• Robin Fontaine

EU Biodiversity Strategy - Environmental Aspects

Last week the European Commission released its EU Biodiversity and Farm 2 Fork Strategy papers. As per the theme of our blog, we analysed their implications for European businesses, the economy, taxation and technology. However, it would be counter-intuitive to not even talk about the repercussions these strategies will have on the environment! Indeed, while the strategies heavily centre around reshaping the CAP, digitalising rural areas and developing nature-based solutions, the main intention of these strategies is to promote sustainable practices and protect biodiversity. So how good is the Biodiversity Strategy in terms of environmental standards? You can also find out about the Farm 2 fork Strategy here.


The current COVID19 crisis has revealed evident relations between public health and the environment. Ironically enough, the two strategies could not have come at a better time. As European economies are suffering, it will be capital in the future to use biodiversity as an advantage to multiply our income. Indeed, biodiversity has a plethora of benefits such as preventing floods or sporting organic agriculture. Thus to truly succeed in environmental stewardship, the EU will have to make sure the European Recovery Plan coincides with the Greed Deal’s ambition. By developing more jobs, research and funding to biodiversity protection we can overcome this crisis while mitigating climate change. Wouldn’t that be ideal?


Land Ecosystems


The European Commission's Biodiversity Strategy includes a very ambitious plan to protect at least 30% of the EU's land territory and strictly protect at least 10%. These objectives are already astonishing, be it for the simple fact that the plan has clearly defined objectives. This should be the standard to outline any large-scale environmental strategy and policy. The distinction between protected and strictly protected areas is important. Protected areas should aim to have a balanced interaction between nature and human interactions. In contrast, strictly protected areas are more balanced toward nature's side. In other words, human activities are fiercely monitored and limited. Strictly protected areas include primary and old-growth forests which will be stripped as much as possible of human activity to allow these ecosystems to thrive with virtually no anthropogenic impacts.


On top of that, the EU is planning to plant three billion trees! A large part of this plan consists of developing urban greening programs to abandon the traditional grey and black cities typical of European architecture for green cities filled with rooftops and parks. Does it not sound rather appealing? While the effects of planting trees seem evident as to increase CO2 absorption rates, it has terrific additional benefits. For instance, planting trees in urban areas will drastically reduce temperatures. If you remember the unbearable heat waves of the past few years, which are unfortunately going to worsen gradually, you understand why this is important. Further, it will be a crucial driver to boost urban biodiversity. While we will hopefully not have bears and deer inside our cities, it will be possible to see insects and birds coming back.


Further, by 2030 the EU aims to reduce the number of Red Listed species threatened by invasive alien species by 50%. This problem became more menacing as in the past few decades, multiple species were brought to Europe from other regions by international shipping transports. Not being recognised as either a threat or prey by European endemic species, they had all the luxury to thrive, often outcompeting native species. Natural ecosystems are incredibly resilient in some respects, but they are also easily disturbed as they are not equipped to deal with the repercussions of human activity.


Talking about human behaviour, the Commission outlines here a very determined plan to reshape its agricultural policy and support biodiversity proliferation. For instance, the risks and use of chemical pesticides will be reduced by up to 50% and hazardous pesticides will also be reduced by 50%. By doing so, the Commission is aiming to reverse the decline of pollinators in Europe. If this plan succeeds, this might make the rest of the plan easier as pollinators are key for any ecosystem to thrive. To encourage pesticide reduction, at least 25% of European agriculture will be organic and will include a higher diversity of seeds and grains by 2030. Additionally, 10% of the agricultural area will be under high-diversity landscape features to enhance the resilience of populations and ecosystems.


Freshwater Ecosystems


The recent breadth of analyses on the matter has often overlooked a critical aspect of the present plan. By 2030, the Commission is planning to restore at least 25k km of free-flowing rivers which roughly means 2% of EU's River. While 2% seems like a rather small number, it should be ever-contextualised: Europeans have been using their waterways extensively for the past centuries, if not millennia! The Danube, the Rhine, the Elbe or the Loire have countless dams, bridges and barriers for either energy or mobility purposes. This high density of obstacles on European rivers contributes to poor habitat quality and loss of biodiversity. Freshwater ecosystems are now amongst the most threatened on the planet in terms of biodiversity loss.


Although, freshwater ecosystems are critical in biodiversity conservation and equally as crucial for European economies (be it for flood protection, water quality improvement, carbon storage, nutrient cycling, species habitats, food sources, navigation routes, recreational activities and hydrologic connectivity enhancement; Malmqvist and Rundle, 2002). For this reason, the decision of the Commission to restore free-flowing rivers will have unprecedented impacts on freshwater biodiversity conservation.

Marine Ecosystems


Much as for land preservation, the Commission's plan includes protecting at least 30% of the EU's marine area and integrates ecological corridors, as part of a reliable Trans-European Nature Network, as well as 10% of marine areas being strictly protected. While the numbers are similar in terms of percentage, the objectives are different for sea and land preservation. Not much attention was given to sea preservation before this strategy. Indeed, it is much more appealing to preserve the mountainous glacier displayed on thousands of tourists' Instagram every year comparing and witnessing its painful melting, than a chunk of sea where only a handful of fishers will have the chance to navigate. The Commission thus plans a 19% increase in marine area protection and at least a 9% increase (out of 10% objective) of strictly protected areas.


Further, the plan also aims at implementing the Common Fisheries Policy, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Birds and Habitats more thoroughly. What these policies have in ambition, they lack in implementation, and this is highlighted in the report. These policies need more dependable and more concrete operational strategies as marine and coastal ecosystem biodiversity are severely impacted by global warming. Thus, more acute efforts will be placed on the restoration of carbon-rich ecosystems as well as important fish spawning and nursery areas.


Studies on Marine Protected Areas (MPA) reveal that to reach global objectives for marine biodiversity preservation will require large increases in the total area under conservation. These policies are only the first steps, but they should be met with even stricter regulations on marine pollution and decreases in shipping. Nonetheless, if we meet these objectives by 2030, it will already be an unprecedented advance in marine conservation.


Concerning fisheries, the Commission is laying some ground rules and expectations to encourage the systematic use of sustainable harvesting methods of marine resources. Measures will also be introduced to limit the use of fishing gears and techniques that are deemed damaging for ecosystems. By developing an ecosystem-based management approach, the EU aims to reduce the negative impact of anthropic activities on endangered species. Further, the plan finally recognises that "healthy fish stocks are key to the long-term prosperity of fishermen and the health of our oceans and biodiversity". It seems relatively understandable even to neophytes, however most national fisheries policies make it seem less evident than lobbies arguments. Finally, measures will be implemented to reduce the by-catch (catching another species of fish than intended initially) of species that are not in good environmental status or threatened by or at risk of extinction.

Conclusion


Overall this strategy has the potential to have far-reaching consequences. If the EU manages to keep its promises and reach its objectives, it will set out new international standards in terms of environmental ethics and biodiversity protection. It is without a doubt that other countries and regional unions will have to follow these steps and implement new and possibly better - because that is what the game is all about - environmental policies. Thus, implementing this strategy in the EU may mean that in the next 5 to 10 years, we will be the benchmark, and most countries will be following suit. One thing to remember, it is always easier to build on something that already exists than to create and set up the standards. Let us hope that the recovery plan of the EU will support to a maximum the standards they set only a week ago.


Reference:

Beaumont, N. J., Austen, M. C., Mangi, S. C., & Townsend, M. (2008). Economic valuation for the conservation of marine biodiversity. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 56(3), 386–396. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2007.


Birnie-Gauvin, K., Tummers, J. S., Lucas, M. C., & Aarestrup, K. (2017). Adaptive management in the context of barriers in European freshwater ecosystems. Journal of Environmental Management, 204, 436–441. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2017.


Bowler, D. E., Buyung-Ali, L., Knight, T. M., & Pullin, A. S. (2010). Urban greening to cool towns and cities: A systematic review of the empirical evidence. Landscape and Urban Planning, 97(3), 147–155. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2010.


Buonocore, E., Appolloni, L., Russo, G. F., & Franzese, P. P. (2020). Assessing natural capital value in marine ecosystems through an environmental accounting model: A case study in Southern Italy. Ecological Modelling, 419, 108958. doi:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2020.


Lee, H., & Mayer, H. (2018). Maximum extent of human heat stress reduction on building areas due to urban greening. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 32, 154–167.


Directive 2008/56/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 June 2008 establishing a framework for community action in the field of marine environmental policy (Marine Strategy Framework Directive)


Schoelynck, J., Wolters, J.-W., Teuchies, J., Brion, N., Puijalon, S., Horemans, D. M. L., … Meire, P. (2019). Experimental evidence for the decline of submerged vegetation in freshwater ecosystems by the invasive Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir sinensis). Biological Invasions.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - https://www.ipcc.ch/



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