Europe's biodiversity continues to be eroded resulting in ecosystem degradation. Recent data show that 60% of species assessments and 77% of habitat assessments continue to be in unfavourable conservation status. Constant habitat loss, diffuse pollution, over-exploitation of resources, and growing impacts of invasive alien species and climate change contribute cumulatively.
The main EU target of 'halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services' by 2020 remains a serious challenge.
Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the variety of life and includes all living organisms found on Earth. It plays a key role in the functioning of ecosystems and the provision of ecosystem services which are essential for human life and well-being. These include provisioning services (e.g. fisheries, biomass), regulating and maintenance services (e.g. pollination, nutrient cycling, water purification) and cultural services (e.g. recreation). Yet despite biodiversity's intrinsic value and its fundamental importance for humans, biodiversity is highly threatened by human activities and continues to be lost. This is estimated to reduce global GDP by 3% each year.
In 2010 it was clear that neither the existing global nor the European Union's (EU) 2010 biodiversity target of reducing/halting biodiversity loss had been met, despite important progress in nature conservation measures in Europe, e.g. the expansion of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas and the recovery of some wildlife species (e.g. large carnivores). At the same time, key drivers of biodiversity loss remain or have increased, offsetting the positive actions to reverse this.
As a result, in 2010 world leaders adopted 20 targets — known as the Aichi Biodiversity Targets — for the period 2011–2020 with the aim to 'significantly reduce the current rate of biodiversity loss'.
In 2010, the EU set the ambitious overall target of 'Halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020, and restoring them in so far as is feasible, while stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss'. In 2011, the European Council adopted its EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, reinforced by the European Parliament Resolution in 2012 (see Box 1).
Box 1: The six targets covered by the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020
- Fully implement the Birds and Habitats Directives;
- Maintain and restore ecosystems and their services;
- Increase the contribution of agriculture and forestry to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity;
- Ensure the sustainable use of fisheries resources;
- Combat invasive alien species (IAS); and
- Help avert global biodiversity loss.
The Birds and Habitats Directives (known as the Nature Directives) aim to protect biodiversity and are the key pieces of legislation underpinning the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. Other relevant EU legislation includes the Water Framework Directive, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.
In 2013 the European Commission adopted the Green Infrastructure Strategy. In 2014 the European Council adopted a regulation on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of IAS.
The key threats to biodiversity
The key threats to biodiversity — habitat change, pollution, over-exploitation, IAS, and climate change — continue to exert pressure causing loss of species and habitats and resulting in ecosystem degradation and weakening ecosystem resilience.
Habitat change — including loss, fragmentation and degradation — of natural and semi-natural habitats due to land-use change is a main pressure. For example, through fragmentation of the rural landscape because of urban sprawl and grey infrastructure developments; homogenisation and loss of habitat caused by agricultural intensification and land abandonment, and intensely managed forests.
The accelerated establishment and spread of IAS — more than 12 000 alien species now occur in Europe — is not only an important driver of biodiversity loss, but also causing considerable economic damage to agriculture, forestry and fisheries worth billions of euros per year. Europe faces an increasing trend of new IAS across all environments.
Encouragingly, some pollution pressures have decreased such as the nutrient enrichment of European waters and the balance of nitrogen found on farmland. However, the level of nitrogen still substantially exceeds ecosystem eutrophication limits in most of Europe and the eutrophication risk is predicted to remain in 2020.
Increasing impacts from climate change are already affecting species' distribution, range and interaction and are projected to become a more significant threat in the coming decades. Climate change will also interact with and exacerbate other threats.
Status and trends of European biodiversity
Much is still unknown when it comes to the complete status and trends of European biodiversity and its relation to the functioning of ecosystems and the long-term delivery of services. Nonetheless, available information on selected species, habitats and ecosystems across Europe give cause for concern.
Information reported by EU Member States under the Birds and Habitats Directives indicates that local biodiversity loss could be considerable. Under the Habitats Directive, the assessment for 2007–2012 shows that only 23% of animal and plant species assessments (Figure 1) and 16% of the habitat type assessments (Figure 2) were considered to be in a favourable conservation status.
A high proportion of species assessments (60%) and habitat assessments (77%) remain in unfavourable condition. The proportion of assessments of conservation status which are unknown has decreased (to 17% for species and 7% for habitats).
Data on population trends for various groups of species show both worrying and encouraging results. There has been a dramatic decline in grassland butterflies of almost 50% between 1990 and 2011 with no sign of recovery. Europe's common bird populations have declined by 12% since 1990 (common farmland birds have declined by 30%). Encouragingly, some populations of European bats and large carnivores appear to have recovered to some extent from past declines, demonstrating positive results of conservation action and unplanned changes such as land abandonment.
Figure 1: Conservation status of species of European interest
Figure 2: Conservation status of habitats of European interest
In Europe there has been progress on some issues. A significant achievement includes the expansion of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas to 18% of EU land and 4% of EU marine waters. This means that the Aichi target for global coverage of protected areas by 2020 of at least 17% of the terrestrial and inland water areas has been met while much progress is still needed for meeting 10% of the coastal and marine areas. Conserving and managing the Natura 2000 network effectively, and enhancing their coherence through developing green infrastructure, such as wildlife corridors, is a critical step to protect Europe's biodiversity.
It will be very challenging for Europe to meet the overall target of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020. Many of the direct, and all of the indirect influences on biodiversity loss, arise from a range of sectors and policies that exerts considerable pressure on biodiversity. These include agriculture, fisheries, regional development and cohesion, forestry, energy, tourism, transport and industry. Consequently, the fate of European biodiversity is also closely intertwined with the developments in these areas. Thus, the adequate integration of biodiversity considerations into certain economic sectors as well as regional policies remains critical in attempting to reduce the pressures on biodiversity. Successful mainstreaming of biodiversity into these areas — in both the public and private sectors — will be required.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 — if fully and effectively implemented — is foreseen as an important step towards halting the loss of biodiversity. For example, the effective integration of biodiversity concerns into sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries (aim of targets 3 and 4) will be important in attempting to reduce the direct impacts on biodiversity. Another key step is the restoration of at least 15% of degraded ecosystems across Europe, the promotion of green infrastructure in the EU in urban and rural areas and ensuring no net loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services (target 2). All of which have the potential to considerably benefit biodiversity, as well as society, through strengthening the coherence of the Natura 2000 network, increasing ecosystem resilience and providing nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation. Target 2 also aims to improve the knowledge base on ecosystems and their services in the EU in order to assess the economic value of ecosystem services and to promote the integration of these values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national level by 2020.
In today's increasingly globalised economy, international trade chains accelerate habitat degradation far away from the place of consumption. Given that Europe has a high ecological footprint and relies heavily on the import of resources and goods from all over the world, Europe's impact on biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation extends well beyond its borders. Consequently, European efforts to halt biodiversity loss on its continent should ensure that pressures are not transferred to other parts of the world thereby exacerbating global biodiversity loss.
References and footnotes
 EEA (2009), Progress towards the European 2010 biodiversity target, EEA Report No 4/2009, European Environment Agency.
 EC (2013), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions 'Green Infrastructure — Enhancing Europe’s Natural Capital' (COM(2013) 0249 Final of 6 May 2013).
 EC (2013), Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Prevention and Management of the Introduction and Spread of Invasive Alien Species, COM/2013/0620 Final of 9 September 2013).
 EEA (2012), Invasive alien species indicators in Europe — A review of streamlining European biodiversity (SEBI) Indicator 10, EEA Technical report No 15/2012, European Environment Agency.
 EEA (2012), The impacts of invasive alien species in Europe, EEA Technical report No 16/2012, European Environment Agency.
 EEA (2012), Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2012 — an indicator-based report, EEA ReportNo 12/2012, European Environment Agency.
 EEA (2013), The European Grassland Butterfly Indicator: 1990–2011, EEA Technical report No 11/2013, European Environment Agency.
 EEA (2013), European bat population trends. A prototype biodiversity indicator, EEA Technical report No 19/2013, European Environment Agency.
 The reporting format uses three classes of Conservation Status. 'Favourable' (green) signifies that the species or habitat is at Favourable Conservation Status (FCS) as defined in the Directive and the habitat or species can be expected to prosper without any change to existing management or policies. In addition, two classes of 'Unfavourable' are recognised: 'Unfavourable-Bad' (red) signifies that the habitat or species is in serious danger of becoming extinct (at least locally) and 'Unfavourable-Inadequate' (amber) is used for situations where a change in management or policy is required but the danger of extinction is not so high. The unfavourable category has been split into two classes to allow improvements or deterioration to be reported.
 EC (2013), Mapping and assessment of ecosystems and their services — An analytical framework for ecosystem assessments under Action 5 of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, European Commission.
SOER 2015 European briefings present the state, recent trends and prospects in 25 key environmental themes. They are part of the EEA's report SOER 2015, addressing the state of, trends in and prospects for the environment in Europe. The EEA's task is to provide timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information on Europe's environment.
For references, see www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
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