Biodiversity — SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 26 Oct 2010 Published 25 Nov 2010
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Biodiversity — the variety of ecosystems, species and genes — is essential to human wellbeing, delivering services that sustain our economies and societies. Its huge importance makes biodiversity loss all the more troubling. European species are threatened with extinction and overexploitation. Natural habitats continue to be lost and fragmented, and degraded by pollution and climate change. Despite actions taken and progress made, these threats continue to impact biodiversity in Europe. The new global and EU targets to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2020 are ambitious but achieving them will require better policy implementation, coordination across sectors, ecosystem management approaches and a wider understanding of biodiversity's value.


The status of biodiversity is worrying

Monitoring the status and trends of the enormous diversity of ecosystems, species and genes clearly presents challenges. There are significant gaps in our understanding, particularly with respect to the marine environment. But there is little doubt that humans are having a massive impact on the natural world.
Although the threat of the extinction of species is slower than elsewhere, current trends in Europe are a concern. Moreover, the fact that a species is not threatened by extinction does not mean that its status is favourable. Detailed bio-geographical evaluations of the 1 182 species listed in the EU Habitats Directive showed a favourable conservation status in only 17 % of cases, an unfavourable status in 52 %, and in 31 % of the cases the status was unknown. Similarly, just 17 % of the assessments of 216 European habitat types were favourable.

Biodiversity underpins our well-being

Biodiversity plays a crucial role in supporting human life and wellbeing by providing a range of 'ecosystem services' of enormous value.

  • Provisioning services: Managed ecosystems such as farmed land, forests, lakes and rivers provide resources such as food, wood and freshwater. Agro-ecosystems in Europe have a total annual economic value of around EUR 150 bn. Ecosystem goods include the 50 000–70 000 plant species estimated to be used in medicine globally.
  • Regulating services: Over 75 % of the world's crop plants rely on pollination by animals and in the EU the annual economic value of insect pollinated crops is about EUR 15 bn. Europe's terrestrial ecosystems also play a major role in regulating the climate, controlling floods and purifying water, often at much lower cost than man-made substitutes.
  • Cultural services: Humans treasure the natural environment for the leisure opportunities it offers, and ascribe to it huge cultural importance. Indeed, much of Europe's landscape is the product of the interaction of natural and cultural forces over centuries.

The cost of biodiversity loss is thus not limited to the disappearance of iconic species. Rather, it means foregoing services essential to our societies, our economies and our way of life. Tellingly, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study (a major international initiative) puts the annual cost of continuing with business as usual in the face of global biodiversity loss at EUR 50 bn.

Key pressures continue

In the EU-27, habitat changes — including loss, fragmentation and degradation — impose the greatest impacts on species. Grasslands and wetlands are in decline, urban sprawl and infrastructure fragment the landscape, and agro-ecosystems are characterised by agricultural intensification and land abandonment. And only a tiny proportion of Europe's forests are undisturbed while large forest areas are managed intensively, with little regard for biodiversity.
Agricultural intensification means decreased crop diversity, simplified cropping methods, fertiliser and pesticide use, and homogenised landscapes. Introducing biofuel crops may intensify fertiliser and pesticide use, exacerbating biodiversity loss. Industrial chemicals, metals and pharmaceutical products likewise end up in the soil or in water. Although nitrate and phosphorus pollution of rivers and lakes has declined, excess atmospheric nitrogen deposition is still an issue across the EU.
Accelerated biological invasions and climate change are also increasing threats. More than 10 000 non-native species are now present in Europe, 10–15 % of which have negative economic or ecological effects. Meanwhile, climate change is affecting species distribution and range, the timing of life stages and the ecological interactions of predator and prey.

Limited understanding of outlooks

Computer modelling indicates that changing land use, exploitation of marine and forest resources, increasing atmospheric CO2, climate change and eutrophication will significantly change the distribution and abundance of species, species groups and biomes globally.
Most land use projections in Europe forecast reduced grassland cover with overall agricultural land likewise decreasing. Coupled with intensified farming and urban sprawl, these developments are likely to affect biodiversity.
Climate change projections show a marked variation across Europe, with more pronounced impacts in the Mediterranean basin, north-western Europe and the Arctic. Biodiversity loss is among the main expected consequences as species struggle to migrate and adapt to new conditions.

Slow EU policy response

Implementation of EU environmental legislation and actions in related policy areas have had some positive effects. But progress has been slow and threats have grown both within Europe and globally. The EU has therefore failed to achieve its objective of halting biodiversity loss by 2010.

The success in extending Natura 2000 — the only supranational network of protected areas worldwide, now covering 18 % of EU land — is overshadowed by the fact that biodiversity protection has not been adequately integrated into sectoral policies. Other existing legal instruments and policies have not been fully implemented or are insufficient, and communication of the value of biodiversity has been inadequate. The EU is developing a new biodiversity strategy and has endorsed the new global target to halt, and where possible reverse, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020. Future progress will depend on success in four key areas: enhanced implementation of measures to conserve biodiversity; policy coherence with other sectors; a more integrated ecosystem management approach; and public awareness of the relevance and value of biodiversity — and the consequences of its loss at all scales.

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