Europe's 2010 Biodiversity Protection Target Slipping Away

BRUSSELS, Belgium, December 30, 2008 (ENS) – The European Union will fail to meet its goal of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 unless there is “enormous effort” over the next two years, according to the EU’s the first comprehensive assessment of progress in implementing its Biodiversity Action Plan.

Despite the further extension of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and important investments in biodiversity, the integration of biodiversity and ecosystem concerns into other sectoral policies remains a challenge, states the report, released earlier this month. Intensive efforts will be needed, at the level of both the European Community and the member states, if the EU is to even approach its objective.

“This continuing loss of biodiversity is critical, not just because of the intrinsic value of nature, but also because of the resulting decline in vital ecosystem services,” said European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas.

“We have set an ambitious biodiversity target for 2010, we know what needs to be done and we have the tools to achieve this. I therefore call on all member states to redouble their efforts to sustain the variety of life, and the health of the ecosystems that underpin our prosperity and well being,” Dimas said.

In 2006, the European Commission produced an Action Plan to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, setting out concrete actions and outlining the responsibility of European Community institutions and member states.

The new report represents the last real opportunity for stock-taking before 2010. The report studies four main policy areas – biodiversity in the EU, the EU and global biodiversity, biodiversity and climate change, and the knowledge base. A summary of progress in each member state is included for the first time.

The yellow breasted bunting is declining across
Europe, finds a 2004 BirdLife International
assessment of European bird species.
(Photo by John Wei)

BirdLife International says the most revealing aspect of the report is the “huge gap between stated ambition and real action.”

The global conservation organization based in Cambridge, England called the lack of adequate action for wildlife and the natural environment a “shameful failure” of member state governments and EU institutions alike.

BirdLife draws a direct parallel with the current financial crisis. “Focusing only on short-term profits leads to huge costs for the society in the long-run,” said Konstantin Kreiser, EU policy manager at the BirdLife European Division.

“When, if not now, will governments learn this lesson?” Kreiser asked. “If they shy away from acting for our planet now, the price of a future bail-out will dwarf the current economic crisis.”

The populations of animal and plant species in the EU continue to decline because their habitats are fragmented by motorways, Kreiser says, pointing to roads such as the Via Baltica in Poland. Habitats are lost to agricultural intensification as the EU seems unable to reform the Common Agricultural Policy, he said, or “devoured” to make way to uncontrolled development such as that taking place at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

“In the meantime, the destruction of tropical rainforests is accelerating, coral reefs are dying out, fisheries are collapsing and the list of animals and plants sliding towards global extinction is growing longer,” Kreiser said.

For instance, while brown bears maintain relatively stable populations in northern Europe, in southern Europe there remain only extremely small, isolated populations. Two populations in the Pyrenees Mountains of France and Spain each have 10 bears, two populations in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain contain 20-30 and 80-100 bears, a population in the Appenine Mountains of Italy has 40-50 bears, and the Alps of Italy, Austria, and Slovenia are inhabited by about 35-40 bears, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Brown bear cubs in the Cantabrian Mountains
(Photo courtesy World Prout Assembly)

The European Environmental Bureau, Europe’s largest federation of environmental citizens’ organizations with 143 member groups in 31 countries, is calling for a rescue plan to avert the “planetary bankruptcy” that will occur if biodiversity loss continues.

Pieter de Pous, EEB biodiversity policy officer, said, “Now that the world is fully aware of the dangers of spending financial resources we don’t have, it’s time to wake up to a much greater danger: squandering natural resources we don’t have. Once natural capital is lost, unlike financial capital, it cannot be built up again within a time frame meaningful to humans. In other words, nature does not do bail-outs.”

BirdLife sees it as “especially embarrassing” that six governments – Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, Slovakia and Luxembourg – did not respond to the European Commission’s questions when the report was compiled.

“This has to be seen as a clear signal that governments have still not understood the urgency of the environmental crisis we are in, while 90 percent of Europe’s citizens have stated they are very concerned by the loss of biodiversity,” BirdLife said in a statement.

The EEB says to protect and restore biodiversity, the European Union needs much better implementation of existing policies, such as Natura 2000 and the Water Framework Directive, and investment in the development of a “green Infrastructure.”

The EU must prioritize recycling and the use of recycled materials in waste and product policies to reduce ecosystem pressure from mining operations, the federation advises.

EEB will call on the European Commission, the upcoming presidencies of the Czech Republic, which starts January 1, 2009, and the following six month presidencies of Sweden, Belgium and Spain and the European Parliament to demonstrate joint leadership and give protection of biodiversity the highest priority.

Environment Commissioner Dimas says EU policies and legislation already provide a strong basis to address the biodiversity challenge but they need to be effectively implemented.

The new assessment highlights priority measures for the coming years. These range from more action to manage and restore sites in the Natura 2000 network to restoring ecosystem health and services in the wider EU countryside and in freshwater and marine environments.

Targeted actions to reverse the decline of endangered species and habitats have been successful, Dimas says, but these need to be replicated on a much larger scale.

The Natura 2000 network now includes more than 25,000 sites, covering 17 percent of the EU land territory, but additional efforts are needed to finalize the network, especially for marine protected areas.

There is progress too in the protection of marine and freshwater ecosystems, notably with the adoption of the new Marine Strategy Directive, although the failure to adopt the Soil Framework Directive leaves a major legislative gap, the commissioner said.

The Commission recently presented options for an EU strategy to address the increasing threat of invasive species.

Member states are increasingly making use of EU funds to support nature and biodiversity, especially in relation to agriculture and regional development policies, although, said Dimas, “the real benefits for biodiversity remain to be determined.”

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