Nature policy works when implemented well. The health of our natural environment is a key component of our health and wealth, but our recent assessments show that the majority of habitats and species in Europe have an unfavourable conservation status despite significant improvements for many species in recent years.
The results are mixed, but clear. When implemented well, conservation measures work and improve the status of habitats and species on the ground.
Nevertheless, improvements remain limited and patchy, and, unfortunately, Europe’s biodiversity is still eroding and the pressures continue.
Under the habitats directive reporting, 77 per cent of habitats and 60 per cent of species assessments are unfavourable while only 16 per cent of habitats and 23 per cent of species assessments are favourable.
Data on population trends show both worrying and encouraging results. On the one hand, there has been a dramatic decline in grassland butterflies of almost 50 per cent between 1990 and 2011.
Europe's common bird populations have declined by 12 per cent since 1990, while common farmland birds have declined by 30 per cent. Both trends are closely linked to pressures from agricultural activities.
Over half of the bird species in the EU are considered to be ‘secure’ – with no foreseeable risk of extinction. Many bird species for which member states set up special protection areas have recorded increases in their populations, but most of these species still face risk of extinction.
Other bird species, including many that may be hunted, show declining populations. On the other hand, some populations of European bats and large carnivores appear to have recovered to some extent from past declines, demonstrating positive results of conservation action and unplanned changes such as land abandonment.
However, these improvements are currently limited to local or regional level, and have not yet scaled up to European level.
As stated in our recent assessment ‘State of Nature in the EU’ as well as in our integrated assessment ‘The European environment – state and outlook 2015’, human activities continue to exert pressure on Europe’s nature.
Habitat change – including loss, fragmentation and degradation – due to land-use change remains one of the main pressures. More concretely, urban sprawl and grey infrastructure developments cause fragmentation of the rural landscape.
Similarly, agricultural intensification, intensive forest management and land abandonment cause homogenisation and loss of habitat.
Over-exploitation of natural resources, in particular through certain malpractices in fisheries, and the accelerated establishment and spread of invasive alien species also continue to cause concern.
More than 12,000 alien species now occur in Europe. They do not only cause biodiversity loss, but also considerable economic damage to agriculture, forestry and fisheries. They also hamper ecosystems’ capability to deliver services on which we depend.
Moreover, climate change is already affecting some species’ and specific habitats’ distribution, range and interaction and is projected to become a more significant threat in the coming decades.
European policies and efforts by Member States, including expansion of protected areas, have made some improvements on the ground. Today, Natura 2000 – the network of protected areas created by the EU’s habitats directive – covers 18 per cent of EU land and four per cent of EU marine waters.
With this achievement, the EU has met its part of the Aichi target for global coverage of protected areas by 2020 of at least 17 per cent of the terrestrial and inland water areas. The target of protecting 10 per cent of the coastal and marine areas remains to be met.
Encouragingly, some pollution pressures have decreased such as the nutrient enrichment of European waters and the balance of nitrogen found on farmland. However, given the already high levels of nitrogen in ecosystems, the eutrophication risk is predicted to remain high in 2020.
It will be very challenging for Europe to meet the overall target of halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services by 2020. Many of the influences on biodiversity loss arise from a range of sectors and policies that exerts considerable pressure on biodiversity.
Biodiversity concerns need to be effectively integrated into sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries, as well as into various policies, regional, cohesion and climate policies in particular. This can increase ecosystem resilience and provide nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation.
In addition to integration into sectors, a full and effective implementation of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 is a vital step towards halting biodiversity loss.
Conserving and managing the Natura 2000 network effectively, and developing green infrastructure, such as wildlife corridors, and restoring degraded ecosystems are additional steps towards protecting Europe's biodiversity.
We also need to understand that when dealing with maintaining and enhancing biodiversity, it takes time for our actions to make a difference on a large scale. Moreover, European efforts to halt biodiversity loss on its continent should ensure that pressures are not transferred to other parts of our increasingly globalised world thereby exacerbating global biodiversity loss.