Biodiversity — protected areas

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
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Photo: © Rūta Paitian/EEA
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The total area of designated protected areas currently covers about 21% of terrestrial territory and inland waters, although further expansion of the marine network is required to meet targets.

Designation of protected areas is not a guarantee of biodiversity protection. Effective biodiversity conservation within protected areas also requires management with a focus on species, habitats and ecosystems; measures to tackle the causes of biodiversity loss; and coherent networks of protected areas.

Setting the scene

Biodiversity can be defined as the variety of life, and encompasses diversity within species, between species, and of ecosystems. Biodiversity underpins ecosystem functioning and the provision of ecosystem services — the benefits people obtain from nature — which are essential for human well-being.

Despite these benefits, its importance for humans, and its intrinsic value, biodiversity continues to be lost. Information reported by European Union (EU) Member States under the Habitats and Birds Directives indicate that 60% of assessments concerning relevant animal and plant species, and 77% of assessments concerning habitat types show unfavourable conservation status. Biodiversity loss is also a concern in non-EU member countries.

Designation of protected areas is an important policy tool to halt biodiversity decline. Areas can be protected under national, European or international legislation, on the basis of widely varying criteria, and with different objectives and management regimes. The SOER 2015 briefing on biodiversity provides an overview of the status, trends and prospects at a European level. This SOER 2015 cross-country comparison focuses on nationally protected areas.

About the indicator

The EEA publishes an indicator on nationally designated areas as part of the Streamlining European Biodiversity Indicators (SEBI) set.[1] Data on national designations are reported voluntarily, and the Common Database on Designated Areas (CDDA)[2] contains 685 different types of protected-area designations that have been applied across 39 countries.

There is a high degree of variability in national designations. Therefore, the international classification of protected areas adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been used to present a general picture across countries.[3] The IUCN defines protected areas as 'a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values'.

The data presented here is the CDDA version 12 on spatial data and does not include Greenland or overseas territories. As designations can be overlapping, the total area is an overestimate. Not all nationally designated areas have been assigned IUCN categories, therefore all data for Turkey, Bosnia and Herzegovina and some sites within other countries are shown as unassigned. There are also differences amongst countries in interpretation and application of the IUCN categories. The EEA has published further information on the diversity of national approaches.[4]

Policies, targets and progress

Historically, protected areas have taken many forms and have been established for different purposes, such as protecting the resource of wild game, preserving natural beauty, or more recently, safeguarding biodiversity and ecosystem services. The last century has seen a large increase in both the number of protected areas and their spatial coverage worldwide. In addition to national policies, a range of international and European policies are important for protected areas.[4] These include the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and the EU's Birds and Habitats Directives.

The UN CBD 'Aichi' targets adopted in 2010 require countries to ensure that by 2020 at least 17% of their terrestrial and inland water areas, and 10% of their coastal and marine areas, are conserved through a system of protected areas.[5] The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 sets additional targets relating to species, habitats and ecosystems protection.[6]

Europe has a high diversity of protected areas, which vary in size, aim and management approach. Analysis shows the most common IUCN categories of terrestrial protected areas amongst countries are national parks (designated as category II), habitat/species management areas (category IV) and protected landscapes/seascapes (category V). Categories IV and V are the most common marine protected areas (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Nationally designated protected areas by IUCN category in 38 European countries

Europe has a large number but relatively small size of protected areas. Approximately 90% of sites are less than 1 000 hectares (ha). This reflects the high pressure on land use, arising from agriculture, transport and urban development. Large-scale nature reserves under category Ib and II occur mostly in countries with a low population density, such as Norway, Iceland, Finland and Sweden. It is difficult to compare other categories across countries because of the interpretation differences that exist. This is particularly true for category V, which comprises areas that are highly variable in character and management.

The two most important European networks of protected areas are Natura 2000 and the Emerald Network. Natura 2000 covers 18% of Europe's land and 4% of its marine waters, with 52 million ha designated as Special Protected Areas (SPAs) under the Birds Directive and 65 million ha as Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) under the Habitats Directive.[4] The Emerald Network currently includes 37 sites designated by Switzerland, with Norway soon to add 600 sites. 

Natura 2000, in combination with nationally designated protected areas, has resulted in around 1 222 725 km2 (or 21% of land and inland waters) and around 338 000 km2 (or 5.9% of EU marine areas) being designated. The majority of countries have achieved the 17% Aichi target, although further expansion of the marine network is required to meet policy targets, with countries having to designate in less than 7 years, the same amount of marine protected areas as over the last 20 years.

Figure 2: Complementarity between European designations (Natura 2000 and the Emerald Network) and national designations by share of terrestrial area in 29 European countries

The degree of overlap between Natura 2000 and national designations illustrates the extent to which countries have made use of their nationally designated areas to underpin Natura 2000 and to what extent Natura 2000 sites extend beyond national systems. There are different patterns amongst countries, as some Natura 2000 sites nearly always overlap with national designations. In others, there is little overlap (Figure 2).

Natura 2000 sites mostly overlap with nationally designated sites under IUCN categories I to IV, which aim to protect ecological processes and biodiversity. However, they also overlap with IUCN categories V and VI, particularly in mountainous regions, supporting the idea that Natura 2000 is not restricted to nature reserves but also serves the broader principle of conservation and sustainable use.[4]


The biggest increases in protected areas have occurred in recent decades, and except in the marine environment, substantial additional designations within Europe are not to be expected. However, what is likely to change is the perceived value of protected areas in society, as well as the external pressures affecting their quality.

The benefits that protected areas and resilient ecosystems can provide is increasingly recognised and explicitly acknowledged, for example in the EU's 7th Environment Action Programme, with its priority objective of protecting, conserving and enhancing the EU's natural capital.[7]

The economic benefits from the Natura 2000 network have been estimated in the order of EUR 200–300 billion per year, while the annual costs associated with managing and protecting the network are approximately EUR 5.8 billion.[8]

Protected areas not only contribute to essential regulating ecosystem services, such as climate regulation and water purification, but may also support local and national economies through tourism and the supply of forest products, fish and other resources. Although economic arguments have gained more weight and acceptance in recent years, the intrinsic value of protected areas still remains a fundamental reason for their continued protection and management.

Protected areas can no longer be perceived and managed as isolated units, but need to be understood as part of a wider ecological network. An ecologically coherent network requires both spatial and functional connectivity across borders. The EU Biodiversity Strategy target to establish green infrastructure as a means of maintaining and enhancing ecosystems and their services and to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems; the EU Strategy on Green Infrastructure[9]; and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive aim to strengthen the coherence of protected area networks across Europe. The transfer of information and knowledge will also improve protected area networks by contributing to effective management.

Countries' perspectives

References and footnotes

[1] EEA (2011), Nationally designated protected areas (SEBI 007) — Assessment published June 2011, accessed 26 March 2014.

[2] EEA (2014), Common Database on Designated Areas, accessed 29 September 2014.

[3] IUCN (2014), IUCN — Protected Area Categories, accessed 26 March 2014.

[4] EEA (2012), Protected areas in Europe — an overview, EEA Report No 5/2012, Copenhagen.

[5] Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (2010), Aichi Biodiversity Targets, accessed 26 March 2014.

[6] EU (2012), European Parliament resolution of 20 April 2012 on our life insurance, our  natural capital: an EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 (2011/2307(INI)).

[7] EC (2013), Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 'Living well, within the limits of our planet', 2013, OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, pp. 171–200.

[8] Ten Brink, P., Badura, T., Bassi, S., Gantioler, S., Kettunen, M., Gerdes, H., Lago, M., Lang, S., Markandya, A., Nunes, P., Ding, H., Tinch, R. and Dickie, I. (2011), Estimating the overall economic value of the benefits provided by the Natura 2000 network, Final Report to the European Commission, IEEP/GHK/Ecologic.

[9] EC (2013), Green Infrastructure (GI) — Enhancing Europe's Natural Capital, Communication from the Commission, COM(2013) 249 final, European Commission, Brussels.


Geographic coverage