EU seeks clear responsibilities in halting biodiversity loss

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A new EU Action Plan seeks to clarify responsibilities between the EU and member states on bringing plant and animal extinction to a halt by 2010. But environmentalists say the measures are weak and may just come too late.

The EU Commission on Monday (22 May) unveiled a new Action Plan on biodiversity, the fifth of its kind since a 2001 summit of European heads of states agreed to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by the end of the decade. 

Unlike previous ones, the new action plan does not come up with ambitious new laws on protecting migrating wild birds and natural habitats. More modestly, it tries to clear up responsibilities when it comes to implementing whatever legislation already exists.

In the Commission’s own words, such a clarification of responsibilities would suggest “a departure from the past”. “We know what needs to be done”, said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas as he outlined the new plan to the press on 22 May. The new policy document, he added, “will help us pull all the actors and resources together so that we meet our commitments”.

At the starting point is recognition that existing policies have not delivered the desired results. In the EU, the Commission points out, the policy framework is already largely in place. Natura 2000, an EU-wide network of protected areas, now covers some 18% of the territory of the EU-15 and is being extended to the EU-10 and seas. The Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policies have recently been reformed to take better account of wildlife, plants and forests. Funding has been poured into biodiversity research.

Yet, the Commission says, “some two-thirds of ecosystem services worldwide are in decline. In the EU, this decline is expressed in collapsing fish stocks, widespread damage to soils, costly flood damages, and disappearing wildlife”.

To try to remedy this, the Action Plan identifies four priority areas:

  • Biodiversity in the EU: greater commitment from member states to propose, designate, protect and effectively manage sites protected under the Natura 2000 network. Key actions suggested include optimising the use of available measures under the reformed Common agriculture and fisheries policy and improving planning at national, regional and local levels.
  • The EU and global biodiversity: Strengthening coherence and synergies between trade and development cooperation; promoting more effective implementation of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and related agreements including measures to address tropical deforestation.
  • Biodiversity and climate change: honouring Kyoto commitments and to put in place more ambitious global emissions targets post-2012, in order to limit the global annual mean temperature increase to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels; minimising potential damages from new wind farms or biomass energy crops being promoted to help mitigate global warming
  • The knowledge base: strengthening the European Research Area, its international dimension, research infrastructures, the connection between science and policy and improving comparability of biodiversity data.

On the financial aspects, the Commission says it plans to use existing funding programs such as the rural development funding, cohesion and structural funds, the European Fisheries Fund, LIFE+ and the Seventh Framework Programme for Research.

However, it insists on making clear that the EU’s limited budget for the 2007-2013 period restricts the amount of Community co-financing available under Natura 2000, and that “financing from Member States own resources will be crucial”.

Meeting the EU 2010 target is still possible, says the Commission. But it acknowledges that it will require "accelerated implementation at both EU and member state levels".

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) sent out a stark warning to the EU, saying it should "move from analysis to action". "The message is clear: time is running out. We don't have the luxury of drifting along," said Pieter de Pous, EEB's Biodiversity Officer.

Countdown 2010, an alliance on biodiversity launched by the World Conservation Union, was of the same opinion. "It has taken the Commission five years to launch this Biodiversity Communication. With only four years remaining, it is very clear that we have no time to waste. Implementing all actions of the ambitious roadmap to reach the target means that action needs to be taken every ten days until 2010," said Sebastian Winkler, the head of the Countdown 2010 initiative. "Action need to speak louder than words" in the fight against declining biodiversity, he said.

The Action Plan is criticised by Greenpeace as insufficient. "The EU needs to do more than document and monitor the loss of biodiversity; it needs to review its own destructive policies for their part in the crisis, and take drastic measures to revise them," said Sebastien Risso of Greenpeace European Unit. To achieve this, Greenpeace says the EU should place more emphasis on external policies, for example by preventing the import and sale of timber, timber products and fish from illegal and unsustainable sources.

Four biodiversity action plans have already been adopted in 2001 under a wider EU biodiversity strategy agreed earlier in 1998. The four action plans relate to: 1) conservation of natural resources, 2) agriculture, 3) fisheries, and 4) economic and development cooperation outside Europe.

The four action plans resulted from a renewed push in favour of nature conservation measures by the then 15 EU member states. At the Gothenburg summit in 2001, they agreed to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by 2010 and to restore habitats and natural ecosystems. In 2002, they joined some 130 world leaders in agreeing to "significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss globally by 2010".

Today, nature and biodiversity are one of the four priorities of the Sixth Environmental Action Programme covering the period 2002-2012 (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on the 6EAP).

  • 30 May-2 June 2006: Commission's annual Green Week event to focus on biodiversity
  • Each year: Commission to report on progress in implementing the Action Plan
  • 2013: Commission to evaluate progress in meeting the post-2010 targets of the plan
  • The Action Plan kicks off a wide public debate that will contribute to a long-term vision on halting biodiversity loss

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