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Stavros DIMAS

Member of the European Commission, responsible for environment

Will the EU meet its 2010 target? What more needs to be done?

EU Biodiversity Action Plan Conference, EP
Brussels, 11 February 2009

Ladies and gentlemen,

Biodiversity is one of my political priorities and I would like to thank the honourable members for this invitation.

You are our key partners in the process of developing and shaping policy and this meeting gives us a chance to focus political attention on the critical issue of protecting nature. It is an issue that is not – yet – on the top of agendas in the same way that climate change is. But there can be no other political issue that is more important or more fundamental. It is, quite literally, the future of life on Earth.

It is also worth noting that one of the main reasons we care about climate change is because of the threat it poses to ecosystems and species. Protecting biodiversity needs to be given the same political attention as combating climate change. It is only once this happens that we will have a realistic chance of stopping biodiversity loss.

The recent assessment of the EU’s Biodiversity Action Plan is similar to a school report card. It lets us look at the progress we are making - and if it was a school report it would probably read:

“Has made good efforts over recent years – but must do considerably better”

The EU Biodiversity Action Plan was adopted by the Commission in 2006. It is a joined-up agenda for Community institutions and Member States. It covers the entire range of policies that affect nature and as we look at its implementation there are a number of encouraging findings.

The terrestrial NATURA 2000 network, which is the cornerstone of our policy to protect Europe's biodiversity, is nearing completion. With 25,000 sites NATURA now covers an area larger than any single member state. It is the largest network of protected areas in the world and is, without question, one of the most significant achievements in EU environment policy.

Another positive development was the scientific confirmation that our policies are having a real impact. A report in the journal Science concluded that the Birds Directive – the EU’s oldest nature law, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – has made a significant contribution to halting the decline of many of Europe’s most threatened birds.

The Habitats directive is playing a major role in stabilising the numbers of mammals like bears, wolves, and other large carnivore species.

Our legal system demonstrated that it has teeth. Landmark rulings of the Court of Justice mean that there is no motorway cutting through the Rospuda Valley in Poland and that Spring hunting in countries such as Italy and Malta has been brought to an end.

We have made progress in many areas. But the mid-term assessment serves as a ‘health check’ as well as a report card. If we look at the bigger picture - in an honest and objective way - it is clear that Europe's biodiversity is not in a healthy state.

Half of European species of conservation concern remain either threatened or vulnerable.

The situations with habitats is worse with 80% currently threatened or vulnerable.

The "unprecedented effort", which has been called for on many occasions, is not yet happening. And with 2010 less than a year away it is almost certain that we will not meet the official EU target of halting the loss of biodiversity.

But this is not an admission of despair – it should be a call for action. The plan is in place and, as a result of exercises like the mid-term assessment, we have a very good idea of what has to be done.

We have to consolidate Natura 2000.

Additional efforts are needed to finalise the network - especially for marine areas. We will also need to develop effective site management and to support restoration work.

As we consider the revision of the Community budget we will need to have a long look to see if the approach of integrating NATURA into other funds is actually working. To borrow an old saying, "conservation without funding is simply conversation". If the integration approach is not working then we will need to develop another approach.

The most recent estimates of the cost for effectively managing NATURA is €6 billion a year. This is a huge amount of money. But it is less than one third of the annual profits announced last week by Shell. It is approximately the price of building one nuclear power station. It is equivalent to one Euro per month for each EU citizen. To protect European nature this looks like a positive bargain.

In addition to building up the policies that we have already developed we also need to address important gaps in our biodiversity policy:

The consumption patterns of the EU have an enormous ecological impact on the rest of the world. We need a better understanding of how our demand for commodities such as soya, palm oil and metal ore contributes to global biodiversity loss. This will provide the basis to put in place appropriate policy responses.

With soil protection there is still a need for an effective legal framework to be put in place.

With marine ecosystems many fish stocks in European waters are outside safe biological limits. Some species are on the verge of collapse. We need to find a way of ensuring that the principles of sustainable fishing that the Commission is promoting are actually applied by Member States.

Although it was designed to stop food surpluses the policy of set-aside brought huge benefits for biodiversity. Now that set-aside land has been brought back into cultivation Member States must be encouraged to compensate for this loss by channelling rural development funding towards protecting biodiversity.

The projected expansion of crops dedicated to biomass and biofuels could present risks to biodiversity. The recent renewables directive sets out sustainability criteria for biofuels - but we need to ensure that these are correctly and strictly applied.

We also need to ensure that the development of new sources of renewable energy is not done at the expense of nature.

Finally, invasive species are a major threat to European biodiversity. Controlling them and repairing the damage they do is estimated to cost European economies at least €12 billion each year. The Commission has presented policy options for tackling invasive species and we look forward to Parliament's support for an ambitious EU strategy in 2010.

Ladies and Gentlemen

The loss of biodiversity is a global threat that is every bit as serious as climate change.

They are challenges that are fundamentally linked. It will not be possible to halt the loss of biodiversity without addressing climate change. But neither can we tackle climate change if we fail to protect the ecosystems that help us mitigate and adapt to climate change.

To take one example, tropical forests are not only home to half of all land-based species but tropical deforestation is responsible for some 20% of global green house gas emissions – about 50% more than the entire emissions from the EU.

To give another example, the destruction of wetlands around New Orleans removed nature’s safety barrier against extreme weather events. As a result the impact of the Hurricane Katrina was much more severe than it would otherwise have been.

It is important to learn the lessons from the way that climate change has become a political issue that now engages world leaders.

Firstly, we need to get the science right.

We must develop the knowledge base that underpins the delivery of our biodiversity policy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a Nobel Prize winning model and the Commission is actively supporting the establishment of a similar Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services.

Secondly, we need to get the economics right.

The Stern Review transformed the debate on climate by attaching a price tag to the cost of unchecked climate change. It became clear to policy makers that the costs of inaction were many times greater than the costs of cutting emissons. As a result it became easier to make the political argument for ambitious emission cuts. The Commission and Germany have launched a similar project looking at the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity. The main results are due later this year and a better understanding of the true social and economic cost of biodiversity loss will help spread the understanding that protecting nature would be cheap at twice the price.

And, thirdly, we need to get the communications right.

We need to send a clear message to the world, to individuals, to governments and to businesses, that protecting biodiversity cannot wait. Once a species is extinct it is lost for ever. We don’t yet have an Al Gore for nature but the Commission is preparing a Communications Strategy and we are already looking towards a post-2010 vision which will recognise the critical role of healthy ecosystems and set new ambitious targets for biodiversity.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Halting the loss of biodiversity is one of the great challenges of our time. A lot of good work has been done, but it seems that we will miss our 2010 target and we are fully aware that we “must do considerably better”.

On 27 and 28 April, the European Commission will host a high-level stakeholder conference in Athens, to look at practical ways in which we can move forward over the coming years. We hope that this event will provide a launch-pad for designing the actions which will make the report card for 2020 conclude that:

"Biodiversity in Europe has been successfully safeguarded and that the approach taken by Europe is providing an inspiration for the rest of the world."

You are key partners in this process, and I look forward to the European Parliament's active participation in the debates that will shape the post 2010 biodiversity strategy.

Thank you for your attention.

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