Site protection: Natura 2000 network ready for take off
The Natura 2000 network in the EU is the largest network of protected areas in the world, covering 17.5% of EU territory (in 2011). In a great but slow effort, often enforced by the European Court of Justice, sites have been designated by EU Member States to protect particular natural habitat types and species of community interest under the EU Birds and Habitats Directive. Despite evidence that the network is effective, and is the main EU tool for nature protection, the Natura 2000 network and its objectives are not well known by Europeans. Increasing pressure on land and abandonment of biodiversity friendly land use, are destroying and deteriorating many designated sites before adequate action is taken to protect and manage them. Natura 2000 is still far from being a coherent network: the high degree of landscape fragmentation and the existence of many small isolated sites hampers the genetic exchange and adaptation to climate change that is crucial to threatened biodiversity. More on ecosystem restoration and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Only 17% of the species and habitats that the network sets out to protect under the Habitats Directive are in favourable conservation status and the management, monitoring and protection of these sites suffers from a chronic lack of investment.
Designation: almost complete on land, but large parts of our seas remain unprotected
In 2012, 20 years after the birth of Natura 2000 EU Member States are finally approaching a sufficient level of designation of terrestrial sites. While some gaps in the network still exist (Overview of EU progress on designation), it is high time for Eu Member States to recognise that after a long delay (of more than three decades, in some cases) in merely setting up the network, they should now urgently be starting to focus on the actual implementation of management, conservation and monitoring of their national sites.
However, as far as marine sites are concerned, the situation is alarming. Since a first BirdLife assessment in 2010 only some EU Member States made progress in designating Important Bird Areas as Natura 2000 sites e.g. France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark. Germany has designated more than 30% of its Exclusive Economic Zone as Natura 2000. In others, huge gaps remain, e.g. Portugal, Italy, UK, Ireland, Finland and Sweden .
Management of sites: the heart of the matter
The EU’s biodiversity can only be conserved and restored through adequate management of the Natura 2000 sites. Well designed and detailed management plans with clear responsibilities for implementation are the best tools for this. They should define clear and specific conservation objectives and priorities (at site level and linked to regional or national objectives), identify and involve all stakeholders and land users, map out the current pressures on the site and how these can be remediated, and present sustainable financing sources to match the identified costs. (BirdLife position on management plans for SPAs)
A combination of existing studies with expert assessments from the BirdLife network provides a picture of patchy and mostly slow progress across EU Member States (Overview of EU progress on management).The assessment was made along various criteria, in particular the proportion of Natura 2000 sites covered with management plans, the content and quality of the management plans, the approach taken for the development of the plans (e.g. participatory process or not) and whether the plans are legally binding.
Also for marine Natura 2000 sites management plans need to be set-up in order to integrate demands for economic development and environmental protection. (Marine Natura 2000 management). A key problem in this context is the fact that decisions on the management of fisheries within Natura 2000 sites cannot be taken by governments alone but only by the EU Institutions. This process has delayed decisions on the management of marine protected areas in the past and even served as an obstacle for designating new sites (Management challenges on Dogger Bank SPA).
Financing the network: Conservation without money is only conversation
The costs of the Natura 2000 network have been estimated to amount to 5.8 billion EUR annually for the whole EU. Funds are lacking for the development of management plans, the work of site managers, surveillance and monitoring activities and effective participation of land-owners through compensation for income foregone or payments for additional conservation efforts. Although there is overwhelming evidence about the positive cost-benefit ratio and the future costs that would encumber on public budgets in case of inaction, EU Member States are so far reluctant to allocate sufficient resources to Natura 2000 through EU and domestic funds. The majority of EU Member States call upon EU funds for the financing of the Natura 2000 network, mainly the structural and rural development funds. The European Commission estimates that only a maximum of 9-19% of Natura 2000 costs are currently met through EU funds.
The EU and its Member States have taken a conscious decision to finance the Natura 2000 network through an integrated approach, using various sources of funding, instead of one large environmental fund (Innovative conservation funding ). However experience has now shown that there are huge problems with mobilising funds from other sectors, in particular from agricultural and regional development budgets. This can partly be attributed to missing political will, partly to lacking awareness and information of the non-environmental sectors. To address this, EU Member States have now agreed to develop national or regional PAFs which outline key management measures together with their envisaged source of funding. The European Commission will ensure consistency of these plans with all relevant EU spending across Europe (Overview of EU progress on financing). The LIFE Fund also plays a significant role in financing Natura 2000 compared to its modest size. It has proven to be an extremely cost-effective tool for biodiversity protection, especially where quick and targeted measures are required at a local and regional scale (Cost-effectiveness of LIFE). As it is clear that the chances to meet the 2020 biodiversity objective will largely be decided by the choices made within the next EU budget (2014-2020) environmental NGOs and an increasing number of EU Member States agree that the LIFE fund should be able to contribute 10-20% of investments in Natura 2000 (currently 2-3%) More on Funding for Nature.