The European Commission’s plan to tackle biodiversity loss in the next decade has been cautiously welcomed by environmentalists who say the “lofty goals” need to be backed by legislation.
The 27-page “EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030”, released on Wednesday, admits that the EU has been “incomplete” and “small-scale” in protecting nature and restoring habitats and species, and that legislation has not gone far enough.
The EC strategy was updated to reflect its release in the heart of the coronavirus pandemic. “Healthy and resilient societies depend on giving nature the space it needs,” the report states.
The EU Commission, the bloc’s executive, aims to restore natural ecosystems and steer agriculture towards its target to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050 across the EU.
EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said: “If the corona-crisis has taught us anything, it is that we have to recalibrate our relationship with the natural environment, we have to become more resilient.”
Part of the strategy is a roadmap to plant 3 billion trees across the bloc and increase protected areas to almost a third of EU land and sea by 2030 as part of the European Green Deal.
The Commission will “crack down on illegal wildlife trade” with proposals to tighten rules around EU ivory trade in 2020 and explore bolstering investigations on illicit trade and expanding criminal sanctions.
Due to the link between illegal wildlife trade and the emergence of zoonotic diseases, the Commission wrote: ”It is a human, economic and environmental duty to dismantle it."
Peter Knight, CEO of WildAid, told The Independent: “The European Union has been behind the curve in terms of legislation to end domestic trade in ivory so moves to close the current loopholes would be very welcome and bring it in line with the rest of the world.
“It’s clear given the impact of Covid-19 and likely origins that combatting illegal and dangerous trade in wildlife needs to be a much higher priority to insure against another new disease outbreak. The European Union can seek to address this as a consumer within its borders and by supporting programs in high risk but less wealthy countries.”
The goals were commended by conservation leaders but some warned that the plans will be toothless without binding legislation and needed more details on how they will be implemented.
The targets are not legally-binding and will be subject to an impact assessment, the Commission said. The timeline for legislative action is 2024.
Dr Enric Sala, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, called the strategy “Europe’s best idea” and said that while the immediate focus should be on helping people recover from Covid-19, it was crucial to reduce the risk of a future pandemic.
He told The Independent: “We live in a world that was built for economic growth at any cost instead of resilience. What this biodiversity strategy shows is a clear vision and leadership by the European Commission to build a European Union that is going to be resilient to future ecological, health and economic crises, because they are all related.”
César Luena, a Spanish socialist MEP and vice-chair of the European parliament’s environment committee, told The Guardian that although the targets seemed more ambitious than previous goals, the strategy needed to be covered by binding legislation on member states.
“If the new strategy remains just a collection of ideas, nothing will ever happen,” he said.
The report recommends that at least €20 billion each year “should be unlocked for spending on nature”. That money will come from the EU’s climate budget along with private and public funding across countries and at the EU level.
By 2021, the commission says it will revise its “action plan” on wildlife trafficking. Plans to bolster investigations by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) are being considered along with increased coordination with EU countries and others outside the bloc. The strategy is looking at a possible revision of the Environmental Crime Directive by expanding its scope on criminal sanctions.
Next year, the commission will present a legislative proposal aimed at avoiding products linked to deforestation in the EU and promoting ”forest-friendly imports”.
The strategy says that working with partner countries is vital to ensure a “smooth and fair transition” to biodiversity-friendly trade.
Dr Joanna Swabe, senior director of public affairs for Humane Society International told The Independent: "While we wholeheartedly support the Commission’s commitment in the Biodiversity Strategy to intensify its efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, it must also urgently address the fact that the EU’s wildlife trade regulations do not cover all illegal wildlife trade. Indeed, many wild animal species, especially reptiles and amphibians, are illegally harvested in and exported from their country of origin and then traded perfectly legally in the EU."
Alesia Soltanpanah, Executive Director, World Animal Protection US, told The Independent: "As we start to build back from the current crisis, we should do so responsibly and with environmentally friendly practices that will benefit animals, the earth and humans. Not only do we need to protect lands from further pollution, clearing, and decimation, but we need to rebuild them so that animals can begin to flourish which is essential to healthy biodiversity."
Along with planting 3bn trees, the commission will strengthen protections around the continent’s remaining “old-growth” forests from deforestation to fight climate change.
“Primary and old-growth forests are the richest forest ecosystems that remove carbon from the atmosphere, while storing significant carbon stocks,” the report notes.
Sini Eräjää, Greenpeace EU agriculture and forest campaigner, said: “The European Commission biodiversity strategy has good aims for nature protection and restoration, but the European consumption that drives the destruction is largely ignored.
“Lofty goals to stop biodiversity loss are all well and good, but without tackling the root causes – particularly meat and dairy consumption – we will fall far short.”
On the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has been criticised for its impacts on natural habitats, the commission says that at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land must be under organic farming by 2030 and 10% of agricultural land returned to “high diversity” landscapes, including fallow land, hedges and ponds.
It also calls for cutting the use of chemical pesticides in half and reducing fertiliser use by 20%. By 2030, the commission wants the sale of antimicrobials – products that includes antibiotics – to be cut in half for animal and fish farming.
Oliver Moore of ARC2020, a non-profit focused on better farming practices, told The Independent that he was surprised that the EU Commission had remained steadfast in its commitment to help transition farming and food towards greater sustainability, despite enormous pressure from corporate lobbyists to weaken targets.
He said: "This sends a signal as to the direction Europe wants to travel now. The main caveat is CAP - a procedural manoeuvre last week in the European Parliament means CAP as it currently functions will have, as it were, a stay of execution for 2 more years. So the vital changes we need may be a little more delayed than they might otherwise be. However the writing is clearly on the wall now."
The strategy calls for an increase in protected areas to one-third of EU land and sea. The current protected zones cover 26% of land and 11% of seas but the report concedes it’s not been enough to limit the destruction of the natural world and mitigate the extinction risk to some species.
The Commission asks the European Parliament and the Council to endorse the strategy ahead of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity conference (COP15) which was due to be held in October in Kunming, China but is on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr Sala said he would like to see binding legislation follow the proposals and build towards a global framework at COP15.
“I think protecting and restoring nature in Europe is a non-negotiable necessity,” he said. “I’m more optimistic than ever because the European Union providing this leadership sends a huge signal to the rest of the world. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.”
He added: “There is hope. Nature has an amazing ability to bounce back if we give her space.”
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