The European Union has the largest nature conservation network in the world, yet many plants, animals and habitats remain threatened.
Around 18% of EU territory, spread over 25,000 sites, falls under the ‘Natura 2000’ conservation network. The area is expected to extend to 20% in the next few years, as new sites in eastern Europe are created. Marine conservation areas are also being marked out, with a goal of giving 10% of the EU’s waters protected status by next year.
But despite some gains – the resurgence of the wolf, the otter and the beaver, and a small increase in forest land – the overall picture remains one of decline.
A target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, set in 2000, was missed by some distance. Two-thirds of EU habitats are under threat and more than half (52%) of protected species are at risk, according to a study of 700 habitats and 2,240 species published in 2009 by the European Commission.
Earlier this month (3 May), Janez Potoc?nik, the European commissioner for the environment, published a strategy on biodiversity protection. It is intended not only to stem further losses, but to restore species and habitats in line with an international pledge to restore 15% of Europe’s degraded ecosystems by 2020.
National governments are being asked to provide €5.8 billion each year to protect the Natura 2000 network. Current policies are to be overhauled: farmers, fishermen and foresters will be required to do more to protect the environment; farm subsidies will be tied more closely to environmental goals; and forest management plans will become compulsory for all woodlands benefiting from public money.
The EU will also draft new legislation to combat invasive species, the non-native plants, animals and fungi that elbow out native species or cause huge economic damage.
EU biodiversity targets
Fully implement birds and habitats directives
Maintain and improve ecosystems, including restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems
Increase contribution of agriculture and forestry to biodiversity protection, through reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and making forest-management plans mandatory for public woodlands and those over a certain size (to be defined)
Ensure sustainability of European fish stocks
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Control invasive alien species
Step up EU’s contribution to averting global biodiversity loss
Source : European Commission 2011
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, a Dutch Liberal MEP who is drafting a report on resource efficiency, describes the Commission’s plan as an “ambitious” strategy, with several important elements, such as recognition of funding needs and more environmentally friendly farming, fisheries and international development policies.
“These are all extremely important moves but the real fight will take place in the coming months with the reform of the CFP and the CAP,” he says, referring to proposals to revise the Common Fisheries Policy and Common Agricultural Policy that are expected later this year.
While Gerbrandy welcomes the recognition that biodiversity protection needs more funding, he says that the Commission has not done enough to investigate the role played by the private sector. “Public money will not save the world’s biodiversity. We need innovative financing instruments for the private sector.”
He believes that private companies ought to bear the full costs of their operations. “As long as private companies are making billions of euros using these public resources we are never going to conserve biodiversity.”
New pricing signals would help to put conservation goals at the heart of economic development, rather than being merely an afterthought.
Unless that change is made, the new biodiversity action plan will be just another piece of paper.