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Brussels, 23 April 2009
Why is this conference being held?
Back in 1993, the European Union ratified the UN convention on biological diversity, which aims to achieve a significant reduction of the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. The EU also has an independent commitment to halt biodiversity loss in Europe by 2010, but it is now acknowledged that despite significant progress over recent years additional efforts will be needed. The year 2010 is therefore a key date for biodiversity protection both within the EU and globally. The Athens conference will take stock of where we are in relation to our EU and global commitments, identify the remaining challenges and suggest potential solutions for the period beyond 2010.
Who will take part in the conference?
There will be approximately 230 participants in total, and all Member States will be represented. Some 15 EU Trade Associations and lobby groups will be represented together with 15 NGOs. International organisations including UNEP and CBD together with IUCN and scientists will also be present.
What are the key issues for the conference?
Although the EU has made some good progress in halting the rate of the decline, biodiversity is still in crisis across Europe. Similarly, at the global level, biodiversity is continuing to decline at a rapid rate. The conference will provide a forum for discussing what should happen next, identifying successful elements of current biodiversity policy, and weaknesses that need to be addressed in the future policy.
What is biodiversity?
Biodiversity – "biological diversity" – refers to the variety of life that can be found on Earth. Taken together, these plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms and the communities they form are the vital web of life that supports our existence on this planet. When one section of that web is removed, as in the case of a species extinction, the consequences can be severe and unpredictable.
As a result of human action, our planet is now experiencing biodiversity loss on a massive scale, with rates of extinction that are estimated to be approximately 1000 times higher than normal. Scientists now speak of the sixth major extinction event in geologic history – an event whose consequences no one can foresee.
Why is biodiversity loss a problem?
Biodiversity provides human society with a wide range of benefits in the form of goods such as food, materials, energy and medicines, and services such as carbon storage, climate regulation, flood protection, protection against soil erosion, nutrient cycling and water purification, recreation and leisure.
There is now clear evidence that biodiversity loss has reached a point where we are severely compromising nature's capacity to deliver the goods and services upon which we are so dependent, jeopardizing the possibility of sustainable development. This loss should not be seen as a price to pay for economic development. The problem is far more serious because the potential environmental, economic and social impacts are catastrophic and must be addressed urgently.
Biodiversity protection is about conserving the resilience and vitality of our natural ecosystems both for their intrinsic value and also for the benefits that they provide to human society. Healthy ecosystems constitute our best defence against the worst extremes of weather associated with climate change.
What is the EU doing to stop this loss?
The EU summit of Spring 2001 in Göteborg, Sweden, adopted a political target of halting biodiversity loss in Europe by 2010.
Since then, the EU has taken a number of initiatives to reduce biodiversity loss. The centrepiece of EU policy is the Natura 2000 network, which is based on the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive. Legislation such as the Water Framework Directive, the Marine Strategy Directive, the NEC Directive and the Nitrates directive have also made significant contributions.
What is Natura 2000?
The Natura 2000 network of protected areas is one of the most significant achievements for European environmental policy in the last 20 years. It is now the largest ecological network in the world, and is made up of 25,000 sites and covers approximately 17% of EU territory. Natura 2000 sites are designated under two key pieces of nature legislation, the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, which protect species and habitats. The underlying concept of the network is that economic development and nature protection are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. As long as the ecological value of a site is not undermined new economic activities can and do go on, often benefitting from their location within a Natura 2000 area.
What are the main threats to biodiversity in the EU?
Numerous pressures act on our environment, including climate change, land use change, habitat destruction, pollution and waste disposal, and all of these pose a threat to biodiversity.
Some 34% of EU land is used for crop production and 14% is grassland, so what happens on agricultural land has a profound effect on our biodiversity. Abandonment, intensive farming and irrigation have all had negative effects, with surplus nitrogen from fertilisers for example contributing significantly to the deterioration of both terrestrial and aquatic systems.
The main pressure on marine biodiversity is over-fishing, followed by land-based pollution, although this is generally decreasing. Energy and materials extraction, and marine transport are also potentially significant pressures. In freshwater systems, the pollution load is decreasing.
Climate change is also affecting EU biodiversity. Wetland areas and dune systems appear to be the most affected habitat types, with amphibian species the most sensitive taxonomic group. A recent report produced by BirdLife International indicates that we can expect dramatic shifts in the distribution patterns of European bird species over the next 50 years.
Invasive species introduced intentionally or accidentally into Europe can also have serious negative impacts on native flora and fauna. A recent Communication from the Commission indicates that there are over 10,000 exotic species recorded in Europe, many of which have the potential to harm indigenous species.
Why is biodiversity loss still continuing?
One underlying reason for the continuing decline in biodiversity is a "failure of the market": as with many public goods, the real value of biodiversity is not reflected in its market price. The Commission is attempting to remedy this with its high profile involvement in "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)" initiative. The study has already revealed the enormous scale of the problem: the net present value of services from forests ecosystems that we lose each year, for example, is estimated at between €1.35 trillion and €3.1 trillion.
A second reason for this continuing decline in the EU is a failure to achieve sufficient integration of biodiversity concerns implementation of other policies which have an impact on biodiversity. Boosting integration will therefore be a key challenge for future policy.