The coverage of ecosystem types — classified under the EU ‘Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services’ (MAES) framework — changed between 2012 and 2018, with urbanisation being the most dominant change process. Newly urban areas increased, while vulnerable and biodiversity-rich ecosystems such as heathlands and wetlands continued to disappear in the EU between 2012 and 2018. Agricultural ecosystems, both grassland and cropland, also showed an overall net decrease, similar to past trends.

Figure 1. Changes in the coverage of MAES ecosystem types in the European Union and the United Kingdom between 2012 and 2018

Assessing ecosystems across Europe is essential for monitoring progress towards restoring degraded ecosystems and protecting nature. A decrease in the extent of ecosystems can lead to the loss of important habitats. This is particularly detrimental to specialist species, which cannot thrive or survive in other ecosystems. Ecosystem loss is also linked to the fragmentation of habitats, negatively affecting animal and plant populations.

The European Commission, together with EU Member States, the EEA and the Joint Research Centre, has developed a framework for the mapping and assessment of ecosystems and their services (MAES), which classifies ecosystems into 10 types.

Since 1990, by far the most dominant ecosystem coverage change process has been urbanisation. Between 2012 and 2018, more than 2,600 km2 was converted into urban land in the EU-27 plus the United Kingdom. The area of rivers and lakes also continued to expand between 2012 and 2018, mainly because of an increase in reservoirs and other artificial water bodies, although by a much smaller amount than urban land.

The extent of agricultural ecosystems continued to decrease in the EU-27 plus the United Kingdom. Though small in relative terms, the loss between 2012 and 2018 was still large in absolute terms, particularly for grassland ecosystems (Figure 1). The majority of this change was caused by urbanisation and could have affected less productive agricultural land, including semi-natural grasslands and agricultural mosaics, which are highly important for biodiversity and ecosystem services. A very slight net decrease was observed in the coverage of forests.

Vulnerable ecosystems such as heathland and shrub and wetlands continued to disappear between 2012 and 2018; although decreasing by less than 1%, this loss was significant in absolute terms. Moreover, after increasing slightly between 2006 and 2012, the area of wetlands — around two thirds of which had been lost before 1990 — declined again between 2012 and 2018. Another vulnerable ecosystem, sparsely vegetated land (dunes, beaches, sand plains, glaciers and bare rocks), showed a net increase, however.