Chapter 3.13 Rural areas - Environment in EU at the turn of the century

Rural areas, which contain the vast bulk of the EU’s varied conservation and biodiversity assets, are increasingly under pressure – as the rural economy becomes less dependent on agriculture. Indeed, at least every second job in predominantly rural areas is in the service sector. And although agriculture still dominates land use and the appearance of the countryside, in most of the EU the proportion of land used for agriculture has fallen as urban and forested areas have expanded.

Agriculture in the EU developed –partly driven by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)– with huge regional unbalances. One of the most striking features is the fact that 80% of the EU’s agricultural production (in terms of farm incomes) occurs in coastal areas of the North Sea and the Channel. This concentration has environmental consequences for water, soils and biodiversity. At the same time, economic pressures on marginal farms can cause land to fall into disuse, thus impacting on biodiversity. In less productive agricultural regions, agriculture has suffered social and economic decline. The more integrated approach to economic activity and the environment in rural areas, now being urged by EU institutions, is beginning to help the agricultural sector to embrace objectives of more extensive agricultural production, stable rural communities and maintenance of ecological functions.

Afforestation may play an important part in environmental protection, and generate a number of positive external effects, e.g. curbing erosion, preventing desertification, encouraging biodiversity and regulating the hydrological regime. But, where the aim is mainly to create economically viable wood-based industries, tensions can exist between the need to maximise the economic return and to protect important environmental assets. Afforestation of agricultural land appears to have made only a small impact on surplus agricultural production. This suggests that afforestation measures generally have little impact where agricultural practices are more specialised and intensive in character. At present, forests – approximately one-third of the total EU land area – still face serious threats, including air pollution, pests, diseases, reduced species diversity and in some cases an over-emphasis on timber production.

EU environmental policies and instruments to address specific rural concerns focus mainly on protecting important bird and habitat areas, and water resources vulnerable to nitrate pollution. It is expected that large areas will be included within Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive – and this will call for innovative approaches to land management. These policies are supported by agri-environmental measures. The measures in place cover 20% of the utilised agricultural area of the EU. However, while some countries (notably Austria, Luxembourg and Finland) have made very substantial use of the opportunities, others have not. The main aims of the schemes are the introduction of environmentally sound production methods such as low input farming and the provision of incentives for environmental services, for instance in the field of landscapes and nature protection. Their implementation has generally had positive environmental impacts, although the take-up of the schemes has been mixed, particularly with respect to set-aside land.

In the Accession Countries, despite agricultural intensification, there are still large areas of semi-natural agricultural habits such as permanent grasslands and pseudo-steppes. European environment ministers have noted the importance of the biological and landscape diversity of the Central and East European Countries, and concluded that integrated rural development strategies are needed to protect and enhance these assets. In general, the formulation of rural development policies is in an early stage within the Accession Countries focusing on agriculture and basic infrastructure.

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