By Adam Vaughan The EU’s biodiversity goals include strict protections for ancient forests such as Bialowieza ForestAleksander Bolbot / AlamyTo reverse the loss of wildlife and habitats, a bold new plan by the European Commission (EC) includes planting 3 billion extra trees, dramatically expanding organic farming and fines for missing targets to restore nature. The…
By Adam Vaughan
To reverse the loss of wildlife and habitats, a bold new plan by the European Commission (EC) includes planting 3 billion extra trees, dramatically expanding organic farming and fines for missing targets to restore nature.
The biodiversity strategy published today calls for 30 per cent of Europe’s land and seas to become a protected area by 2030, up from 26 per cent of land and 11 per cent of seas today, with strict protections for ancient forests in particular. The amount of agricultural land farmed organically must grow from 8 per cent today to a quarter in a decade’s time. Pesticide use should halve by 2030, by which point nearly a third of species must return to a favourable conservation status or be improving.
Frans Timmermans, the EC’s vice-president for the European Green Deal, explicitly tied the plan to avoiding future pandemics like the covid-19 crisis – a potential benefit of protecting habitats and limiting human interaction with certain species.
“The biodiversity strategy is essential for boosting our resilience and preventing the emergence and spread of future diseases such as zoonoses. Because by destroying nature at an unprecedented rate, and now with around 1 million species at risk of extinction within only decades, we literally threaten our own life, our health and our well-being,” he told a press conference.
Conservationists welcomed the plan as positive and strong, with Sabien Leemans at WWF Europe saying the ambition was unlike anything seen under the commission in the past five years. Some of the goals are even more ambitious than before, such as the number of trees being upgraded from talk last year of 2 billion, to 3 billion by 2030.
The question is: will the strategy work? Europe has failed in the past on biodiversity plans, such as falling short of a voluntary target to restore at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems by this year.
Observers say while the new strategy has some woolly phrasing in places, such as on how the European Union can avoid outsourcing environmental destruction to other parts of the world, its backers have largely withstood lobbying from the farming industry to weaken it.
Key to its strength are the levels of ambition, coupled with the promise of new laws. One of the most significant ideas is to set legally binding targets next year for restoring ecosystems, such as wetlands. “That’s potentially a game changer,” says Ariel Brunner at Birdlife International in Belgium.
Leemans says the prospect of legislation would give the targets teeth, but she notes it is vital they are ambitious and concrete, such as defining how many square kilometres must be restored.
The goal of halving pesticide use will be a stretch, but is necessary, says Brunner: “It’s huge, but it’s what is needed.”
Georg Schwede at the Campaign for Nature, a coalition of more than 100 conservation groups, says the dramatic expansion in organic farming could happen, but only if EU agricultural subsidies are reformed to create incentives for it, and to factor in the environmental impacts of products such as fossil-fuel-based fertilisers.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the strategy will depend on how the commission and countries implement the plans. While the strategy has several pages on a governance framework to make sure progress is closely checked, it is currently vague on what possible measures – such as fines – member states face if they miss goals. “It all hinges on implementation,” says Schwede.
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