Biodiversity loss: one million species threatened with extinction

With one million species facing the threat of extinction, the WWF explains how the EU can mitigate biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity is in crisis. This catastrophic loss of our planet’s natural resources threatens our very survival. Biodiversity is not just nice to have; it underpins our entire existence by providing us with life’s essentials – from clean water to air, to food and medicines. There is a growing awareness amongst citizens that biodiversity loss needs to be stopped once and for all – the recent Eurobarometer on biodiversity found that 96% of citizens believe that halting biodiversity loss is important because we have a responsibility to look after nature. However, the data points to a continuous downward spiral.

According to WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018, wildlife populations of vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians) have declined by a devastating 60% since 1970 as a result of human activities. This threatens not only plants and animals, but the very foundations of our society and economy. The latest UN Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) report was a landmark publication with an equally ominous story to tell – one million species are currently threatened with extinction.

Unfortunately, Europe is no exception to these trends.

EU Biodiversity Strategy

In 2010, the EU, as part of its 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, set the target of halting and reversing biodiversity loss by 2020. It is quite clear that this target will not be met, as both European biodiversity and ecosystem services continue to decline.

There are three main reasons the EU is failing to meet its own targets, first and foremost being the poor implementation of existing nature, water and marine legislation. For instance, many Natura 2000 sites remain ‘paper parks’ – listed as protected sites on paper, but lacking effective conservation measures, monitoring and sufficient funding to make them a reality. Lack of ownership and mainstreaming of nature conservation with other sectors and policies is also a key reason for the EU’s failure to meet its targets. We will not halt biodiversity loss unless nature conservation is fully integrated into all relevant programmes and policy areas, such as trade, food, energy, transport and finance. Lastly, there is a critical lack of resources being dedicated to tackling this issue, and there are continued perverse subsidies that damage the environment. A prime example of this is the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The intensification of agriculture is one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss in Europe, yet most of the €60bn CAP funding goes to intensive and industrial agriculture.

In parallel with the global discussions on the post-2020 framework under the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), the discussion on the EU post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy has started, with a view to being adopted in the first half of 2021. It is clear that the EU post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy needs to tackle the aforementioned gaps, but also address other crucial aspects too. For instance, the linkages with the Sustainable Development Goals and synergies between climate change and biodiversity agendas need to be made explicit in the EU post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy. According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the adoption of effective sustainable land use measures to conserve land carbon stocks, to limit agricultural expansion and to recover healthy ocean ecosystems emerge as a critical feature of virtually all mitigation pathways that seek to limit global warming to 1.5°C. A strong commitment on large scale restoration of ecosystems like forests, wetlands, peatlands and grasslands would not only benefit nature but also has a huge climate change mitigation and adaptation potential.

The social dimension and health benefits are another important element that need to be considered. According to a growing body of evidence, health inequalities are linked to access to nature and a number of studies show how access to nature is vital for good mental and physical health at all ages.

The EU has the opportunity to bend the curve on biodiversity loss through its post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy and reverse the devastating downward trends, but political will and leadership will be necessary to turn the recommendations into action.

EU Birds and Habitats Directives

The EU has legislation in place – the Birds and Habitats Directives (BHD) – which protects Europe’s most precious nature and forms the backbone of nature conservation in Europe. These Nature Directives have led to the establishment of the Natura 2000 network which is the largest network of protected areas in the world, covering 18% of EU land area and 9% of Europe’s seas. Thanks to these laws, iconic species such as the Iberian lynx and white-tailed eagle, which were already on the brink of extinction, are slowly recovering.

In 2013, the European Commission under President Juncker decided to submit the Nature Directives to a “fitness check”, which left these critical laws exposed and vulnerable to being weakened. Thankfully, EU citizens joined the WWF and other NGOs and stood up for Europe’s nature by taking part in the European Commission’s public consultation calling for the legislation to be saved. This was the largest EU public consultation and eventually led to the European Commission declaring the Nature Directives “fit for purpose” in December 2016.

EU Water Framework Directive

The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) is another crucial piece of legislation for European biodiversity. Freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened in both the EU and globally. Currently only 40% of European freshwater ecosystems are deemed to be healthy. The WFD is widely regarded as one of the EU’s most ambitious and innovative pieces of environmental legislation, requiring all European freshwater ecosystems (such as rivers, lakes and wetlands) to be healthy by 2027 at the latest. Meeting this target would dramatically improve the situation for biodiversity loss in the EU.

Member States are not on track to reach the target by 2027, and even more worrying is the lack of political will to implement the legislation at national level. Just like the Nature Directives before, the WFD is currently undergoing a “fitness check”, and we are witnessing an alarming push from Member States to use this process to weaken the law’s ambitious goals and standards. Encouragingly, EU citizens are on the side of Europe’s freshwater ecosystems – over 375,000 of them added their voice to the EU’s public consultation on the WFD, calling on their government and the Commission to keep the WFD in its current form.

Bending the curve on biodiversity loss

Around 80% of environmental legislation in Member States is influenced at EU level. One of the European Commission’s main duties is to ensure that EU directives are fully implemented and enforced by the Member States. In cases where the Member States fail to comply with the Birds and Habitats Directives and the Water Framework Directive – known as ‘infringements’ – the Commission is responsible for bringing these cases forward. As such, the European Commission truly is nature’s last line of defence.

The Commission also takes crucial decisions that determine whether EU directives are to be opened up and (depending on the outcomes of the “fitness check”) changed, as is currently the case with the Water Framework Directive. On November 1, a new Commission president will enter office. Whoever that may be, they can make a truly positive start and show a genuine commitment to bending the curve on biodiversity loss by not opening up the WFD and instead encouraging Member States to fully implement the directive.

The EU can halt and reverse biodiversity loss through its post-2020 Biodiversity Strategy, but political will and leadership will be necessary to turn the recommendations into action.

Edel Shanahan

WWF European Policy Office

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