No more time to lose: Despite strict nature protection laws, the EU is struggling to maintain its biodiversity, with unsustainable farming, fragmentation, habitat loss, and climate change being the biggest threats to biodiversity. What can the EU do in order to protect all species and habitats in Europe?
Chaired by Azra Özen (TR)
‘The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.’
– Charles Darwin, evolutionist and biologist
The Topic at a Glance
Nature is the fundamental source of human life. Without the goods nature provides, human life would not be possible. Thus, all kinds of life are dependent on nature and each other. We depend on nature for food, medicine, housing, clothing, and clean water. For instance, pollination by butterflies and bees provides us with the vegetables and fruits we need to survive. However, recent agricultural developments such as the utilization of pesticides threatens these vital insects, paving the way for food insecurity.
It is crucial to remember that all life comes from nature itself, therefore preserving natural sources and living creatures is a matter of life and death. Human health and well-being depend on the thriving of a biodiverse nature.
The living things sheltered by mother nature come in abundant characteristics. But why? Biodiversity is essential for the continuity of life. Biodiversity provides a functioning ecosystem that gives clean air, oxygen, plant pollination, and many more ecosystem services. Biodiversity also assists the continuity of the species itself. Biologically diverse species have a better chance of surviving changing ecosystems, for instance, climate change. One of the major threats to humanity is the reduction of biodiversity. Recently the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) revealed that up to 25% of European animal species are now threatened with extinction. Urgent action is required in order to get the biodiversity of the EU back on track. There are some ambitious attempts such as the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and Natura 2000 network. However, policies and legislations are not adequate alone.
During the process of development, the objective should always be about working with nature rather than against it.
- Biodiversity is defined as the variety of all kinds of life on Earth. Biodiversity can be addressed in three main pillars: genetic diversity, species diversity, and ecosystem diversity. Genetic diversity is differences in genes in one particular species. Species diversity refers to the variety of species given in one biological organisation. Variation of ecological processes and habitats defines ecosystem diversity. Biodiversity is a fundamental source of life on Earth.
- An ecosystem is the complex network formed by interacting organisms in a biological environment. An ecosystem comprises a variety of habitats and species. Terrestrial, forest, grassland, and desert are instances of some ecosystems.
- Ecosystem services are benefits that flow from nature to humankind. Some examples of advantages these ecosystems provide are clean water, natural crop pollination, clean air, and waste decomposition.
- Natural capitals are the world’s stock of natural assets from which ecosystem services are provided from such as soil, atmosphere, plants, and animals.
- Habitat Loss is the degradation of where a plant or animal normally lives and grows. This decrease of types of natural habitats are often caused by climate change, overexploitation, pressure on habitats from industries such as agriculture, pollution, and urban sprawl.
This topic falls into the responsibility of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Environment (DG ENV). It ensures environmental protection with proposals for and the implementation of environmental policies.
The European Environmental Agency (EEA) is the agency of the European Union whose goal is to be the primary source of environmental knowledge at the European level. It assists the Member States to be informed in order to make more sustainable environmental decisions. The gathering of data related to environmental issues also falls into the responsibility of EEA.
The EEA coordinates its activities with the European Environment Information and Observation Network (Eionet). It is the EEA’s responsibility to develop Eionet and coordinate its activities together with National Focal Points (NFPs) in other countries.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is an union that brings government and civil society organisations together to accelerate environmental protection. Assisting the implementation process of national conservation measures and supporting environmental research through the member organisations are some of IUCN’s responsibilities.
EUROPARC is a network whose aim is to improve the management of Protected Areas in Europe through international cooperation, exchange of ideas and experience, and by influencing policy.
The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is an organisation aiming to harness scientific expertise and policy making processes in order to ensure knowledge-based, scientific policies. Making assessments on specific themes, policy support, building capacity and knowledge, and ensuring wider outreach are the main responsibilities of the IPBES.
Environmental policy is a shared competence, meaning the Member States can adopt their own legislation, but are obliged to implement the binding policies adopted by the European Union. However this process can be challenging with the lack of coordination between the stakeholders, policy makers, and the public. Civil society organisations (CSOs) play a crucial role in order to enhance the communication between local actors and the governmental organisations. Implementation and monitoring processes highly depend on civil society organisations since they form a tangible connection between stakeholders.
Figure 2: The Key Stakeholders of the Topic.
Capitalism versus Environmental Action
The conflict around implementing environmental action concerning biodiversity arises within economic doubts. Some say the application of environmental policies causes pollution-intensive companies to be exposed to cost imposements. Thus, policymakers shy away from implementing strict nature protection regulations due to the fear of possible alteration of companies’ competitiveness, job loss, and increased production costs. In a world dominated by capital flows, environmental protection can come across as sacrificing economic performance. However, economic development and environmental action are not as fully in opposition as they may appear. Environmental policies could also enhance productivity, increase the quality of employment, and encourage the transition to a resilient and sustainable economy.
The Climate Is Changing Why Aren’t We
Biodiversity and climate change are immensely interconnected. Tackling the issue of climate change cannot be achieved without protecting biodiversity, and protecting species and habitats is impossible without mitigating climate change. Climate change puts pressure on biodiversity, causing species to decline. At the same time, climate change will accelerate further if biodiversity and ecosystems are not effectively protected. Humanity is facing a problem in which the cause and the outcome should be addressed in an integrated manner.
Biodiversity maintenance has the utmost importance in mitigating climate change since it increases resilience by ensuring that there are enough different species to sustain ecological processes in the event of unforeseen disturbances. Terrestrial and marine ecosystems play a crucial role in regulating climate, currently absorbing roughly half of manmade carbon emissions. Trees purify the air, provide carbon storage, cool the surrounding area, and prevent floods by storing water. However, biodiversity’s role in mitigating climate change is often neglected.
However, some actions aimed at combating climate change can cause the loss of biodiversity, if not properly designed. For instance, bioenergy sources like wind turbines can be dangerous for bird species. This again indicates the need for integrated action against climate change and biodiversity, such as with ecosystem-based approaches, including green infrastructure.
More, More, More
Humanity is paying the price of a major economic and industrial development. The global population has increased from 3 billion to 7.8 billion people since World War II, which raises the consumption demand. Simultaneously, as stated at the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than half of the world’s total GDP is dependent on nature and its services.
Consequently, overexploitation of natural resources is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity, alongside being an obstacle to sustainable development. Sustaining a long-term use of natural resources while maintaining economic growth remains a challenge. Humanity has been exploiting natural resources faster than the earth’s rate of regeneration since 1970 due to the enormous rate of economic growth and consumer demand. If exploitation continues at this rate, we would need 2.5 earths to sustain humanity by 2050.
Agriculture must be taken into consideration while addressing biodiversity. A balance between improving food production and consumption and nature protection is required to turn the tide of biodiversity loss. Agroecological approaches are one of the ways of sustaining this balance.
Sustainable management of resources such as improving restoration of degraded ecosystems or promoting the use of renewable resources is crucial to tackling the issue of overexploitation. Educating the public and raising awareness about biodiversity is also critical. This can be achieved with proper data collection and data viability which is currently lacking.
Alien Species are Taking Over
Simply increasing biodiversity is not always advantageous. Invasive alien species cause harm to the existing ecosystem by pressurising the native species. Invasive Alien Species (IAS) are animals and plants introduced into an environment where they are not normally found. For instance, trade with ships can transfer species to other continents. This often has serious negative consequences for the existing ecosystem. The effect of invasive alien species cannot be neglected. The European Union is exposed to annual damages worth EUR 12 billion attributable to Invasive Alien Species’ effects on human health, damaged infrastructure, and agricultural losses.
Measures in Place
Nature and biodiversity are protected under various legislations in the European Union.
The Birds Directive supports protection for bird species’ biodiversity. According to the Commission, at least 32% of the EU’s bird species currently do not have a good conservation status. This directive establishes a network of Special Protection Areas (SPAs), prohibits hunting when birds are most vulnerable, and promotes research to underpin the protection of all species listed.
The Habitats Directive established the Natura 2000 Network and protects over 1000 species of animals, plants, and over 200 types of habitats. This directive lists criteria for the selection of sites, introduces both economically and ecologically sustainable conservation measures, obliges EU countries to apply proper management of the sites, and prohibits any deliberate capture or killing of the listed species.
Natura 2000 Network is the largest network of protected areas around the world. 18% of Europe’s land area and more than 8% of the marine territory is protected under this network, although not all human activities are prohibited in these areas such as agriculture which don’t cause harm to the species. The goal of this network is to establish a protection system for Europe’s vulnerable species and habitats as defined by the Birds and Habitats Directives.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 is a long-term strategy aiming to put Europe’s biodiversity back on track by 2030. A core part of the EU Green Deal, it aims to build resilience to climate change, forest fires, food insecurity, and disease outbreaks. This strategy contains commitments such as enlarging the existing protected areas, establishing an EU Nature Restoration Plan which includes proposing binding restoration targets, introducing measures to have a better tracking and implementation process, and improving research.
The Biodiversity Information System for Europe (BISE) is the main entry point for data and information on biodiversity in Europe, strengthening the knowledge base and supporting decision-making on biodiversity. The information BISE organises is revived under five pillars: supporting activities related to EU policy, information on a variety of topics concerning biodiversity, data sources and statistics, research projects improving science-policy interference, and information sharing networks across borders.
- How can the EU better support the appliance of environmental policies without causing economic burden?
- What are some possible ways to promote biological diversity strategies in order to better mitigate climate change?
- How can the public become more informed and involved about threats of biodiversity loss?
- Since one of the main obstacles against proper policy implementation of environmental regulation is lack of stakeholder coordination, how could the cooperation of authorities be enhanced globally?
- Europe has one of the best policies about environment and biodiversity protection, yet biodiversity is shrinking. What could be done in order to augment the efficiency of the regulations?
- A website on biodiversity in Europe, 2021, Biodiversity Information System of EU (essential reading).
- An article on how to preserve biodiversity, 2021 European Parliament.
- A definition of biodiversity, 2021, World Wildlife Fund (essential reading).
- A Ted Talk on global movement to restore nature’s biodiversity, 2020, TED/Thomas Crowther.
- A discussion paper on climate change and biodiversity, 2009, European Environment Information and Observation Network.
- A report on transitioning to a green infrastructure Europe, 2013, European Commission.
- A report on the global status of biodiversity, 2020, World Wildlife Fund.
- An article on nature-based solutions for biodiversity, 2021, European Commission.