Brussels bares teeth with launch of new biodiversity plan

Next year, the EU Commission intends put forward a new set of legally-binding "EU nature restoration targets" including new objectives for restoring old-growth and primary forests. [Jiri Hrebicek / Shutterstock]

The European Commission is getting tough on biodiversity with a new set of “nature restoration targets” announced for publication next year, which the EU executive says will be strictly enforced.

After several weeks of delay caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission is finally forging ahead with its new biodiversity strategy for 2030, published on Wednesday (20 May) alongside a related EU farm-to-fork strategy that focuses on greening the agriculture and food sector.

With its new biodiversity push, the European Commission aims to “set in motion systemic change” in the way nature conservation policies are managed at EU level.

“For too long, biodiversity has been linked to green romanticism,” said EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius who spoke to journalists on Tuesday (19 May), ahead of the plan’s publication.

Yet, protecting biodiversity is also an economic imperative, he argues.

“Almost half of global GDP – some €40 trillion – depends on nature and the services it provides,” the EU executive says in its strategy, citing a recent study by the World Economic Forum.

The sectors most exposed to biodiversity loss are the construction, agriculture, and food and drink industries, which “are all highly dependent on nature, and together generate close to €7.3 trillion in the economy,” it adds.

And the economic benefits of protecting nature could also be handsome, with annual profits ranging from €49 billion in the seafood industry to €3.9 trillion in the insurance sector, the Commission says, citing research published in the journal Science.

A landmark UN report published last year revealed that 1 million species are at risk of extinction, with potentially catastrophic knock-on impacts on humankind, including freshwater shortages and climate instability.

Legally-binding targets

Next year, the EU executive intends to reverse those trends, with a new set of legally-binding “EU nature restoration targets” that will aim to “restore healthy and resilient ecosystems”.

These will include new objectives for restoring old-growth and primary forests, which are considered the richest in biodiversity and “keep removing carbon from the atmosphere”.

“It will be crucial to define, map, monitor and strictly protect all the EU’s remaining primary and old-growth forests,” the Commission states, saying at least 10% of EU land should be “strictly protected” under the new plan.

EU aims to ring-fence 'old-growth forests' in new biodiversity plan

At least 10% of land – considerably more than the current 3% – will have to be declared “strictly protected areas” under a new EU biodiversity strategy due to be unveiled later this month.

And this time, the EU executive says it will get serious about enforcement.

“Without a binding framework, there is a high risk” that EU countries won’t implement the targets, Sinkevičius told journalists on Tuesday.

“This commission takes infringements very seriously,” Sinkevičius said, adding he would not hesitate to launch legal proceedings against EU countries that fail to implement the agreed targets.

Uphill battle

The Commission faces an uphill battle in enforcing its new nature rules. Current biodiversity policies are too often ignored by member states, which can easily get away with bypassing EU rules.

Past experience “shows us that the targets won’t be implemented properly and that biodiversity loss will continue” without legally-binding targets, Sinkevičius admitted.

Those weaknesses were exposed by green campaigners at CEE Bankwatch who documented examples from across central and eastern Europe where governments have bypassed EU nature protection laws.

Tensions came to the fore in the summer of 2017 when the Commission ordered an emergency ban on logging in Poland’s protected Białowieża Forest, triggering a bitter legal battle with Warsaw.

Poland’s logging of protected forest is illegal, top EU court rules

European Court of Justice judges decided on Tuesday (17 April) that Poland’s logging activities in Białowieża Forest are against EU law and heavy fines are due to follow unless the government takes immediate action.

“The Commission recognises the need for better enforcement of environmental legislation, which is urgently needed,” said Raphael Hanoteaux, from CEE Bankwatch Network. “But you cannot protect old-growth forests while letting member states get away with burning them for energy, and paying for roads to facilitate timber removal,” he added.

To halt biodiversity decline, Hanoteaux says the EU will have to do three things simultaneously: rigorously deal with infringements, make sure that offenders are not supported by money from the European public purse and make other policies consistent with the biodiversity objectives.

Cost-benefit analysis due in 2021

According to the Commission, it is currently difficult to steer national policies on biodiversity because there is no commonly agreed criteria to monitor progress on nature conservation.

“So legally-binding nature restoration targets would make a strong difference,” Sinkevičius said.

But before targets are put on the table next year, the Commission also insists on completing a thorough cost-benefit analysis.

“If we are to be credible on the proposals we’re going to make, we have to do a full impact assessment,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU Commission vice-president in charge of the Green Deal.

“We have to make sure the legislation is fit for purpose, can be applied and is enforceable,” he stressed.

Finnish MEP: 'Political fight begins' over Europe’s old-growth forests

The forests in Europe that can be considered “old growth” – and therefore declared protected areas – depends on the definition, says Petri Sarvamaa. “And that’s where the political fight begins,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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