Virginijus Sinkevičius: Enhancing ecosystems is key to a more resilient economy and society
European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius explains why it's no coincidence that the EU's new Biodiversity Strategy will be adopted at the same time as the Farm to Fork Strategy, as the two are inextricably linked.
European Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius | Photo credit: Virginijus Sinkevičius office
Why do you think the EU’s 2020 strategy will succeed in curbing the loss of biodiversity and degradation of Europe’s ecosystems, when the previous 2010 strategy failed in this regard?
Though the previous strategy published in 2010 didn’t reach its ultimate objective, it still had a positive impact, as the current situation would have been far worse without it.
The new plan will build on the solid foundations of existing directives, with a range of new elements to increase success. There will be proposals for ambitious and measurable commitments to protecting and restoring nature and we will develop a new governance framework to track progress towards these commitments.
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I also want to build a network of protected areas, going beyond those areas covered by the current Natura 2000 Network, with strict protections for biodiversity hotspots like ancient forests, wetlands and marshes. A comprehensive Nature Restoration Plan is needed with legally binding restoration targets.
The new 2020 Strategy will see biodiversity protection further integrated and linked to other policymaking areas such as climate change, energy, health and agriculture. It’s no coincidence that the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy will be adopted at the same time as the Farm to Fork Strategy, as both have close links.
“There is increasing scientific evidence suggesting links between biodiversity loss, deforestation, illegal trade in wildlife, global warming and air pollution to the origins of pandemics. Current levels of interference with nature are unsustainable”
We also want to implement and enforce existing legislation and establish a new governance framework, to enable transformative change. This will strengthen knowledge and implementation of research and innovation into the protection of nature across Europe.
You recently tweeted that infectious diseases such as COVID-19 are linked to the destruction of nature – how will you ensure that the EU has a truly ‘green’ recovery from this crisis?
There is increasing scientific evidence suggesting links between biodiversity loss, deforestation, illegal trade in wildlife, global warming and air pollution to the origins of pandemics.
Current levels of interference with nature are unsustainable, not only because of the over-exploitation of natural resources, but also because this interference can create direct risks to health and impact our economic stability.
But it does not have to be this way. Protecting and restoring ecosystems, promoting more sustainable and more resilient agriculture, tackling deforestation worldwide, and enhancing the monitoring and control of consumption and trade in wildlife will all help build a more resilient economy and society.
This is essential for a lasting and sustainable recovery. Enhancing ecosystems will be essential in assisting Europe’s economic recovery from the pandemic. Almost half of global GDP – around €40 trillion – depends on nature and the services it provides.
The three largest commercial sectors – construction, agriculture, and food and drink – generate close to €7.3 trillion, and are all highly dependent on nature. The European Green Deal, including the Biodiversity Strategy, is about stimulating green growth and boosting our society’s resilience to future crises.
It will be central in the EU’s eff orts to ensure a just, sustainable and rapid recovery. When you invest in nature, you invest in local jobs and business opportunities. Therefore, I am constantly making the case for investments in nature restoration.
Given the pressure to assist farmers to recover from the pandemic, how will you ensure that any future cap reform will help maintain and enhance biodiversity?
The Commission’s new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) proposals provide for a significant increase in the level of environmental ambition. Requiring Member States to identify environmental needs at a national level and to introduce measures accordingly.
By taking into account existing environmental legislation and related planning instruments. Together with the Farm to Fork Strategy, and in response to a request from the Europe Parliament, we will publish a detailed assessment on how to ensure the post-2020 CAP will be consistent with the aims of the European Green Deal.
I hope both the Parliament and the Council will support the environmental and climate ambition of the CAP proposals.
“Enhancing ecosystems will be essential in assisting Europe’s economic recovery from the pandemic. Almost half of global GDP depends on nature and the services it provides”
Both the Biodiversity Strategy and the Farm to Fork Strategy are highly relevant for agriculture. Together they will address pollution from pesticides and nutrients, loss of structural diversity and encourage environmentally friendly forms of agricultural production, including organic farming.
In particular, the Biodiversity Strategy will address a generational challenge to halt and reverse the decline of nature, which is particularly severe on farmland. Farmers are often those who know our nature best, are closest to it and cherish it most.
They are also the first ones to be hit by the damaging consequences of biodiversity loss. If we do not tackle this crisis, farmers will be the first ones to suffer from soil degradation, water scarcity, and the decline of vital pollinators.
Wholesale transformation of the way we produce food and manage our land is required. Therefore, a transformed CAP will be an essential instrument to implement the Biodiversity Strategy on farmland. I want to implement the policy working with farmers, not against them. I want them to be part of the positive transformation this will bring.
As the emergence of COVID-19 is linked to the trade in wildlife, especially wet markets in Asia, what will you do to address this issue?
We should make a distinction between different aspects of the problem and different regulatory responses. Sustainability issues are addressed in regulations on international wildlife trade, around the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and corresponding EU laws. We also have a large body of rules ensuring safe trade within the Union and imports of live animals, including from the wild, and products derived from them.
Their aim is to prevent the arrival and spread of animal diseases and zoonoses (infectious diseases caused by pathogens that jump from animals to humans).
These rules are science-based and adhere to international standards. EU animal imports are subject to strict sanitary standards and controls, but that cannot prevent the spill-over of a pathogen from animals to humans through illicit trade, or unsafe practices elsewhere.
That is why we have to act, by supporting countries that are willing to address this issue with EU funds and expertise.
“EU consumption does have an impact on the world’s forests, so the Commission will propose new measures to address the issue of products associated with deforestation such as soy, palm oil, beef and cocoa”
There is also the indirect impact of the current health crisis on nature conservation, and the capacity of ecosystems to play a buffering role. Many wildlife-rich countries rely on income from tourism to finance the management of protected areas. With tourism now halted due to the pandemic, there is a real danger that poaching and illegal trade will increase.
The Commission is urgently mobilising resources to help close this gap, so that businesses remain open and park rangers can continue to do their important work. The Commission already addresses wildlife trafficking through a dedicated EU Action Plan, which includes financial support for anti-trafficking operations.
In 2021, this plan is scheduled for revision, stepping up eff orts to combat illegal trade and strengthening the Convention on Biological Diversity. Financed by official development aid, we aim to ensure the sustainability and safety of wildlife.
Before the coronavirus crisis, there was significant concern about the problem of plastic pollution in our oceans. What further action do you propose in this area?
When we emerge from this crisis, we will still face the problem of plastic pollution. There is no single solution.
But the circular economy, by changing the way we produce and consume, gives us a framework, by pointing out ways to recycle more and do more with less, and to fight plastic pollution in the oceans. Several initiatives under the Plastics Strategy have been implemented, including the Directive on Single Use Plastics.
Thanks to good cooperation between the Parliament and the Council, it was adopted in record time. We are now working on further guidelines and implementing legislation. We need to ensure that recycled content is used in new single-use plastic bottles, notably a minimum of 25 percent recycled material in all soft drink PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles by 2025.
The new Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted in mid-March, on the eve of the lockdown, contains many actions to accelerate this transition. We will continue supporting Member States in the implementation of the waste legislation and are now focusing more on cutting waste generation and increasing reuse across the board, from batteries to packaging
This is a great opportunity for the European plastics industry to develop leadership in developing more sustainable technologies and materials. By empowering consumers to make conscious choices in favour of the environment.
How will you ensure that any plans to revive Europe’s maritime/coastal areas and fisheries policy will be part of the overall European green deal?
The blue economy, including fisheries and aquaculture, has a prominent role in the implementation of the European Green Deal. Seafood production, for example, generally produces lower carbon emissions than other forms of food production.
We will also turn increasingly towards the ocean for clean, renewable electricity, as it could deliver more than a third of our electricity needs by 2050. But we must use the ocean in a sustainable manner and strengthen the resilience of our marine environment.
The new Biodiversity Strategy will help with this. We are working to keep marine protection on the global agenda, especially in regard to the high seas (international waters) – which cover 70 percent of our oceans.
As we are developing the blue economy, we will need thorough maritime spatial planning to avoid conflicting uses and goals. When it comes to EU fisheries policy, we are starting to see positive results. Many of our fish stocks are in better shape than they have been for decades.
We are now seeing that sustainable management of fish stocks improves the overall economic performance of our flee; ‘sustainability’ is possible and pays off. We need to replicate this in the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, where the situation still needs improving.
As most of the world’s biodiversity is located in tropical regions, which are also highly impacted by EU trade and consumption, how will you ensure they will be protected in the new strategy?
As a general rule, the EU is committed to help tackling biodiversity loss in partner countries, including supporting sustainable agriculture, fisheries and forestry, through its external policy.
Our trade policy plays a significant role in addressing the impacts of EU trade and consumption. Any product placed on the European market must fully comply with relevant EU regulations and standards.
EU trade agreements can play an important role as platforms to promote biodiversity protection with our trading partners, including through implementation of their sustainable development chapters.
The European Commission will do more to assess the impact of trade agreements on biodiversity. EU consumption does have an impact on the world’s forests, so the Commission will propose new measures to address the issue of products associated with deforestation such as soy, palm oil, beef and cocoa.
I know the European Parliament is also working on a report on this issue and this will be part of the recovery. Supporting businesses in the transition to a more sustainable production and consumption will contribute to the Commission’s eff orts to restart the economy in the post- COVID-19 period.
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