Status of European biodiversity

Speech Published 27 Apr 2009 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
Presentation by Prof. Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, at Conference 'Biodiversity Protection -- Beyond 2010' on 27 April 2009


Slide 1

In the recent past the scientific and environment community has had to work hard to raise awareness and understanding about the reality of biodiversity loss and the dangers of climate change.

Today, as the enormity of the challenge we face sinks in, climate change is seldom out of the headlines. The Copenhagen scientific congress recently concluded that ‘there is no excuse for inaction’ and global leaders at the G20 re-iterated their commitment to achieve a Copenhagen agreement in December this year.

By contrast, biodiversity - which sets the living conditions for humanity – does not yet have the same political impetus as climate change.

Much has been done of course. The Natura 2000 network is second to none in protected areas and the 2010 target - established by Heads of Government back in 2002 – is a significant agreement.

But although it is almost universally accepted that biodiversity and healthy ecosystems are essential for the resilience of societies and our economies, we are all still failing to protect them adequately.

We still clear forests, plough fields, dam rivers, drain wetlands and build cities and roads at a frightening pace, often at the expense of our natural ecosystems and the services they provide, and not just in Europe.

Our current consumption and production patterns may well lie behind our material wealth but they are also responsible for many negative impacts on the environment.

We cannot forget either that in today's setting, where consumption and production patterns are served by ecosystems around the world, and where individuals, businesses and governments can exert a global reach, many different types of policy can affect the resilience of ecosystems and biodiversity worldwide.

The current global economic crisis may temporarily reduce the pressure on our natural resources, but it has also brought into sharp focus our need to know more about the true costs and benefits of our biodiversity policies; in particular where we stand in relation to our 2010 obligations.


The European Environment Agency’s role is the provision of timely, targeted, relevant and reliable information.

Slide 2 – SEBI indicators

Essential to this process is the Streamlining European 2010 Biodiversity Indicators (SEBI 2010) process for the development of a set of coherent indicators which - in short - simplify information that can help to reveal complex biodiversity phenomena and trends.

We have a key role in ensuring that informed decisions can be made to halt the loss of biodiversity. The pan-European SEBI 2010 process must ensure that the EU, governments, business and its citizens know the status of our biodiversity, and thus have a basis to take sound decisions.

At the European Parliament earlier this year Commissioner Dimas acknowledged that the European 2010 target will not be met.

This is disappointing. But we also have to recognise what we have put in place to attain the European 2010 target, which currently sets the global standard in the process towards sustainable use of natural resources and a healthy environment.

The EEA SEBI Report, which we release next month, will be an important tool for us to consider our European target and allow us an insight into what we need to do better - or quicker - to halt the loss of biodiversity. Let me share some of the results with you.

SEBI results

Status and trends in European biodiversity

Slide 3 - birds

Our report illustrates that some progress has been made towards halting the loss of biodiversity – for example common birds are no longer in decline - but overall the status and trends are not yet favourable. The overall risk of species extinction for wildlife in Europe has increased.

Species trends reflect changes in land use and ecosystems with land cover data showing a further decline in grasslands and wetlands. Changing agricultural methods, especially increased specialisation and intensification, have driven the decline of farmland birds.

In this regard sectoral policies - agriculture, fisheries and forestry - play a significant role and need to be addressed at many scales: local, regional, national,  European and global.

Biodiversity and sectoral policies


Agriculture plays a critical role, both in terms of threat and potential. In the EU we have significant areas of High Nature Value (HNV) farmland - farmland which supports biodiversity by providing habitat for a wide range of species.

Slide 4 – HNV areas in Europe

Promoting conservation and sustainable farming practices in these areas is crucial for biodiversity. The policy tools available within EU agriculture policy for conserving HNV farmland across the EU are in their infancy, but progress is being made.

Outside of these high nature value areas agriculture still exerts a high pressure on biodiversity. It is the main form of land use in Europe: 34% of the European terrestrial area is used for crop production and 14% for grassland.

Nitrogen surpluses are declining, but generally remain high, particularly in lowland western Europe.

Measures that have contributed to this improvement include improvement in wastewater treatment, reduction of industrial effluents and agricultural run-off (e.g. due to implementation of the EU Nitrate Directive) and reductions in atmospheric emissions.


Slide 5 and 6 – Fish and areas

In the marine environment, pollution levels are stable, but the state of marine fauna is worrying due to unsustainable fishing practices.  About 45 percent of assessed European stocks are outside safe biological limits.

We have been debating for years how commercial fisheries damage the integrity of the marine ecosystem in most European seas. They have caused a decline in big predatory fish and an increase in relative numbers of small fish and invertebrates. 

Certain measures applied to address this unsustainable situation include: recovery plans for specific stocks; fishing bans; reduction of illegal landings and a wide range of other regulations to reduce fishing pressure. But the indicators show us clearly that more needs to be done.


Slide 7 - woods

Wood harvest in European forests is generally sustainable and the ratio of fellings to increment is relatively stable at around 60%. This percentage is forecast to increase to between 70% and 80% by 2010.

However, quantities of deadwood in Europe – a key indicator for forest biodiversity - decreased rapidly up to the 1990s. Although now increasing slightly, deadwood in most European countries remains well below optimal levels from a biodiversity perspective.

Biodiversity in a wider context

Slide 8 – Flowers

Our indicator assessment illustrates what many of us here have been observing; European biodiversity remains under serious pressure and our policy responses have been insufficient to halt its general decline.

The findings are extremely relevant to assess progress towards the specific 2010 policy target. In particular the information elaborated through our indicators provide some insight into how we can manage the many dimensions of biodiversity.

The EU Biodiversity Action Plan

The Biodiversity Action Plan is one of these management tools and is a sophisticated policy instrument. Globally decision makers are struggling to address biodiversity loss, but in the EU we have taken a key step in the BAP; spelling out a long list of actions (at member state and community level) that can help halt biodiversity loss. What we are missing is real implementation.

Slide 9 – designations in EEA countries

A similar European achievement and one of the main tools available to respond to biodiversity loss has been designating areas, which has increased significantly. The EU27 now has 17% of its territory designated under Natura 2000, in addition to the nationally designated protected areas of the European countries.

Designating areas to conserve biodiversity has been a key response. If we can make these areas resilient in the face of climate change and human impact, this can act as a backbone of EU biodiversity – but designating, is only the first step.

Article 17

Slide 10 – Article 17 reporting trends

The Biodiversity Action Plan establishes the implementation of the EU Nature Directives as the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation in the European Union.

In this regard the reporting on its implementation – Article 17 - is significant and the assessment of conservation status - of all species and habitats of European importance - in 2007-2008 has been a major exercise.

The reporting process involved 216 habitat types and 1 182 species across Europe, harmonising national approaches as far as possible within one agreed reporting framework.

Slide 11 – Article 17 conservation status

The results are yet another confirmation of the environmental situation in Europe; only a small proportion of the habitats and species are in a favourable status.

For those in unfavourable conservation status, ecological restoration needs to be considered. But can current threats be removed and future prospects for these species and habitats be restored?

Habitat types associated with extensive agricultural practices have worse conservation status than non-agricultural habitats - with only 7% showing favourable status compared to 21% for other types of habitats.

Slide 12 – Article 17 habitats

Pressures in extensive areas of valuable agricultural habitats include: the abandonment of pastures, over or under-grazing, unbalanced fertilisation and use of pesticides etc.

Slide 13 – Climate change and Article 17

Climate change has been noted as having a significant impact on 19% of habitat types and 12% of species reported in the Article 17 process.

In particular wetland areas in general were the most strongly influenced by climate change, followed by dunes. Amphibians were most widely noted as being sensitive to climatic changes.

Overall, grassland, wetland and coastal habitats appear under most pressure. The findings highlight the importance of conservation action and illustrates that we must intensify our efforts.

Designating areas to conserve biodiversity has been a central response, and this approach must be further developed into securing a green network to allow the sustainable evolution of biodiversity in a rapidly changing European environment.

Importantly, and as will become more apparent with climate change, species and habitats in need of protection do not – and will not - confine themselves to designated areas.

This has illustrated an important lesson; the external pressures on biodiversity are not uniform, or held in place by geographical designations, and we must not focus all our efforts on preserving islands of biodiversity, while losing nature everywhere else.

The economics of biodiversity

Slide 14 - wetland

Our societies obtain many services from nature: including food, clean air, water and recreation. The way the resilience of our nature and our society is maintained will to a large extent be determined by how we manage issues of redistribution of ecosystem services.

The economic challenge is one we must address – and start basing our policy decisions on a clear understanding of the true cost of using our biodiversity and ecosystems.

New ‘green deals' are essential to tackle the current global economic crisis, but we also need more than economic stimulation by adding green measures to national and business balance sheets.

We must include the real value of using our natural capital in what we consume, even if we have pushed its production out of sight and out of mind. 

This requires better ecosystem accounting - with the ultimate purpose of measuring the gap between the reality of ecosystem integrity and the objectives stated in national and European laws. We need then to calculate the full maintenance, sustainability and restoration costs of meeting these objectives.

This additional element of sustainability should be calculated both for national ecosystems and for ecosystem input to imported products.

For both countries and companies, such calculations leads to measuring a full cost of commodities, including market prices and the cost of their footprint on the ecosystems and biodiversity loss.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) process will provide some of the answers we need but we must also try to better assess the interactions between productive sectors and households on the one hand, and biodiversity on the other.

Finally, existing markets are only now getting accustomed to working with privately produced public goods. Clear figures, as quoted in the Stern report on climate change, may help make the case for biodiversity, but providing clear and unambiguous measurements and indicators plays and equally important role.

Concluding remarks

As we have acknowledged, we will miss our 2010 target, but that is not due to a lack of commitment from all of us here today, or those in the broader biodiversity community.

It is essential to know ‘why’ we are losing biodiversity through the provision of detailed and timely reports and we need to broaden our knowledge base to encompass the complexities in biodiversity loss.

Indeed, with the Commission we are working on an ecosystem assessment for Europe which will be an important tool for decision makers.

The SEBI report confirms for Europe what other assessments like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have shown at different scales: we are losing biodiversity, we are indentifying the causes and assessing the necessary responses.

To maintain and enhance our natural world, economies and social cohesion we must consider in greater detail the role of ecosystem services.

Slide 15 - stream

Continuing to lose our biodiversity and ecosystem integrity will affect us all, and the very framework within which our economies operate. The higher operating costs or reduced operating flexibility through diminished or degraded ecosystems will have an impact on a par with the current financial crisis.

It is clear to me that we need to work closer with sectoral interests with the ultimate goal to restore and enhance our biodiversity and ecosystems in conjunction with the human management activities that may currently threaten them.

Here again we are not starting with a blank sheet.

The TEEB process will give us a good indication of the economic costs of biodiversity loss and will be discussed in detail under the Swedish Presidency.

Slide 16 – farmland

From a sectoral perspective we can also see some progress – for example – when Fisheries Commissioner Joe Borg this month stated that: ‘Prioritising ecological sustainability is…equal to prioritising fishermen’s future’ and Agriculture Commissioner, Marianne Fisher Boel, re-iterated the need for funding for biodiversity in the latest CAP reform.

The initial view from the Article 17 report suggests that there is no disputing that better management of designated areas is needed - as well as better integration of biodiversity concerns into sectoral policies affecting the wider countryside and the environment at large.

We also need to make more progress in understanding and demonstrating how biodiversity and ecosystems not only suffer from climate change, but will at the same time be key assets in ensuring successful adaptation to climate change.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation has risen to the top of the policy agenda in Europe, and this needs to be welcomed. The potential impacts of climate change on biodiversity are dramatic, especially when we consider how biodiversity policies need to adapt to climate change, and also to know how biodiversity can help us adapt.

Commissioner Dimas has been instrumental in keeping biodiversity at the top of the political agenda and ensuring that climate change and biodiversity loss can only both be tackled successfully through an integrated approach.

But we must also recall that the 2010 target was set not by environment Ministers nor European Commissioners alone, but also by national leaders. Any 2010 target must also have their support and leadership in particular when we know that two thirds of EU citizens do not know the meaning of the word “biodiversity”, or understand the main threats to biodiversity.

This represents a significant challenge for us all here! But like climate change, with concerted effort, we can ensure that a post 2010 agreement really makes a difference.


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