acidification, elevated CO2, fire, and certain forms of nutrient pollution. A groundswell of international concern has justifiably been mobilised around climate change issues and remediation efforts. We also need a strong focus on preventing species losses and ecosystem changes for the future of life on the planet.

In its first work programme (2014-2018) the UN’s Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services Platform produced three thematic assessments looking in detail at critical issues: pollinators, pollination and food production; land degradation and restoration; scenarios and models of biodiversity and ecosystem services. In addition, four regional assessments of the state of biodiversity and ecosystem services were produced, culminating in the Global Assessment.

IPBES task forces were established to develop three key aspects of the work programme – capacity building, indigenous and local knowledge, and knowledge and data – all of which are crucial to the on-going success of IPBES and the uptake of science by policymakers.

I was part of the Capacity-building Task Force and we were charged with the task of building capacities to strengthen the links between science and policymakers for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, long-term human wellbeing and sustainable development.

The IPBES report points to significant knowledge gaps that need to be addressed, such as inventories of the state of our environment and drivers of change, and gaps in taxonomic knowledge.

If we look at New Zealand, what are key capacity-building areas needing attention? Where are we in regard to the protection of our biodiversity? New Zealand is recognised for its unique wildlife, a high proportion of which is not found anywhere else in the world. On one hand, we can be proud of the national collation of biodiversity information in the New Zealand Inventory of Biodiversity – a three volume series documenting all that was known in the first decade of this century across all organism groups.

But on the other hand, when we dig deeper a very serious issue emerges. The Department of Conservation’s New Zealand Threat Classification System (NZTCS) is used to assess the threat status of our taxa (species, subspecies, varieties and forma). There are currently just over 13,000 current published assessments, which represent around 10% of New Zealand’s estimated diversity (note that some of this diversity is in microbial groups which will not be addressed by NZTCS). However, for a third of these species, information is so lacking that an assessment is not possible and they are classed as ‘data deficient’. This may be because the species has been collected on only a few occasions or even known from a single specimen – so it is impossible to evaluate its distribution – in terms of geography, habitats it occupies, seasonality, and therefore no comment can be made on the risks it faces from human-mediated change. Taxonomists know of literally thousands of undescribed species in New Zealand – and are also aware that that many more species remain to be discovered.

Despite New Zealand’s stated commitment to biodiversity protection, and the globally recognised need to better understand species and their contributions to ecosystems, in New Zealand the support for fundamental discovery and documentation of our biota has been recognised as inadequate and it has also been declining at an alarming rate (refer Royal Society Report 2015Australasian Decadal Plan for Taxonomy 2018).

Taxonomy is an active process, involving research, and reference to scientifically validated reference collections, databases, and literature. The reduction in national taxonomic expertise that has happened over the past several decades in New Zealand means that the quality of science and the delivery of timely information and services is at risk.

The biological collections’ infrastructure should be recognised as a national heritage asset and essential component of the New Zealand science system, underpinning a wide range of public and private benefits. The collections require a long-term commitment and stable investment to work effectively. The benefits that they enable are clear – for example, in biosecurity applications, defending our economy, environment and society against pests, diseases, and weeds which currently cost New Zealand $2.45 billion annually, and in ensuring market access for New Zealand’s $1.5 billion seafood exports.

Recognition of species, their attributes, and variability is essential to evidence-based management decisions, and this requires authoritative taxonomic data and expertise. Collections and taxonomic research support biodiversity agencies through access to voucher specimens associated with surveys[i], data on species distribution, assistance with management of threatened species, and assessment of ecological integrity and ecosystem services.

In addition, New Zealand has a clear international responsibility to identify, classify and protect its species, and meet international treaty obligations, and national obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi (with respect to the value of the natural world and responsibility for the protection of all taonga). Also, the New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy calls for the protection of natural ecosystems, flora, and fauna.

When the report was released the IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson said: “The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture… We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.” However, Watson also stated that “it is not too late to make a difference, but only if we start now at every level from local to global”.

In this era of global biodiversity change we must prioritise our actions and efforts. It is our responsibility to address the significant gaps in our knowledge about the species and ecosystems in our region – on land, in freshwater, and across our marine systems from the coasts to ocean depths.  We need this framework to more fully understand the cumulative impacts of human activities on our environment and enable better decisions for our future.

[i] Voucher specimens are examples of material on which experimental observations and data are based, and are lodged in publicly accessible collections to serve as reference points, enabling reproducible science and further testing of hypotheses.

Footnotes: 

[1] Voucher specimens are examples of material on which experimental observations and data are based, and are lodged in publicly accessible collections to serve as reference points, enabling reproducible science and further testing of hypotheses.


Wendy Nelson is a Professor in Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in marine biology. 

See Also:

Are we in the midst of a sixth mass extinction event?

Can we save the planet from a sixth mass extinction? 🔊

Q+A: Back from the dead? The science and ethics of bringing species back from extinction

What are tipping points and what do they mean for our ecosystems? 🔊