The Alpine region - Biodiversity, Energy and Water
Biodiversity and ecological connectivity
The Alps are among the richest regions of Europe in terms of variety of landscapes and plant and animal species. This is not only due to natural conditions but also the result of human activity over the course of centuries. The Alps also shelter some of Central Europe’s last remote and wild areas and are one of the most important ecoregions in the world in terms of conserving global biodiversity.
The loss or destruction of habitats is the most direct threat to biodiversity. Major challenges are the intensification of agricultural practices, especially at the bottom of the valleys on the one hand, and land abandonment in the mountains, on the other. Regarding the latter, maintaining traditional agricultural practices in the mountains can be beneficial for biodiversity. Further challenges are growing urbanisation and the fragmentation of landscapes and habitats as a result of increasing infrastructure. The growing demand for leisure and sport activities in the area can also lead to negative impacts on biodiversity (e.g. disturbance of birds during their breeding period or of the sensitive Alpine fauna during the winter skiing season).
Global climate change is an additional threat to biodiversity. The speed of the changes leaves only a little potential to adapt. Alpine flora is already reacting to global warming and migrating upwards. More plant species may be found on the highest mountain summits than 100 years ago. The specialised species growing at high altitudes are being replaced by more competitive species from lower altitudes.
Protected areas are crucial to counter the continuing loss of ecosystems and species. Protected areas, including Natura 2000 sites, cover almost 30 % of the Alpine Convention territory. As protected areas themselves are not enough to guarantee the sustainable conservation of biodiversity, an Alpine ecological network, which aims to conserve and recreate ecological connectivity between ecosystems, is being set up. The Alpine protected areas are key elements in this process (see figure 1).
Figure 1: Alpine protected areas
The Alps represent a particularly important space for contributing to the EU goal of increasing the proportion of renewable energy in the European energy mix, especially as they have a long tradition of hydroelectric energy production. The Alps also have potential in terms of other sources of renewable energy. However, increasing the production of renewable energy in the Alps also means facing potential conflicts with nature and landscape protection and with other activities such as tourism, agriculture and forestry. Consequently, ingenious ways are needed to reconcile the different activities — protecting the environment and developing new production capacities. In addition, a key issue is the sustainable adaptation of production plants, especially hydropower plants, to the new climatic conditions. In particular, the flow regime of Alpine torrents and rivers will be affected by climate change.
As far as energy consumption is concerned, improvements in the building sector offer an important and considerable potential for energy saving throughout the entire Alpine region. Standards and know-how have been developed for residential, industrial and commercial buildings in the different Alpine countries.
Finally, the energy transport and distribution system has to reconcile two coexisting opposing trends: on the one hand, a globalising trend towards a common European energy network, in which the Alpine region has a strategic geographical position, and on the other, the trend — linked to the development of renewable energies — towards smaller, more locally oriented energy production and consumption areas.
Water management in the Alps — a key challenge in times of climate change
Water is a central resource in the Alps for several different uses: from drinking water for residents and tourists to energy production, agricultural irrigation, use in water-intensive industries and the production of artificial snow.
The change in precipitation patterns — in combination with the melting of glaciers — will have a major impact on the available water resources in the Alps, especially during summer. During the dry period, resources are likely to be lower: this could reinforce competition between the different users, such as maintaining the supply for residents and agriculture or maintaining water reserves for snow-making, and implies careful planning of the available resources. Moreover, competition may be increased between upstream and downstream territories. Finally, the hydraulic system will be more sensitive to extreme weather events.
Guidelines for climate change adaptation at the local level in the Alps, accessed 28 September 2015.Alpine Convention (2014),
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe's environment.
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