New strategy for biodiversity protection
As biodiversity in Europe is seriously deteriorating, the Commission proposes a new strategy in order to reverse a dangerous trend
Amid the worst economic and financial crisis so far experienced by the European Union, to say that half the known vertebrates and a third of the birds that inhabit our continent are at risk of extinction may sound out of place. However, the challenge of conserving the planet's biodiversity, and that of Europe, is arguably even more urgent than the financial crisis, as damage to our ecosystems, species and genetic varieties increases.
The recent European Commission Communication on the protection of biodiversity has a very suggestive title: "Our life insurance, our natural capital". The title reveals the two most important elements of this discussion: the natural environment is essential to preserve human life. In this sense it has an intrinsic value, not conferred by humans but shared with them, and from which we all benefit. Secondly, the concept of "natural capital" refers to the quality of human life as we make use of these natural resources: thus nature is regarded as a productive element, as "capital". While the first perspective shows biodiversity to be a prerequisite for the very survival of humans, it is evident from the text of the Communication that the Commission is more concerned to justify biodiversity's instrumental value, its character as “capital” in order to justify the investment necessary to preserve it.
The Communication notes that precisely because of human action the rate of the disappearance of species is increasing between 100 and 1,000 times faster than would occur naturally: in particular, through urbanisation, infrastructure construction, the desertification of wetlands and agricultural land use. This disruption of natural ecosystems has become the major threat, bringing about the disappearance of multiple life-forms and of genetic diversity.
The European Commission efforts to preserve biodiversity are mainly focused on legal and financial measures: to improve monitoring, reporting, to fill key gaps in research, and to assess European ecosystems. Preserving this natural capital is already vital to ensure the quality of life of Europeans and will become even more so.
Accordingly, the Commission has defined a strategy to prevent biodiversity loss up to the horizon of 2020. This date is not arbitrary: the measure seeks to reinforce the wider 'EU 2020 Strategy' that aims to prepare Europe for a much more competitive global context – including in natural resources. It is proposed to enforce EU laws protecting birds and habitats, to restore at least 15% of areas that have been damaged, in order to maintain and improve ecosystems; to get the farming and forestry industries to assist; to ensure the sustainability of overexploited and depleted EU fish stocks by reducing catches by as much as 88%; to combat those alien species that threaten indigenous ones; and to increase the EU's contribution to preventing global diversity loss.
The European Union has meanwhile provided itself with a wide range of instruments for such action. The most important is the Natura 2000 network, the world's largest network of protected areas, covering 18% of the territory of the European Union, a mixture of strictly enforced nature reserves and of land that is privately owned but managed in a sustainable way. The Biodiversity Baseline is a technical report giving statistics on biodiversity, ecosystems and their different components; finally the Biodiversity Information System for Europe web portal will be the principal platform for data and information-sharing.
Undoubtedly, the European Union is making a significant effort to protect its own biodiversity, and to contribute positively to protecting it on a global scale. We cannot forget that the developed European economies have a major responsibility for the global over-consumption of natural resources. The results of these efforts are so far limited, since most ecosystem services in Europe are judged to be "degraded", no longer able to deliver the optimal quality or quantity of basic services, such as crop pollination, clean air and water, and the control of floods or erosion. There is a long way to go.
José Ignacio García SJ