The importance of safeguarding natural resources has been recognised by the European Union for decades, but efforts to improve protection have so far failed. In 2001, the EU set itself the goal of halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010, but has subsequently fallen far short of this goal.
Today, ecosystems such as forests, coral reefs, freshwaters and soils are still in rapid decline. According to the European Commission, the main reasons are changes to land use, pollution, the overexploitation of resources and the uncontrolled spread of non-native species.
These pressures are all either constant or increasing in intensity. Just 17% of assessed habitats and species enjoy a “favourable” conservation status. Most ecosystems are no longer able to deliver the optimal quality and quantity of services: 88% of fish stocks are over-exploited and up to 22% of European animal species face the risk of extinction. The Commission estimates the cost of this loss at billions of euros.
“It’s our natural capital that we are spending too fast and we all know what happens when we borrow beyond our means,” said Janez Poto?cnik, the European commissioner for the environment. “We should all be aware of the severity of this situation and our past failures to address the problem.”
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Last year the Commission relaunched its biodiversity strategy, pledging to reverse biodiversity loss by 2020. This time, things will be different, says the Commission, because the revised strategy contains a streamlined list of six targets, as opposed to the 160 different actions outlined before, plus indicators and a 2010 baseline assessment against which to measure progress.
The relaunched strategy identifies a lack of funding and insufficient integration into sectoral policies as problems with the previous approach.
Targets for 2020 include full implementation of existing nature-protection legislation, protecting EU fish stocks, enhancing action at a global level through the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and ensuring the sustainability of agriculture and forestry activities. But campaigners for biodiversity, including some MEPs, have complained that the targets and commitments, particularly for agriculture and fisheries, lack substance. Environment ministers watered down the language for these two areas even further in December, fearful of prejudging the negotiations going on in the Council of Ministers about reforming the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Biodiversity campaigners accused environment ministers of not being willing to stand up to farmers and fishermen to defend the principles they say they support.
“It betrays the rotten decision-making that underpins a lot of what is going on in Europe today,” says Ariel Brunner of biodiversity campaign group Birdlife International. “Good governance, if nothing else, would suggest you set your overall targets and strategies on where you want your society to go, and then you make policy. But they are doing the decision-making the other way around. You end up with your over-arching strategies being dictated by the dirty deals being played on the ground in the CAP and CFP discussions, rather than having dirty deals being constrained by the long-term vision you’re trying to achieve.”
The current proposals for reforming the CAP include a requirement that, to be eligible for certain funds, farmers must set aside 7% of arable land for biodiversity. The CFP reform proposal also contains measures to increase the sustainability of fish stocks. But both of these greening measures are controversial with agriculture and fisheries ministers, and may yet be removed during the negotiations.