Questions and answers about EU biodiversity policy

Questions and answers about EU biodiversity policy

22 May 2006

published by

Brussels– Press release MEMO/06/212

What is at stake?

The world is faced with unprecedented loss of biodiversity[1]. Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth – comprising ecosystems, species and genes. It is essential to economic prosperity, security, health and other aspects of our daily life. Loss of biodiversity is already undermining, and threatens to derail, efforts to improve economic, social and environmental well-being in the EU, and worldwide.

The recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) launched by the UN Secretary General found that Europe’s ecosystems have suffered more man-induced fragmentation than those of any other continent. For example, only 1-3% of Western Europe’s forests can be classed as “undisturbed by humans”; and since the 1950s, Europe has lost more than half of its wetlands and most high-nature-value farmland. At the species level, 42% of Europe’s native mammals, 43% of birds, 45% of butterflies, 30% of amphibians, 45% of reptiles and 52% of freshwater fish are threatened with extinction. Birds such as the slender-billed curlew are now so rare that they risk extinction, while the number of common species such as skylark and garden warbler has fallen dramatically. Most major marine fish stocks are below safe biological limits. Some 800 plant species in Europe are at a risk of global extinction. And there are unknown but potentially significant changes in lower life forms, including invertebrate and microbial diversity. This loss of species and decline in species’ abundance is accompanied by significant loss of genetic diversity.

Worldwide, biodiversity loss is even more alarming. Since the late 1970s, an area of tropical rain forest larger than the EU has been destroyed, largely for timber, crops such as palm oil and soy bean, and cattle ranching. An area equivalent to the size of France is destroyed every 3-4 years. Other diverse ecosystems, such as wetlands, dry lands, islands, temperate forests, mangroves and coral reefs are suffering proportionate losses. Species’ extinction rates are now around 100 times greater than those shown in fossil records and are projected to accelerate, threatening a new “mass extinction” of a kind not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.

Why is biodiversity essential to economic prosperity, security and health?

The more we lose biodiversity, the more ecosystem services are put at risk. The annual global value of ecosystem goods and services has been estimated at € 26 trillion per year, more than twice the value of what humans produce each year. These services include the air we breathe, the regulation of climate, flooding mitigation, disease and water quality and the provision of goods such as food, fibre, fuel, freshwater and medicines. Soil formation, nutrient cycling, pollination and primary production are other supporting services provided by ecosystems.

And ecosystems provide cultural services such as aesthetic, educational, recreational, psychological and spiritual benefits. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) highlighted that most ecosystem services are in decline, both in the EU and globally. The bottom line, it said, is that we are spending the Earth’s natural capital and putting at risk the ability of ecosystems to sustain future generations. We can reverse the decline, but only with substantial changes in policy and practice.

What kind of pressures is biodiversity subject to?

The principal pressure is habitat fragmentation, degradation and destruction due to land use change arising, inter alia, from conversion (e.g. from non-use or agricultural use to more intensive developed land – urban areas and rural transportation land), intensification of production systems, abandonment of traditional (often biodiversity-friendly) practices, construction and catastrophic events including fire. Other key pressures are over-exploitation, the spread of invasive alien species and pollution. The relative importance of these pressures varies from place to place and very often several pressures act in concert. Various pressures are set to increase in the EU, including demand for housing and transport infrastructure.

Worldwide, two key drivers underlie these pressures: population growth and growing per capita consumption. World population is projected to grow from around 6 billion now to 8-10 billion by 2050, and a two-to four-fold increase in per capita consumption is projected over the same time period. Given that mankind already consumes around half of all global primary productivity[2], these figures indicate the sheer unsustainability of the human enterprise.

Other important pressures include governance failures and the failure of conventional economics to recognise the economic value of natural capital and ecosystem services. Globalisation increases pressures on biodiversity and ecosystem services in developing countries and the EU. It increases demands on natural resources, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and facilitates the spread of invasive alien species.

What is the relationship between climate change and biodiversity?

The impact of climate change on biodiversity is already measurable – in terms of changing rhythms in animal and plant reproductive cycles and other biological phenomena. We have now entered a period of unavoidable climate change which threatens many habitats and species due to the projected shift in their ‘climate space’. Action is needed to help biodiversity adapt to changing temperature and water regimes.

This requires in particular securing a large and high quality protected areas network within a wider terrestrial and marine environment supportive of biodiversity. However, some possible changes, such as a switching off of the Gulf Stream, may be impossible to mitigate.

Protection of biodiversity can contribute to climate change mitigation. For example, healthy ecosystems can help limit atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations because forests, peat lands and other habitats store carbon. Healthy ecosystems can also protect against natural hazards aggravated by climate change; for example, healthy coastal wetlands can improve protection against hurricane-induced coastal surges, and healthy watersheds and floodplain ecosystems can reduce river flooding.

What is the EU doing about biodiversity loss?

EU biodiversity and nature protection legislation goes back to the 1970’s when the Wild Birds Directive[3] was adopted. This Directive ensures far-reaching protection for all of Europe’s wild birds and identifies 194 species and sub-species as particularly threatened and in need of special conservation measures.

In 1992, the Habitats Directive[4] was agreed. This Directive extends the coverage to a much wider range of rare, threatened or endemic species, including around 450 animals and 500 plants. Some 200 rare and characteristic habitat types are also targeted for conservation in their own right.

The Habitats Directive establishes the Natura 2000 network of sites of highest nature value. It consists of Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) designated by Member States under the Habitats Directive. It also incorporates Special Protection Areas (SPAs) designated by the Member States under the Birds Directive. Over 20 000 sites have been included in the network so far (EU25), covering altogether almost a fifth of Europe’s land and water –equivalent to the size of Germany and Italy put together. As part of Natura 2000, the selected areas benefit from increased protection: Member States must take all the necessary measures to guarantee their conservation and avoid their deterioration.

In 1998, the Community adopted a biodiversity strategy. Four biodiversity action plans were adopted under this strategy in 2001 (conservation of natural resources, agriculture, fisheries, economic and development cooperation). Today, nature and biodiversity are one of the four priorities of the Sixth Community Environment Action Programme 2002-12.

EU Heads of State or Government agreed in 2001 to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by 2010 and to restore habitats and natural systems. In 2002, they joined some 130 world leaders in agreeing to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss globally by 2010.

Internationally, the European Community is a party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), signed in 1992 and ratified by the EU in 1993. The EU is active in pressing for the effective implementation of the CBD. The EU also actively implements a range of other biodiversity-related international agreements and promotes synergies among these.

These include the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the Convention on Migratory Species (Bonn Convention), the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Habitats (Berne Convention) and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). Several important regional conventions dealing with the marine environment have important biodiversity-related elements (e.g. OSPAR, HELCOM, Barcelona Convention).

To what extent have biodiversity concerns been effectively integrated into EU law and policy?

At EU level, the policy framework to halt biodiversity loss in the EU is now largely in place. Biodiversity objectives are integrated in the EU Sustainable Development Strategy[5] and the Lisbon partnership for growth and jobs and in a wide range of environmental and sector policies.

Recent reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) should help mitigate the damaging trends of intensification and of abandonment of high-nature-value farmland and forests. The IRENA project, launched in 2002, has produced a set of 35 agri-environment indicators. They will help transform data about the interaction between human activities and the state of the environment into decision-supporting information, and thus make for better-informed policy-making.

Considerable progress has also been made in integrating biodiversity concerns in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). This policy was reformed in 2002. The old short-term (annual) decision-making approach is being replaced by multi-annual recovery plans for those stocks that are in danger of collapsing and multi-annual management plans for healthy stocks. The new policy aims to adjust the size of the fishing fleet according to fish stocks and to promote environment-friendly fishing methods.

The Birds and Habitats Directives and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive[6] require the consideration of potential impacts of certain regional and territorial developments. This includes consideration of alternatives and the design of measures to prevent and reduce negative impacts. Careful assessments carried out early in the decision-making process have proven helpful. The recent introduction of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive[7], which applies to certain plans and programmes, should help better reconcile conservation and development by ensuring consideration of impacts much earlier in the planning process.

Some new EU legal instruments offer considerable promise for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. This is the case in particular with:

* The Environmental Liability Directive, which implements the “polluter pays” principle and covers damage to natural habitats protected under the 1992 Habitats and 1979 Bird Directives.
* The Water Framework Directive, which has established an EU framework for the protection of all water bodies in the EU in order to prevent and reduce pollution, promote sustainable water use, protect the aquatic environment, improve the status of aquatic ecosystems and mitigate the effects of floods and droughts.
* The Århus convention, which provides for access to environmental information and public participation and access to justice in environmental matters.
* The seven environmental thematic strategies which the Commission is in the process of adopting, on the marine environment, soil, the sustainable use of pesticides, air pollution, the urban environment, the sustainable use and management of natural resources, and waste prevention and recycling. They take a long-term (20-25 years) holistic and, where relevant, ecosystem approach to these complex issues which cut across several policy areas. 

Has the EU played a role in financing biodiversity policy?

Article 8 of the Habitats Directive foresees EU co-financing of measures required for the implementation and ongoing management of Natura 2000 through the use of existing EU financial instruments. Current policy measures, in particular those under Rural Development Policy such as the agri-environment regime (under the EU Common Agricultural Policy), are already providing substantial support to the implementation of the network by supporting farmers who manage their land in an ecologically friendly way.

In some Member States, European Regional Development Fund resources have been used to finance specific investments related to Natura 2000 sites, mostly in relation with facilities and infrastructures for visitor use. At present, the only source of funding dedicated exclusively to the financing of actions for implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives, including Natura 2000, is the LIFE-Nature fund. This has been used to promote management planning and pilot/demonstration projects of habitat and species management.

Under the Sixth EU Research Framework Programme (2002-06), financial support for biodiversity research has been directed towards assessing and forecasting changes in biodiversity and understanding the dynamics of ecosystems, particularly marine ecosystems. In addition, the relationship with society and the economy are being investigated to understand what options are available to mitigate any harmful effects and to assess possible impacts on human health and society. Through this research, better risks assessments can be made and biodiversity and ecosystems can be managed, conserved and rehabilitated in a sustainable manner for future generations.

The EU has provided considerable financial support to programmes and projects for biodiversity in developing countries and countries with transitional economies. For example, the EU has recently agreed a € 30 million grant for a biodiversity programme in China. In Pakistan, the EU has financed for many years a successful integrated project for poverty alleviation and biodiversity conservation in one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the western Himalayas.[8]

What more needs to be done?

While some progress has been made towards slowing the rates of biodiversity loss in the EU, the pace and extent of implementation of the EU framework has been insufficient. 38% of the infringement cases opened by the European Commission for bad implementation of EU law in the area of environment relate to biodiversity and nature protection. Much of our biodiversity remains greatly impoverished and continues to decline. A new approach needs to be adopted if we are to meet the 2010 targets.

In 2003, the Commission coordinated a broad stakeholder review to report on the implementation, effectiveness and appropriateness of the EU Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans. This review involved Commission services, Member States and civil society, including representatives of conservation organisations, the agricultural, forestry and fisheries sectors, and business.

The process culminated in May 2004 at Malahide, Ireland, when more than 200 stakeholder representatives from the EU Member States agreed on priority objectives and concrete targets on which the EU institutions, Member States and civil society can work together towards reaching the 2010 targets.[9]

The new Communication on “Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 – and beyond; sustaining ecosystem services for human well-being” is the Commission’s response to Malahide. The Communication reviews progress in implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans and proposes an Action Plan to 2010 and beyond which, for the first time, addresses both the EU institutions and the Member States, specifying the roles of both levels of governance in relation to each action.

It provides a comprehensive plan of priority actions towards specific, timebound targets. Success will depend on dialogue and partnership between the Commission and Member States and common implementation.

Before adopting the Communication, the Commission consulted the public at large on the Internet. The approach and priorities of the Communication received overwhelming public support.

What does the new Communication state?

The Communication argues that there is still time for the EU to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010. And while there is little chance of significantly reducing the rate of loss worldwide by 2010, it is vital nonetheless to do as much as possible internationally. The Communication proposes priority objectives in four key policy areas, and a number of supporting measures.

Policy Area 1: Biodiversity in the EU

The Communication calls for greater commitment from Member States to propose, designate, protect and effectively manage Natura 2000 sites. They should strengthen the coherence, the connectivity and resilience of the network, including through support to national, regional and local protected areas. The use of species action plans for the recovery of the EU’s most threatened species should be extended. Comparable measures for habitats and species are required in those EU outermost regions not covered by the nature directives.

The Communication makes clear that Natura 2000 and conservation of threatened species will not be viable in the long-term without a wider terrestrial, freshwater and marine environment favourable to biodiversity. Key actions include: optimising the use of available measures under the reformed CAP, notably to prevent intensification or abandonment of high-nature-value farmland, woodland and forest and supporting their restoration; implementing the forthcoming Forest Action Plan including measures to prevent and combat forest fires; and optimising the use of available resources under the reformed Common Fisheries Policy, notably to restore fish stocks, reduce the impact on non-target species (such as sharks and seabirds) and reduce damages to marine habitats.

Better planning at Member State, regional and local levels holds the key to preventing, minimising and offsetting negative impacts of regional and territorial development. This requires taking account of biodiversity needs further upstream in the decision-making process. Key actions include effective treatment of biodiversity in the strategic impact assessment and environmental impact assessments, ensuring that EU funds for regional development benefit biodiversity and building partnerships between planners, developers and biodiversity interests.

Some policy gaps remain in the area of prevention and control of invasive alien species. A comprehensive EU strategy should be developed for this purpose as well as specific actions, including an early warning system.

Policy Area 2: The EU and global biodiversity

On the international scene, a coherent EU approach is required, which ensures synergy between actions for governance, trade and development cooperation. The EU should continue to promote more effective implementation of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and related agreements. In the field of external assistance, it should enhance “earmarked” funds for biodiversity and strengthen mainstreaming of biodiversity into sector and geographical programmes, in line with the new EU Consensus on Development Cooperation.

Measures to address tropical deforestation, including trade commodities which drive deforestation, are particularly urgent. Rapid implementation of the programme of Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade[10] can make an important contribution in this regard. Effective action in the biodiversity-rich overseas countries and territories of Member States is vital to the EU’s credibility in this international area. Measures need to be enhanced to reduce the impact of trade policies on global biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Policy Area 3: Biodiversity and climate change

The Communication stresses the necessity of substantial cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the longer-term threat to biodiversity. In this respect, it reconfirms the need to honour our Kyoto commitments and to put in place more ambitious global emissions targets post-2012, in order to limit the global annual mean temperature increase to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The Communication also calls for strategic measures to help biodiversity adapt to unavoidable climate change – in particular to strengthen the quality and coherence of the Natura 2000 network; a task force will be established to advise on these measures. The Communication calls for action to prevent, minimise and offset any potential damages to biodiversity that may arise from climate change adaptation and mitigation measures (such as biomass plantations, and new energy technologies such as wind farms).

Policy Area 4: The knowledge base

The Communication highlights the critical need to strengthen our understanding of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This requires strengthening the European Research Area, its international dimension, research infrastructures, the science-policy interface and data interoperability for biodiversity. The Communication announces the establishment of a new EU mechanism to provide authoritative, independent research-based advice to inform implementation and further policy development. It also supports consideration of suitable international mechanisms for provision of scientific expertise on biodiversity.

Supporting measures

The Communication also calls for implementation of a number of key supporting measures, including ensuring adequate financing (see below) strengthening EU decision-making (eg. stronger coordination between Community institutions and Member States, and better consideration of biodiversity impacts in the development of new sectoral policies), building partnerships (eg. with landowners and users, the business and finance sectors), and building public education, awareness and participation for biodiversity (eg. through working with the Countdown 2010 initiative[11]).

How is the Commission dealing with the issue of future financing of biodiversity actions?

On 15 July 2004, the Commission adopted a Communication on the Financing of Natura 2000. It rejected the idea of a new Natura fund and proposed that future funding should come from existing Community funding instruments. It also estimated that Natura 2000 would cost € 6 billion on an annual basis. The Commission has integrated the needs of the Natura 2000 network into relevant proposals under the Financial Perspectives 2007-2013, especially those related to rural development funding, cohesion and structural funds, the European Fisheries Fund, LIFE+ and the Seventh Framework Programme for Research.

Integrating the financing of Natura 2000 into existing EU financial instruments ensures that the management of Natura 2000 sites is part of the wider land management policies of the EU. Thus, farming and forestry inside Natura 2000 sites can be seen as part of the Common Agricultural Policy financial support, under rural development, while structural interventions can be an integrated part of rural and regional development and cohesion policies. However, the Communication makes clear that the decision on the Financial Perspectives limits the amount of Community co-financing available for Natura 2000, and that Financing from Member States own resources will be crucial.

Considerable opportunities for financing of biodiversity research are provided under the Seventh Framework Programme for Research, notably (but not exclusively) under the Specific Programmes for Cooperation and for Capacities.

Greater opportunities for financing of biodiversity actions outside the EU are provided under the new EU Development Policy, both through the Thematic Programmes and the sectoral and geographic programmes – though here much depends on the priorities identified by the partner countries.

However, ultimately, it is the responsibility of the Member States to take the appropriate measures according to their own priorities (subsidiarity). The challenge for them is to ensure integrated, coherent and co-ordinated programming, so that all relevant EU funding sources (and Member States co-financing) contribute to implementation of the priority actions identified in the EU Action Plan to 2010 and beyond.

How will the Commission monitor and evaluate the Action Plan?

The Commission will report annually to the EU Council of Ministers and the European Parliament on progress in implementation of the Action Plan. At the end of 2010, in its fourth annual report, it will evaluate the extent to which the EU has met its 2010 commitments. It will use a set of headline biodiversity indicators (i.e. indicators that give high-level messages on trends of various aspects of biodiversity) annexed to the Communication. It will also develop a biodiversity indicator as a sustainable development indicator and as a structural indicator. The Commission will develop and implement these indicators and carry out its monitoring with Member States and civil society. In 2013, it will evaluate the extent to which the EU has met all post-2010 targets contained in the Action Plan. These evaluations will inform the development of policies and budgets for the post-2013 period.

How will EU biodiversity policy evolve beyond 2010?

The Communication paves the way to a debate on a longer-term vision, which should recognise our interdependence with nature and the need for a new balance between development and the conservation of the natural world. This debate will provide a frame for future policy development.

Further information:

[1] Biodiversity is a contraction of biological diversity. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment carried out between 2001 and 2005 defines biodiversity as the variability among living organisms from all sources, including terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part. The Millennium Assessment acknowledges that people are integral parts of ecosystems.

[2] Pimm, S.L. (2001) The World According to Pimm – A Scientist Audits the Earth. Mc-Graw Hill, New York.

[3] Directive 79/409/EEC.

[4] Directive 92/43/EEC

[5] COM (2001) 264 final

[6] Directive 85/337/EEC as amended by Directives 97/11/EC and 2003/35/EC.

[7] Directive 2001/42/EC.



[10] COM (2003) final



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