Indicator Assessment

Ecosystem coverage

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-144-en
  Also known as: SEBI 004
Published 06 Dec 2018 Last modified 11 May 2021
8 min read

The coverage of ecosystem classes under the EU 'Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services' (MAES) framework was affected by change processes between 2006 and 2012, with urbanisation the most dominant process. Urban ecosystems showed the highest net increase both in the EU-28 and in the EEA-39 countries, predominantly at the expense of cropland and grassland. 

A very slight increase in coverage was observed in forest and woodland, while agricultural ecosystems, both cropland and grassland, continued to decrease.

Vulnerable ecosystems such as heathland and sparsely vegetated land (dunes, beaches, sand plains, bare rocks and glaciers) continued to disappear between 2006 and 2012, although the loss of wetlands seems to have levelled off for the first time over the same period. It should be borne in mind, however, that approximately two thirds of European wetlands were lost before the 1990s and their area has subsequently continued to decrease.

Area change for MAES ecosystems between 2006 and 2012

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Changes in MAES ecosystems between 2006 and 2012: previous status of newly urban areas

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Changes in MAES ecosystems between 2006 and 2012: conversion of wetlands into other classes

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Figure 1 shows changes in the ecosystem area covered by the Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES) framework between 2006 and 2012. Similar to the 1990-2000 and 2000-2006 periods, the dominant change process was still unrbanisation. Over 100 000 hectares per year were converted into urban land in this period. This occurred mainly at the expense of agricultural ecosystems (overall: EU-28: 81 %, EEA-39: 77.1 % of converted land). Cropland was the greatest contributor to newly developed urban land, followed by grassland (Figure 2).

The area of river and lake ecosystems expanded by 0.4 % in the EU-28 and by 0.7 % in the EEA-39 between 2006 and 2012. This can be attributed mainly to an increase in reservoirs and other artificial water bodies.

A very slight net increase was observed in the area of forests and woodland of 0.05 % in the EU-28 and 0.03 % in the EEA-39.

The extent of agricultural ecosystems continued to decrease in the EU-28 and EEA-39 countries. Though small in relative terms, the loss of cropland and grassland was still large in absolute terms (Figure 1). The majority of this change was caused by urbanisation and this intensification of agriculture, particularly affecting semi-natural grasslands and agricultural mosaics.

Vulnerable ecosystems such as heathland and sparsely vegetated land (dunes, beaches, sand plains, glaciers and bare rocks) continued to disappear between 2006 and 2012. Though small in relative terms (less than 1 %), the decreases were significant in absolute terms (Figure 1).

The loss of another vulnerable ecosystem, wetlands, seems to have levelled off for the first time in the period 2006-2012, halting the long-term trend. Between 2006 and 2012 there was a small net increase of wetlands in the EU-28 (104 km2) as well as in EEA-39, where it amounted to 39 km2 (Figure 1). This indicates that formation of wetlands exceeding their loss was bigger in the EU-28 countries both in absolute and relative terms. It needs to be borne in mind, however, that approximately two thirds of European wetlands were lost before 1990 and their area has subsequently continued to decrease.

Despite this net increase, wetlands continued to be converted into other land classes (Figure 3). The major change was into heathland and shrub, which may be a result of lowered water tables and climate change, leading to spontaneous afforestation ie. overgrowing with tree canopy. Wetlands were also turned into urban areas, followed by conversion into cropland. 

Note: Further and updated information will be available upon the release of the new version of Corine Land Cover Classes inventory.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

Proportional and absolute change in extent and turnover of land cover categories aggregated to relate to MAES ecosystem types in Europe from 2006 to 2012. MAES ecosystem types are: (1) urban; (2) cropland; (3) grassland; (4) woodland and forest; (5) heathland and shrub; (6) sparsely vegetated land; (7) inland wetlands; (8) rivers and lakes; (9) marine inlets and transitional waters; and (10) marine.

This indicator is based on photo-interpretation of satellite imagery and gives a 'wall-to-wall' picture of the changes and dynamics in Europe with respect to ecosystems. Additional indicators can be used to further highlight trends in extent and state of each of the ecosystem types mentioned above using computations from other data sources.


The area change is MAES ecosystem classes is measured in hectares (ha) or square kilometres (km2).  The change in MAES ecosystem classes coverage is measured in percentage (%).



Policy context and targets

Context description

This indicator uses photo-interpretation of satellite imagery to give a rough picture of the trend in the observed area and proportion of the major ecosystems in Europe since 1990.

Satellite imagery offers the potential to characterise land cover over very large areas in an efficient and very cost effective way. It is possible to produce land cover maps from satellite imagery based on the spectral properties of each pixel within a scene. By grouping pixels into classes with similar spectral properties and associating these classes with particular land cover types, it is possible to produce maps that delineate land cover. Land cover change is then used to indicate the trends in the extent of major ecosystems such as forests, croplands, wetlands, etc. For this indicator we use data from the Corine land cover (CLC) database (CooRdinate Information on the Environment - Corine).

The CLC data are based on 44 land cover classes that are aggregated into 10 MAES ecosystem types for the purpose of this indicator. Spectral properties allow the CLC project to distinguish between land cover classes. For example, CLC has three classes showing forest land cover: broad-leaved forest, coniferous forest and mixed forest. By aggregating the information of these three land cover classes we have information on the extent of the forest ecosystem within the limitations of the CLC data (see section on main disadvantages). The CLC data however are the best available at present to cover large areas of Europe in a harmonised way.


EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 — headline target and Target 2

Related policy documents

  • EU 2020 Biodiversity Strategy
    in the Communication: Our life insurance, our natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (COM(2011) 244) the European Commission has adopted a new strategy to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. There are six main targets, and 20 actions to help Europe reach its goal. The six targets cover: - Full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity - Better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure - More sustainable agriculture and forestry - Better management of fish stocks - Tighter controls on invasive alien species - A bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss


Methodology for indicator calculation

MAES ecosystem classes correspond to the following CORINE sub-classes:

(1)   Urban: 1.1.1., 1.1.2., 1.2.1., 1.2.2., 1.2.3., 1.2.4., 1.3.1., 1.3.2., 1.3.3., 1.4.1., 1.4.2.,

(2)   Cropland: 2.1.1., 2.1.2., 2.1.3., 2.2.1., 2.2.2., 2.2.3., 2.4.1., 2.4.3., 2.4.4.,

(3)   Grassland: 2.3.1., 3.2.1.,

(4)   Woodland and forest: 3.1.1., 3.1.2., 3.1.3., 3.2.4.,

(5)   Heathland and shrub: 3.2.2., 3.2.3.,

(6)   Sparsely vegetated land: 3.3.1., 3.3.2., 3.3.3., 3.3.4., 3.3.5.,

(7)   Inland wetlands: 4.1.1., 4.1.2.,

(8)   Rivers and lakes: 5.1.1., 5.1.2.,

(9)   Marine inlets and transitional waters: 4.2.1., 4.2.2., 4.2.3., 5.2.1., 5.2.2.,

(10)  Marine: 5.2.3.

The marine ecosystem is currently represented only by the MAES Marine class equivalent to CORINE Land cover class 5.2.3. 'Sea and ocean' that represents the zone seaward of the lowest tide limit and extends to the limit of 12 nautical miles out to sea. It does not include coastal lagoons and estuaries.


Methodology for gap filling

No gap filling was used in this indicator.

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

Datasets have been processed according to the land accounting methodology. Both for facilitating computation and visualising spatial change, land accounts are processed using a grid of 1x1 km. Each cell contains the exact CLC values but spatial aggregations are made of entire grid-cells, which may lead to some very limited marginal uncertainty for the border of a given national or regional land unit.

Differences in CLC change mapping technology (1990-2000 and 2000-2006):
In CLC1990-2000 changes were mapped by countries usually by intersecting CLC1990 and CLC2000 stock layers. The results were not always cleaned and non-changed parts might have remained in the CLC 1990-2000 changes dataset. On the other hand, isolated changes below 25 ha could not be mapped by this technology. In CLC 2000-2006 and CLC 2006-2012, changes were mapped directly. This way all changes exceeding 5 ha were mapped and non-changed areas were better excluded from CLC-Changes.

Data sets uncertainty

Geographical and time coverage at European level: 28 EU Member States are covered by all CLC 2000, 2006 and 2012 results. Land cover changes in Liechtenstein remained below the detection level of Corine Land Cover change methodology. In all EEA countries, the number of years between two CLCs is 6 years.

Representativeness of data on national level: At the national level, time differences between regions may happen in most countries and these are documented in the CLC metadata.

Rationale uncertainty


The use of remote sensing data implies that some degree of detail is lost. The Corine land cover data set is based on a minimal unit of 25 hectares and this implies that smaller areas of certain habitat types and linear features may not be adequately detected. Other data sets (e.g. statistical offices reporting for forests, cropland, grassland area) cannot be combined in this indicator calculation because the different definitions used as well as the different frequencies in updating will produce incomparable trends.

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • SEBI 004
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled every 6 years
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage


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