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Stavros Dimas

Member of the European Commission, Responsible for Environment

Stopping the loss of biodiversity by 2010:
Why nature matters. Why we are losing it. And what we in Europe can do about it

Green Week Conference
Brussels, 30 May 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to have the chance to open this year’s Green Week and I am honoured to share the stage with so many distinguished guests. Their presence here is a clear proof of the critical importance of the subject we will be discussing over the next four days.

There can be no doubt that stopping the loss of biodiversity and limiting climate change are the two most important challenges facing the planet. And while climate change takes up much of the media attention, in one fundamental way biodiversity loss is an even more serious threat. This is because the degradation of ecosystems often reaches a point of no return – and because extinction is forever.

The reasons for biodiversity loss are well known: destruction of habitats, pollution, over-exploitation, invasive alien species and, most recently, climate change. The compound effect of these forces is terrifying. The global rate of extinction is at least 100 times the natural rate, and an estimated 34,000 plant and 5,200 animal species face extinction. This means one in eight of all bird species, one quarter of all mammals and one third of all amphibians are endangered. Scientists are not exaggerating when they refer to the 6th great planetary extinction. The last was 65 million years ago and saw the departure of the dinosaurs.

This situation explains why, in 2001, the European Union’s leaders set the goal of not only slowing down but actually halting the loss of biodiversity in the EU by 2010. They also joined 130 other world leaders in 2002 to set the global goal of significantly reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.

The Commission’s response to this challenge is the Communication and Action Plan that we adopted last week. The Communication is a firm and unambiguous political commitment from the Barroso Commission to prioritise biodiversity and it is a recognition that existing efforts need to be stepped up. I will present some of the key elements later – but probably the most important aspect of the Communication is that it clearly spells out why biodiversity matters.

There are two fundamental reasons why preserving our natural environment is essential. Each on its own is a compelling reason for action. Taken together they mean that protecting biodiversity must be placed at the top of our political agenda.

The first is that nature has an intrinsic value. Nature is a part of our culture, our history - and even our religions. We have a moral obligation to be careful stewards of the planet. And because ecosystem degradation is often irreversible and species loss is always so, when we destroy nature we are depriving future generations of options for their survival and development. This is not only irresponsible behaviour – it is also unethical.

The second reason is that nature is the foundation for our quality of life. We must be honest and accept that there is a widely held – and entirely wrong – perception that nature protection comes at the cost of economic development. Correcting this myth is the main theme of the Commission’s Communication. Its key messages are that our prosperity is underpinned by healthy ecosystems and that ecosystems - both in the EU and worldwide - are far from healthy. They are, in fact, in dangerous decline.

This is also the message of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. This UN document is the product of thousands of scientists worldwide and at its core is the concept of 'ecosystem services.' These services include:

  • the provision of goods – food, fibre, fuel and medicines;
  • the regulation of the air we breathe and the quality of our waters;
  • soil fertility, pollination and other essential support services; and
  • cultural benefits – from aesthetic enjoyment to spiritual solace.

These ecosystem services are the life-support system upon which our well-being depends. We take these goods and services so much for granted that we can only see how important they are when they are gone. And yet, the Millennium Assessment concludes that two-thirds of these services are in decline.

There is no shortage of examples of what biodiversity loss means in practice:

  • The collapse of the Newfoundland cod industry - which was caused by over-fishing – led to the loss of thousands of jobs, the devastation of the local community and the financial costs ran into billions of Canadian dollars.
  • The destruction of New Orleans would have been much less severe if protective coastal wetlands had not been destroyed.
  • The impact of the Asian tsunami would have been significantly reduced if coastal mangroves were not so fragmented.

These are the front page examples. And there are many more cases that are less grand in scale and less sudden in their occurrence ... but, when taken together, represent a major drain on our economies. They range from depleted fish stocks to declining soil fertility - from pollinator collapses to the spread of invasive species which clog industrial systems. And with genetic resources we simply don’t know the potential importance of what is being lost. Restoring these ecosystem services, even in those cases where this is possible, is a lengthy and costly process.

Nature underpins our economies. Studies from the UK have shown that economic activities based on the natural environment contribute €100 billion every year to the English economy. In Wales an estimated 1 in 6 of the workforce depends on the environment for employment. And in Scotland nearly as many people are employed in natural heritage activities as are employed in biotechnology, call centres and electronics combined. The same is true in other European countries and in the rest of the world. In Costa Rica eco-tourism is now the most important sector in the economy overtaking coffee and bananas.

China is a country of superlatives and economic competition with China is often given as a reason why we cannot afford high levels of environmental protection. But when you look more closely at the reality in China it provides a case study of the enormous costs of inaction.

Twenty years of unchecked growth means that some 20% of land is affected by soil erosion. 75% of lakes and almost all coastal waters are classified as polluted. 90% of grasslands are degraded. Deforestation is so acute that the government has banned logging in natural forests which is improving the situation in China but has had the effect of sucking in timber resources from its neighbours

China is beginning to address these issues but the costs are enormous. The damages caused by water and air pollution have been calculated as €42 billion a year. The annual damages caused by desertification are €33 billion. The “Green Great Wall” reforestation project which aims to protect Beijing from dust and pollution will cost €6 billion. Taken together these costs represent 8% of China’s GDP.

Biodiversity loss is my loss and your loss. It is a drain on our economies and it reduces the quality of our lives. It is clear that ecosystem health is fundamental to any sustainable strategy for economic development.

We know the scale of the problem. We know why biodiversity loss is such a threat. And this leads on to the key question that we will be looking at over the next four days: what can Europe do to prevent the current levels of destruction and meet its 2010 targets?

There is in fact a long history of action from our Member States to protect their natural heritage. But by the 1970s it had become apparent that, just as nature does not respect national borders, we would need to take international action in order to protect our nature. The 1979 Birds Directive was followed in 1992 by the Habitats Directive – and with these two instruments we have established a network of protected areas that covers Europe’s most important habitats, and taken action for our most threatened species.

This legislation was a massive step forwards. Prior to the Habitats Directive there was a patchwork of unconnected areas with different standards of protection. This made it impossible to understand the problems facing Europe’s biodiversity let alone begin to address them. And by taking a cross border approach we are now able to protect entire ecosystems which rarely end at national borders.

We have called this network NATURA 2000, and it covers some 18% of the territory of the 15 countries that were Member States before the last enlargement. It is currently being extended to the 10 new Member States and also to the marine environment. The area covered is already greater than Germany and when completed will be greater than France. NATURA 2000 will be the EU’s largest territorial entity – larger than any member state.

NATURA 2000 is the cornerstone of our policy to protect Europe’s biodiversity. It sets a model for nature protection – science-driven, legally enforceable and based upon ecosystems as the basic unit. But it is also a very flexible system and I would like to use this opportunity to correct one of the common misconceptions about Natura 2000 – which is that once a site is designated all economic activities have to stop. This is simply not true. Europe’s countryside is typified by an active relationship between man and nature and the NATURA network consists of living landscapes. Farming, fishing, forestry and hunting can all continue. And even major development projects can be carried out on the proviso that that there are no alternatives, that they in the “overriding public interest” and if compensatory measures are taken.

Through NATURA 2000 we are addressing one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss – that of habitat loss. But we area also taking decisive action to address other key drivers: the European Union is at the forefront of the international fight against climate change and we have strict legislation against air, water and chemical pollution.

A key part of the EU approach has been to integrate biodiversity concerns into all aspects of environmental legislation. Our Water Framework Directive sets the objective of water with a ‘good ecological status’. And the management structure of this legislation is based on river basins – an ecosystem approach – rather than according to national boundaries. Similarly, the Commission’s recent initiative on the Marine Environment introduces an ‘ecosystem approach’ to the management of Europe’s seas which we are determined will be brought back to a ‘good environmental condition’.

And although it is more difficult, progress has also been made integrating biodiversity concerns into non-environment policy areas such as the Common Agricultural Policy where we are moving away from seeing farmers as simply producers of food to seeing them as guardians of nature.

Against this background the main focus of last week’s Communication is on accelerating implementation. The policy framework is already largely in place and I am convinced that, when implemented in full, we will be able to meet our 2010 target in the EU and contribute to the global 2010 target. The Communication also contains a number of innovations and I would like to highlight four key issues. First, the Communication proposes an EU Action Plan to 2010 and Beyond. This is new in three important ways:

  • it specifies actions targeted at delivering on our 2010 commitments, both at the community and at the global level;
  • it is addressed to both community institutions and Member States, and specifies the roles and responsibilities of each;
  • it provides a clear set of targets and indicators against which to evaluate our progress in 2010.

Second, the Communication announces the establishment of a new EU mechanism for independent, authoritative, research-based advice to inform implementation and help with policy development. We have here in Europe outstanding expertise on these issues, and it is essential that knowledge is translated into policy and appropriate action.

Thirdly, the Action Plan identifies areas where new policy initiatives will be developed. One will be will be assessing the real impact of trade on biodiversity and then elaborating appropriate measures. Another will be the development of a comprehensive EU response to the problem of alien species – which had previously been a gap in our policy framework. And to improve our own decision making we will need to find a better way of evaluating the costs and benefits relating to natural capital and ecosystem services.

Finally, the Communication launches an EU debate on a vision for nature and for future policy. What kind of nature do we want? How can we make our legislation more effective in protecting nature and at the same time easier to implement? How can the EU take a leadership role protecting biodiversity at the global level? This is an issue that touches every citizen and also our relations with the rest of the world and I believe that this could be one of the most vital and, indeed, vitalising, debates on the future of Europe.

Ladies and Gentlemen.

I began by noting that climate change and the sustainable use of biodiversity are of equal importance for the future of our planet. But in one important way they are different since stopping the loss of biodiversity is not yet a mainstream political priority in the way that climate change is.

I find this surprising since our citizens are greatly interested in nature and wildlife issues. Television documentaries on wildlife are hugely popular and nature NGOs have millions of members across Europe. But this widespread concern still needs to be translated into a determined and coordinated political effort that is equivalent to the effort the international community is making on climate change. It is the job of politicians – and not just environment ministers – to have the political vision and courage to lead this effort.

Improving information is the key. Once they are better informed about what biodiversity loss actually means - economically, environmentally and ethically – our citizens will demand action. This is the reason why I have chosen to dedicate this year’s Green Week to the subject of biodiversity. I would therefore like to finish by inviting you all to listen, and contribute during the events over the next four days – and to take away with you at the end of the week the message that biodiversity matters.

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