The Alpine region and its key environmental challenges

Page Last modified 03 Mar 2016, 01:54 PM
The Alpine region is home to sensitive ecosystems and landscapes that are the result of a millenary interaction between natural systems and human activities. The region faces the challenge of protecting its environment while also meeting the socio-economic aspirations of local populations. These challenges at local level are exacerbated by threats posed by global warming and a rapidly evolving world economy. A sustainable balance can actually be achieved in the region through more effective spatial planning and better management of natural resources.

The Alps[1] cover a territory of approximately 190 700 km² and encompass eight European countries: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland. The Alpine mountain ridge ranges up to 4 810 m above sea level, and its altitude decreases from west to east, with the highest peak — Mont Blanc — located in the Western Alps.

The Alpine climate is highly complex, due to the specific location and topography of the area. The Alps act as a barrier separating different climatic sub-regions. All in all, four types of climatic areas can be identified: Mediterranean, Continental, Atlantic, and Polar. This also implies a corresponding distribution of different ecosystems.

The Alps are also a settlement area, with more than 14 200 000 inhabitants[2] and an average population density of 74.6 inhabitants/km². Owing to the physical constraints of the territory, the population tends to concentrate in the most accessible areas, namely in the valleys and close to the main urban centres and transport routes. These are the areas in which the population increased between 2001 and 2011, whereas more remote Alpine areas have been affected by depopulation.[3]

The Alpine landscape is characterised by a mix of land uses, being heavily shaped by the presence of humans and the most relevant economic activities in the Alps. Land cover in the Alps can be classified into three main macro-categories: open spaces with little or no vegetation (corresponding to the highest mountainous areas and glaciers), forests, and shrub. In extensive areas of the Central Alps, the land suitable for settlement is on average limited to 17 % of the available area;[4] this implies considerable competition for land, meaning that spatial planning has a major role to play in the area. The limited available space has a clear impact on building practices (densification), on land prices and on land use changes, as well as major consequences in terms of noise and air quality, due to the concentration of human settlements and infrastructure. Finally, the limited space is also exacerbated by the number of natural hazards.

The Alps have undergone a series of changes in land use over the last decades, linked to developments in the main economic sectors. One of the main changes is the reduction (depending on the country considered) in the proportion of land used for agriculture,[3] with a parallel increase in the intensification of the remaining utilisable land and its reforestation in more remote areas.

Finally, the economy of the Alps is also evolving rapidly: the number employed in the agriculture and forestry sectors declined between 1990 and 2000, and the number of jobs in agriculture is currently low, despite the important role that this sector plays in landscape preservation. Industry accounted for the highest proportion of Alpine jobs until the 1970s. However, since then, the tertiary sector has developed and is currently predominant; within that sector tourism plays a key role.[3]

Main environmental issues related to the Alpine region and policy responses to the key challenges and main prospects

The most relevant management challenges, as regards particularly relevant environmental issues for the Alpine region and its future sustainable development, are related to transport, climate change and tourism as well as biodiversity, energy and water management, and their mutual influences.

All the topics mentioned above require coordinated responses. The Alpine Convention, an international treaty signed in 1991 by the eight Alpine countries and the EU and with eight protocols and two declarations dealing with the main key sectors, aims to provide such a coordinated response.

Along with biodiversity, climate change is one of the main priorities of the of the Alpine Convention’s Multiannual Programme 2011–2016. Moreover, the Convention’s Action Plan on Climate Change, adopted in 2009, has identified objectives and practical measures in the areas of mitigation, adaptation, research and awareness raising. As climate change is a cross-sectoral issue, many of the Alpine Convention’s working groups and platforms are working together to implement the action plan. Those most heavily involved are the Natural Hazards Platform, or PLANALP, and the Working Group on Water Management. The activities of working groups and platforms have resulted in the creation of a climate portal within the System of Observation and Information on the Alps (SOIA). The portal contains several publications on climate change in the Alps and the initiatives of the Alpine Convention. The Italian Presidency of the Alpine Convention (2013–2014) created a presidency task force to elaborate guidelines for climate adaptation at the local level in the Alps. The German Presidency (2015–2016) is working on various dimensions of climate change by supporting the establishment of a virtual Alpine observatory, establishing an Alpine-wide exchange on low-energy buildings, collecting best practices in the field of renewable energies, and organising a climate change action workshop for Alpine municipalities.

Collaboration with other actors, including European, national and regional institutions, local authorities and stakeholders, as well as NGOs (non-governmental organisations) is crucial. In this respect, the Alpine Convention is cooperating with the European Environment Agency (EEA) in order to improve the exchange of information and data and ensure the interoperability of their information systems. International projects — often funded by European programmes such as Alpine Space — also make a major contribution to the exchange of knowledge and experience in the Alps.

The EU Strategy for the Alpine Region (EUSALP), published at the end of July 2015, which encompasses a broader geographical area, also addresses environmental objectives, such as ‘to preserve and valorise natural resources, including water and cultural resources, to develop ecological connectivity in the whole EUSALP territory, to improve risk management and to better manage climate change, including major natural risks prevention and to make the territory a model region for energy efficiency and renewable energy’. The bodies of the Alpine Convention intend to contribute to the implementation of this macro-regional strategy.

The content above was developed together with the Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention


[1] Here, the territory of the Alps is defined on the basis of an administrative delimitation; namely, the territory encompassed by the perimeter of the Alpine Convention is taken into consideration.

[2] Data at 31 December 2012.

[3] Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention (2015), Demographic changes in the Alps, Report on the state of the Alps, Alpine signals, special edition 5, accessed 28 July 2015.

[4] Permanent Secretariat of the Alpine Convention (2011), Sustainable rural development and innovation, Report on the state of the Alps, Alpine signals, special edition 3, accessed 3 August 2015.

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