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Safeguarding biological diversity: EU policy and international agreements

Updated on 12 May 2016

Written by Didier Bourguignon,

© angellodeco / Fotolia

Biodiversity – the diversity of life on earth at all levels – is declining, mainly as a result of human-induced pressures such as over-exploitation of natural resources, loss of viable habitats, pollution, climate change or invasive alien species.

Globally, the decline of habitats and species continues, albeit at a slower pace than in the past. Human knowledge about the status of species has grown tremendously in recent decades, although it remains limited. Unless efforts are significantly increased, most international biodiversity protection targets for 2020 are unlikely to be met. There are many different international agreements relating to biodiversity, the most important of which is the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which the EU is a party.

Biodiversity is under pressure in the EU, as in the wider world. The conservation status of 77% of habitat types and 60% of species of European conservation interest is unfavourable, with some differences between biogeographic regions. European ecosystems are mainly threatened by habitat change, climate change, overexploitation, invasive alien species, and pollution and excess nutrients.

EU biodiversity policy is based on the Birds and Habitats Directives, which served as the basis for the development of the Natura 2000 network of protected sites covering 788 000 km2 on land (over 18% of EU land area) and 318 000 km2 at sea (about 5.9% of EU seas). The policy is driven by the biodiversity strategy, setting ambitious aims for 2020 (halting the loss of biodiversity) and 2050 (protecting and valuing biodiversity and ecosystem services), with the addition of a strategy on green infrastructure and an action plan on wildlife trafficking. The policy framework is complemented by several legislative acts, focusing on invasive alien species, sustainable use of pesticides, environmental liability, impact assessments, trade, and rules relating to bioprospecting, among others. The European Parliament has consistently supported EU biodiversity protection policy.

The European Commission estimates that the Natura 2000 network delivers benefits worth between €200 and €300 billion per year, set against annual management costs estimated at €5.8 billion. The LIFE programme co-finances some measures related to biodiversity, especially as regards the Natura 2000 network. Funding aimed at protecting biodiversity is also available under the agricultural, regional, fisheries and research policies.

Thanks to the current biodiversity policy, the protection of certain species and habitats has seen some progress, and pressures on biodiversity have consequently been somewhat reduced. However, implementation of the legal framework has been a long and complex process, with many infringement cases brought before the Court of Justice. Additionally, protected sites are often not appropriately managed.

Under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, environmental protection is an integral part of all EU policies. Biodiversity protection is interlinked with major EU policies such as agriculture and forest policies; fisheries, marine and water policies; regional policy; and climate change policy.

Current developments in EU biodiversity policy include a process of ‘biodiversity proofing’ of the EU budget, improved monitoring, definition of priorities for the restoration of degraded ecosystems, ‘biodiversity offsetting’ of unavoidable residual impacts, and a ‘fitness check’ of EU nature legislation.

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