By the end of 2021, protected areas covered 26% of EU land, with 18.6% of this area designated as Natura 2000 sites and 7.4% as other national designations. The EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 sets out a target of protecting at least 30% of EU land by 2030, while also ensuring that all protected areas are effectively managed. If the designation of protected areas continues at the rate seen in the past decade (1.7 percentage points increase since 2011), the target will not be met. However, EU Member States are in the process of submitting pledges to designate new areas by 2030. These pledges will provide further insights into the prospects of reaching the target and any major gaps that remain.

Figure 1. Coverage of protected areas in the EU-27 land area in 2011-2021
Coverage of protected areas in the EU-27 land area in 2011-2021

Protected areas benefit species, ecosystems and the environment overall. They provide significant economic and societal benefits, including employment opportunities, contribute to human health and well-being and have significant cultural value. Historically, protected areas have taken many forms and have been established for different purposes, such as protecting wild game resources, preserving natural beauty and, more recently, safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem services.

The EU's protected areas are highly diverse, varying in size, aim and management approach. They are large in number – over 100,000 sites in total – but mostly rather small in size. This reflects the high pressure on land use, arising from agriculture, transport and urban development, and the increasing competition for land for production of renewable energy and biofuels.

Designation of protected areas is an important policy tool to halt biodiversity decline. One of the targets of the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 is to legally protect and effectively manage a minimum of 30% of EU land by 2030. Based on Member States reports, 26% of EU land was protected by the end of 2021. 18.6% of this area was designated by Member States as Natura 2000 sites – areas protected under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives – and 7.4% as other complementary national designations.

While the area that is reported as protected has steadily increased since 2011 (1.7 percentage points), at present it is rather uncertain whether the EU will meet the 30% target. For this to happen the rate of designation of protected areas will have to more than double by 2030. The submission of pledges for designating new areas by the EU Member States up to 2030 is expected to be available in the course of 2023 and will provide further insights into the prospects of achieving the target. This may help identify any major gaps that remain.

The designation of protected areas is not in itself a guarantee of biodiversity protection as their management is a decisive factor in achieving the conservation aims. However, we currently lack comprehensive information on how effectively these areas are managed. Moreover, protected areas in the EU can no longer be managed as isolated units but need to be understood as part of a wider Trans-European network, as emphasised in the EU biodiversity strategy. This requires building an ecologically coherent network that ensures both spatial and functional connectivity within countries and across borders.

Figure 2. Terrestrial protected area coverage by country and in the EU-27 by end of 2021
Terrestrial protected area coverage by country and in the EU-27 by end of 2021

The environmental diversity of Europe’s countries and biogeographical regions is matched by the diversity in its protected areas. There are different patterns among Natura 2000 and other national designations, reflecting the diversity of historical, geographical, administrative, political and cultural circumstances and the management regime. It is clear, however, that the designation of Natura 2000 sites by EU Member States has significantly increased protected area coverage in Europe.

Protected area coverage varies between EU Member States. Figure 2 shows that by the end of 2021 nine Member States had designated more than 30% of their land area as protected: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

While Natura 2000 is the backbone of the Trans-European nature network, it is complemented by additional areas protected at national level. A coherent, well-connected and effectively managed network of protected areas is a pre-condition to prevent many species and habitats being lost forever. To achieve this, Member States will need to establish appropriate conservation objectives and measures as well as monitoring for all the existing and future sites.

Protected areas coverage in the non-EU EEA member countries and cooperating countries varied hugely by the end of 2021 and many countries will need to significantly intensify their efforts to reach the 30% target for protected areas adopted as part of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. In addition, figure 2 shows the contribution of the Emerald network of sites, established under the Bern Convention, to protect species and habitats in those countries. As the EU is a signatory to the Bern Convention, the Natura 2000 network is considered the EU Member States’ contribution to the Emerald Network.