Protection of biodiversity calls for a common approach
In September, the European Parliament adopted a report on the implementation of EU legislation aiming at the conservation of biodiversity. I was chosen to guide this report through the decision-making process of the European Parliament. It was not an easy report as many (often conflicting) interests and stakeholders are involved in the debate on this important issue. Yet, the challenge that the protection of biodiversity poses is comparable to climate change. We therefore need an ambitious but realistic approach to dealing with it.
With its report, the European Parliament sounds the tocsin about the state of European biodiversity, the richness and diversity of plants, animals and ecosystems. The EU has missed by a long way the target it set itself for 2010: halting the loss of biodiversity. Quite to the contrary, species are threatened with extinction at a rate 10 to 100 times faster than ever before; 30% of amphibians, more than 40% of mammals, birds, butterflies and reptiles, and over 50% of freshwater fish are threatened with extinction.
This is unacceptable. Not only from a biological or ecological viewpoint, but also from an ethical point of view. Furthermore, it makes economic sense to invest in biodiversity. Healthy ecosystems provide us with fresh and clean water, capture CO2 and guarantee better harvests. The weakening of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity currently costs us €50 billion per year, and these numbers are rising. By 2050 the costs will have risen to €14 trillion, or 7% of estimated global GDP per year.
At this very moment the EU is preparing a new biodiversity strategy, looking towards the year 2020 and beyond. After the blatant failure to reach the 2010 target, the central question now is how we can commit ourselves to ambitious and realistic targets that we can and will actually fulfil by 2020.
Obviously, political will is a key factor. The European Commission and Parliament are quite up to speed. This cannot be said, however, of many Member States. As long as they try to keep EU biodiversity legislation vague and do not implement legislation in the right spirit, we will be looking at another target that will not be met. In order to point Member States in the right direction, the Parliament’s report calls on the Commission to clarify certain elements of the EU’s Natura 2000 legislation, as the differences in interpretation and implementation between Member States are sometimes huge.
Secondly, we need to think out of the box to do this complex issue justice. This will be a difficult challenge for the EU, whose policies are fragmented, dealt with by many different Director Generals and sometimes even conflicting. This needs to change fast to a more integral approach: biodiversity considerations need to be ‘mainstreamed’ into other policy and budgetary areas, such as fisheries, agriculture, research and regional policy. The CAP reform, for example, can offer us possibilities to incorporate biodiversity goals, for example through compensation for the delivery by farmers of public goods.
Mainstreaming, however, will not be successful if we fail to create win-win-situations, where economy and ecology go hand in hand. Mainstreaming is not a matter of “taking CAP money and using it for biodiversity”, as one lobbyist put it. The challenge is to compensate approaches that fulfil both the objectives of the CAP (such as food security) and the EU’s biodiversity targets, thus creating ‘added value’. The most successful projects I have seen were the ones where economic and environmental factors worked together, not the ones where vested interests were locked in a fierce battle. The green job potential of such an approach is impressive, thus contributing to the EU’s 2020 strategy, aimed at “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”.
Finally, international and cross-border cooperation on biodiversity issues need to be improved. Animals and plants move freely across borders. Yet Natura 2000 areas in neighbouring countries are often not – or very badly – connected to each other. Furthermore, we need worldwide international cooperation. To that end the EU will hopefully play a leading role and speak with one voice at the international biodiversity conference in Nagoya (Japan) at the end of October.
All in all, the minimum level of ambition for the EU should be to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2020, to restore ecosystems where possible and to step up its international efforts. This ambitious target will only prove realistic if the EU follows a common and shared approach: with EU institutions and Member States working together and showing political will, mainstreaming biodiversity into other policy fields, creating added value and win-win situations and improving cross-border and international cooperation. We owe it to the next generations to succeed.