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Looking back: Is Europe on track to save global biodiversity by 2020?

By Sanya Khetani-Shah, 12 Oct 2015
Atlantic Puffin in the UK. Part of the EU Biodiversity Strategy is better implementation of the laws to protect such Endangered species. Photo: Vince O'Sullivan/Flickr

In 2010, the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 – which commits the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU Member States to take action on all key drivers of biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystem services – was adopted and endorsed by all the stakeholders. At this halfway point to 2020, BirdLife International is assessing the progress of the EU.

The six targets of the strategy each address a different cause of biodiversity loss: lack of implementation of existing legislation, deterioration and loss of ecosystems, unsustainable agriculture, unsustainable fisheries, invasive alien species and the ecological footprint of the EU on the rest of the world.

The objective for 2020 is to halt the loss of biodiversity and degradation of ecosystem services in the EU and restore them, as well as stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss. Our conclusion is that we are far from achieving this.

Target 1: Fully implementing the Birds and Habitats Directives

Under target 1, European leaders agreed to stop the deterioration in the status of all species and habitats covered by EU nature legislation and to bring 50% more species and a 100% more habitats in a good conservation status. However, current progress is insufficient to achieve the target by 2020.

According to the EEA report the State of Nature in the EU, published in 2015, the percentage of habitats in a good status has increased from 17% by 4%, well-conserved bird species from 52% by 8% and other species from 23% by 5%. These are all far below the goals.

Significantly, the conservation status of some habitat types that were in a good status in 2006 has actually deteriorated, as has that of many habitat types, species and birds in an unfavourable conservation status. There are several reasons for this, the most important one that management of Natura 2000 sites is not receiving enough financial resources, currently less than 20% of what is needed.

However, there have also been many spectacular conservation successes. Over the last 50 years, many species have returned to EU Member States, sometimes after an absence of centuries, and the populations of many other species have increased spectacularly. For example, there are now 30 times more White-headed Ducks than in 1977.  

Target 2: Maintaining and enhancing ecosystems and their services

Target 2 commits the EU to maintaining and enhancing ecosystems and their services by establishing green infrastructure and restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems.

To achieve this, the EU Member States committed to create restoration prioritisation frameworks by 2014. However, only one Member State has put serious work in the development of a restoration prioritisation framework. The Commission has not published guidelines for Member States on how to achieve the 15% restoration target, in spite of contracting a consultant to carry out the preparatory work.

The Commission published its Green Infrastructure Strategy in 2013. The strategy contains very few concrete actions, but mainly commits the Commission to do further studies on a range of topics. Significantly, it does not contain any targets for EU funds to be mobilised for Green Infrastructure.

There are also no indications that Member States are on track to establish a significant area of green infrastructure by 2020, although there are some good examples of this at national levels, like France’s Trame verte et bleue.  

Target 3A: Increase the role of agriculture in saving biodiversity

The aim is that by 2020, areas under agriculture that are covered by biodiversity-related measures in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) must be maximised. Both targets are set so as to bring about a measurable improvement in the conservation status of the forest and agriculture relevant species and habitats.

However, farmland biodiversity continues to decline, and especially important grasslands habitats are still being destroyed. The 2013 "reform" of the CAP delivered an essentially empty set of greening measures. In 2014, scientists said the new greening rules will not contribute to the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy.

Things have only gotten worse. Budget cuts have undermined the Rural Development Programmes (which link payment of subsidies to farmers with their adoption of environment-friendly measures on their farms). Member States have also been taking advantage of various loopholes in the CAP to choose to implement measures that are least demanding for biodiversity, especially when it comes to its measure on Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs).

As a result, 89% of EU farms do not have to implement the EFA requirement, and those that do need them only on 5% of arable area. On top of that, more Member States are allowing farmers to grow nitrogen fixing crops – not particularly useful to enhance biodiversity – on EFAs than there are Member States encouraging them to include existing landscape features such as hedgerows.

Target 4: Ensure the sustainable use of fisheries resources 

The aim is not only to ensure the quantity of fish being scooped up is sustainable by 2015 – which means restoring and maintaining harvested fish at levels above Maximum Sustainable Yield (the total amount of fish that is ecologically stable), it is also about minimising adverse impacts to other non-target species and ecosystems, especially to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES, which means having clean, healthy and productive seas).

Therefore, this also means implementing the Seabird Plan of Action, which identifies action the EU and Member States need to take to mitigate seabird bycatch (published by the Commission in 2012).

These goals are to be tackled through the Common Fisheries Policy (adopted in 2013). However, implementation has not been rigorous. In 2014, Member States set catch limits (one of the means to ensure fish are ecologically stable) above scientific recommendation. The Commission also failed to integrate the ecosystem-based approach and environmental coherence to fisheries management in the multi-annual plan for the Baltic (although the European Parliament and the Council are now working to fix that).

According to the Commission’s assessment on the State of European Seas in 2014, 39% of stocks in the Northeast Atlantic and 88% of stocks in the Mediterranean and Black Seas were still overfished and marine litter is increasing. Unsurprisingly, the report concluded that European seas are not in GES, nor are they on track to achieve GES.

Target 5: Combating invasive alien species 

The aim is to have, by 2020, Invasive Alien Species and their pathways of introduction identified and prioritised, priority species controlled or eradicated, and pathways managed to prevent the introduction and establishment of new invasive species.

A new EU regulation on Invasive Alien Species entered into force in January 2015. This is in line with the Biodiversity Strategy target, although three years overdue. The regulation focuses on prevention, early detection and rapid eradication, and management of widespread invasive alien species. The next step, the adoption of the first list of invasive alien species of EU concern, must be followed closely; initial signs given by the Commission do not indicate that the list will match quantitatively the magnitude of the threat.

A major gap in the regulation is ballast water, which is the most important pathway for marine invasive alien species.

Target 6: Addressing the Global Biodiversity Crisis 

The aim is for the EU to step up its contribution to tackling global biodiversity loss through resource efficiency, reform of environmentally-harmful subsidies and added funding for action outside the EU.

While the EU's Resource Efficiency Flagship Initiative so far has not had significant effects, the European Commission has recently withdrawn its circular economy package, a key part of the initiative. The EU budget 2014-2020 has spared most of the environmentally-harmful subsidies.

In 2013, BirdLife International published the State of the World’s Birds report, which found 1,313 bird species (13% of all bird species) are Threatened (of which 197 are Critically Endangered), and another 880 are Near Threatened. Unfortunately, governments are still only formally protecting 20% more than 12,000 Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). Many still lack proper management and monitoring, and others are under imminent threat from destruction or degradation.

There are some positive results as well. The EU Timber Regulation, in force since 2013, prohibits operators to place illegally harvested timber and products derived from it on the EU market. The EU has also remained active in preventing the illegal trade of plants and animal parts.

The EU and Member States have also collectively increased their financial support to global biodiversity action (for example, by opening the EU LIFE programme for funding projects that benefit species and habitats of relevance to the EU in third countries, and the proposed EU African Wildlife Conservation Strategy), maintaining its role as the biggest global donor for biodiversity action.