Nature has important role to play in a healthy European economy
Thanks to EU legislation, Europe has managed to limit wildlife loss, but much more needs to be done to reach the 2020 targets, says Karmenu Vella.
Nature is vital for our health and our wealth. We depend on it for the food, energy, raw materials, air and water that make life possible. Nature drives the economy and its extraordinary diversity brings us inspiration, knowledge and recreation.
Nature forms an important part of our cultural heritage and also plays a key role in creating jobs and stimulating new investments. You can't have a good economic system without a good ecosystem, so it makes obvious sense to protect both at the same time.
Over the next few days during green week, we'll be looking at how we depend on nature, how we can best protect it, and how we can be sure that our economic and environmental policies are pushing in the same direction.
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As you would expect from a conference that showcases the work going on at European level to protect our nature, it's no small affair - with 27 sessions, an exhibition space with 44 stands, and around 140 related satellite events taking place across the EU.
We've chosen the theme, 'Nature - our health, our wealth' for a number of reasons. This will be an important year for nature and biodiversity policy in the EU.
A 'fitness check' of the birds and habitats directives is well underway and we are looking for ways to improve implementation and reduce the administrative burden without compromising protection levels.
Recognising the importance that many people attach to this legislation, our emphasis is on transparency, so this exercise is being done in consultation with member states and key stakeholder groups.
Civil society's voice is an essential part of the process and the consultation is already receiving widespread attention. If you haven't contributed yet, please tell us how you think we should protect it. Our actions and our success count on your voice.
We are also fast approaching our mid-term review of the EU biodiversity strategy. This will assess progress towards the 2020 target of halting and reversing the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
There will also be a need to ensure full implementation of the new EU regulation on invasive alien species, which came into force in January. It addresses one of the major threats to biodiversity in the EU.
For decades, our wildlife has been declining at an alarming rate. Valuable habitats have been lost as a result of rapidly changing land use, pollution, infrastructure development and continuing urban sprawl.
The most up-to-date assessment of the European situation - the recently adopted 'state of nature' report - underlines the urgent need for action. That report is the fruit of the largest collaborative data-collection and assessment of nature ever undertaken across the EU's member states.
Overall, it gives a mixed picture: looking at birds, more than half of all wild bird species assessed - 52 per cent - have a secure status.
However, around 17 per cent of species are still threatened and another 15 per cent are near threatened, declining or depleted, including once-common farmland species like the skylark and the black-tailed Godwit.
Of the other species protected under the habitats directive, only a quarter - 23 per cent - have a favourable assessment. Over half - 60 per cent - are still in an unfavourable position, with grasslands, wetlands and dune habitats a particular cause for concern.
Green week will be looking at the reasons behind these trends, and ways to tip the balance in the other direction.
There are real successes we can build on. EU nature legislation has been fundamental in preventing the further decline of Europe's most vulnerable species and habitat types. This is in spite of the ever increasing demand for land and resources. We can demonstrate that targeted conservation action led by the EU can be highly effective.
The bearded vulture and the white-headed duck both have EU species action plans, and benefitted from the EU Life fund; their numbers have seen substantial improvements as a result. Natura 2000 is another success story.
Europe's network of protected areas now covers 18 per cent of the EU's land area, and as we will hear during green week, it has had an important positive influence on the conservation status of species and habitat types.
Our network recognises that people should live within, and not parallel to, natural ecosystems, and as a result, it serves essential social and economic functions. Around 4.4 million jobs depend directly on healthy ecosystems in Europe. An ever growing number of these jobs are now on Natura 2000 sites.
The financial benefits that flow from the network are estimated to be around €200 to €300bn per year. We celebrate the thousands involved with Natura 2000 with our annual awards.
Projects from Denmark, Germany, Spain, France and a trans-boundary project that involves nine Danube countries have all been winners.
This year, we introduced a special prize: the first to be selected directly by a public vote. Almost 25,000 citizens voted, and the first citizens' award went to a project in Spain that raises awareness about the network.
2015 is also the European year for development and a very special year for sustainable development, as the international community will agree on the future global framework for poverty eradication and sustainable development.
Many green week sessions will contribute to showcasing Europe's commitment to being engaged and involved in sustainable development worldwide. I hope to see you there.
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