A damning new report reveals the grim decline of nature in the European Union. The member states have the opportunity this week to begin to repair the damage.
This week the European Environmental Agency (EEA) released its State of Nature in the EU report. The grim news should alarm us all: four-fifths of habitats are in poor condition and the trends are mostly downwards. Species and habitats are increasingly under threat, from unsustainable farming and forestry, urban sprawl, pollution and climate change.
The EEA concludes that only 15 per cent of habitats are in good shape. More than half of dune, bog, mire and fen habitats, which have the capacity to store a lot of carbon, are in poor condition. Moreover, the situation for about 35 per cent of species and habitats is deteriorating, while less than a tenth of habitats with poor or bad conservation status show improvements.
There are, though, a few success stories. The Agile Frog in Sweden and the Bearded Vulture across Europe are showing improvements and the Natura 2000 network of protected areas is generally having a positive effect on species and habitats.
Caught as we are in a pincer movement between multiple crises—the Covid-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn and the climate emergency—many are likely to miss or dismiss the bad tidings contained in the report from the EU agency. This is grim news, many will think, for those who like bugs and birds but nothing for the rest of us to worry about as we go about our daily business.
Yet we are part of the natural world, not apart from it. Our economies depend on natural ecosystems, as do our food and farming, health, wellbeing and medicine. Healthy natural systems also play a vital role in regulating the climate and providing humanity with a cushion against future pandemics. And there is the intangible value of nature—the ‘wow’ moment of seeing an otter in the wild—which future generations are in danger of forfeiting.
If 80 per cent of habitats are in poor condition, that means four-fifths of humanity’s life-support system is itself in need of life support.
While it is tempting to despair, the first step to repairing the damage is to understand what is causing the crisis. The State of Nature report concludes that industrial farming, which destroys biodiversity and pollutes habitats, is the most common pressure on nature across the EU. Urbanisation, forestry activities and pollution of air, water and soil are other major drivers.
This makes the EU’s failure radically to rethink the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)—which is worth €358 billion over seven years and subsidises many of the destructive farming practices erasing biodiversity—a costly and expensive folly neither we nor nature can afford.
Although the situation is dire, it is not hopeless. The EU report highlights that ecosystems can be restored and species can come back from the brink of extinction.
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Safeguarding the health and resilience of Europe’s nature however requires fundamental changes to the way we produce and consume food, use forests and manage water. These efforts need to be coupled with better implementation and enforcement of environmental policies and a focus on nature restoration—as well as increasingly ambitious climate action.
In May, the commission published the new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the Farm to Fork Strategy, core elements of the European Green Deal. The Biodiversity Strategy aims to strengthen and enlarge the network of protected areas. It envisages a new law to restore nature and ensure that ecosystems are healthy, resilient to climate change, rich in biodiversity and able to deliver the range of services essential for citizens’ wellbeing.
EU environment ministers, meeting this Friday, need to give full support to the EU’s plan and get on board with its implementation. The first step would be to hammer out the details of key actions, such as strictly to protect 10 per cent of the EU’s land and sea area, including remaining old-growth forests. Given that one of the lessons learnt from the failure to meet the 2020 biodiversity targets at global level was that delays in implementation hinder progress, these processes must be carried out swiftly to make the most of the coming decade, vital to the future of the natural world.
Endorsement of the Biodiversity Strategy and the steps to follow must be supported by environmental legislation being enacted and compliance secured. As with the Climate Law, there is an urgent need for member states to welcome, and co-operate in drafting, an ambitious restoration law as anticipated under the Biodiversity Strategy. This law should set targets to restore at least 15 per cent of the EU’s land and sea areas, as well as to make 15 per cent of rivers free-flowing again, by 2030.
The EU and national governments must find the funding to implement the strategy by harnessing all the financial instruments at their disposal. These currently do not earmark funding for biodiversity—this is worrying and a missed opportunity. For example, at least 10 per cent of the EU budget should be allocated to boosting biodiversity and nature should be placed at the core of Europe’s post-pandemic recovery fund: investing in the resilience of nature is investing in the resilience of society.
Reflecting the fact that intensive farming is the main driver of biodiversity loss and degradation, the Green Deal must be fully integrated into the new CAP, which otherwise will continue to destroy biodiversity, even though more sustainable farming practices exist and are feasible.
Not too late
Again, it is not too late to fix this, if political representatives and leaders will it. Sadly, the EU’s agriculture ministers and the European Parliament missed the opportunity to make the broken CAP compatible with the Green Deal. Member states have the chance this week to repair some of the damage by fully endorsing the Biodiversity Strategy. Moreover, in keeping with the ‘do no harm’ principle, the European Commission must withdraw the current CAP proposal and come up with a better blueprint to put to member states and the European Parliament.
Almost all heads of governments, and the EU as a whole, have already signed the Leaders Pledge for Nature. Biodiversity is now recognised politically as an existential crisis, on a par with climate change. But lofty words are not enough. The Biodiversity Strategy must now be translated into solid commitments and actions. Failure to do so would not only be inconsistent but would threaten the very survival of our societies.
Ultimately, biodiversity is not just about random birds and bugs but the very future of life—including our own.
Sergiy Moroz also contributed to this article
Laura Hildt is associate policy officer for biodiversity and EU affairs at the European Environmental Bureau. Patrick ten Brink is director of the EU policy unit of the EEB.