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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

"Concepts and Conservation of Natural Capital – issues for conserving global biodiversity by 2050"

Cambridge Conservation Initiative

University of Cambridge, Judge Business School, 15 September 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very pleased to be here in Cambridge. Not only because it is a beautiful city, but also because it is a place rightly famous for new thought and insight. What other University could boast Charles Darwin, Oliver Cromwell, J M Keynes AND Ali G1 among its alumni!

But seriously, I have been looking forward to this event.

I will, if I may, first describe our global point of departure. This is the century of fragility. Our world is both more inter-connected and at the same time, more multi-polar - change is quick and deep. Some have called it the 'great acceleration', a period when our resource use has multiplied massively and we deal – almost daily – with pandemics, economic crises, floods, food security scares and an increasingly ageing society. I am convinced that we need to work hardest on two crucial issues - sustainability and governance - if we are to be able to keep up with these global problems. We need togetherness to build a new kind of raison d'être.

This is why I was delighted to see how this important conference brings together scientists, conservation practitioners, businesses and policy makers, to share ideas and join efforts to address the biodiversity crisis. We are at a crucial point just one month ahead of the 10th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan, which is expected to adopt a strategic plan for global biodiversity for the next 10 years. We are also actively engaged in developing our own EU biodiversity strategy.

It is, to put it mildly, an active area of policy. There is increasing recognition that conserving biodiversity is not just about protecting species and habitats for their own sake. It is also about maintaining nature's capacity to deliver goods and services that we all need, and whose loss comes at a high price.

Despite previous commitments and considerable efforts made so far, all the evidence is that the destruction is continuing – in the EU and at global level. The third Global Biodiversity Outlook published last May shows that the main pressures on biodiversity persist and in some cases have intensified in recent years. These trends are projected to continue destroying and degrading natural habitats and to cause major changes in species abundance and distribution.

As a consequence, we risk reaching ecosystem "tipping points" and the subsequent loss of essential services: the depletion of world fish stocks; global deforestation, from the Amazon to the rain forests of the Congo Basin and of Southeast Asia; the collapse of coral reefs, on which millions of people depend every single day. The rural poor in particular in developing countries are likely to be the most directly affected by these losses, but our economies and quality of life also depend on natural ecosystems in so many ways.

In Europe, we consume about twice as much as our land and seas produce: for what we can't produce ourselves we increasingly depend on the natural resources of other countries and continents. But ecological footprints are growing in an increasing number of countries. Already now, one and a half planet Earths would be needed to enable us to maintain our current consumption and production patterns.

We urgently need to start seeing the loss of biodiversity for what it is: a fundamental indicator of the unsustainability of our societies, which are running down their natural capital.

There is a new view. The concept of ecosystems as economically productive systems at the core of our natural capital is gaining ground. They are being seen as assets that produce a flow of beneficial goods and services over time. Like other assets in the economy, they can be depleted or degraded, or they can be to some extent increased through restoration.

Today the value of these natural assets is not properly reflected in standard economic indicators and national accounts, and generally not adequately considered when decisions are made about projects and policies affecting land use and resource management.

As demonstrated in the reports of the TEEB study that we launched with our German colleagues in 2007, we must learn to value nature if we are to protect it more effectively. The frequent “invisibility” of the values of the natural capital has been one major underlying cause of its continuing degradation, as ecosystems are being converted, over-exploited and degraded in the interest of other options which appear to yield higher profits. However, decisions made on the basis of flawed information have often incurred large economic costs.

The problem is that many of the values of ecosystem services are not reflected in markets, and they are also often not well understood. Traditionally, economists have seen the value of natural ecosystems only in terms of the raw materials and physical products that they generate for human production and consumption, with special focus on commercial activities and profits. These uses however represent only a small proportion of the total value of ecosystems. In addition, when ecosystem services have market prices, such as in the case of water provisioning, these prices are not always a good approximation of value.

Estimating the value of ecosystem services gives rise to particular difficulties. One of them is uncertainty about their future value: for example the value of carbon sequestration was not appreciated until recently. The irreversibility of many losses, and the value of ecosystem resilience – which is becoming increasingly important with the growing need to adapt to climate change – are also very important aspects but which are difficult to integrate into valuations. Finally, despite the substantial amount of recent and on-going research, there remain substantial gaps in knowledge on ecosystem functioning and on the link between biodiversity and the provision of services.

However, as abundantly illustrated by TEEB, the valuation of ecosystem services can already provide a powerful tool to improve public and private decisions and better manage our natural capital. The economic benefits of conservation frequently exceed those from activities which are based on ecosystem conversion or degradation.

Good management also depends on the availability and quality of data. At all levels – national, regional and global – the measuring and monitoring of ecosystems and their capacity to deliver services needs to be significantly improved to develop a solid baseline on which policies can be built. It is encouraging to note the multiplication of national initiatives to assess ecosystems and their services. At the EU level work is on-going at European Environment Agency and at the Joint Research Centre, for example, for quantifying and mapping ecosystem services in the EU.

A very positive development is the recent international agreement reached in Busan, South Korea (and which will hopefully find the support of the UN General Assembly when it meets in a few days), that an Intergovernmental science-policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services is needed and should be established. Solid, credible scientific information about biodiversity and ecosystem services to inform decision-making is crucial for the effective integration of biodiversity concerns into other policies.

We also need to develop ecosystem accounts, preferably in a format that can be eventually integrated with national economic accounts. Only then will it be possible to fully factor biodiversity into the policymaking cycle and put it on a par with other economic considerations. The Commission is supporting on-going international efforts. The European Environment Agency and Eurostat are collaborating with other organisations with a view to elaborating ecosystem accounts and developing internationally accepted methods.

There is increased recognition of the need to develop new approaches to measurement of economic growth and national wealth that reflect changes in our natural capital stocks. In its recent communication on "GDP and beyond", the Commission confirmed its commitment to play an active role in the development of such indicators, building on international and Member States efforts.

In parallel with efforts to develop the knowledge base and better measure our natural capital, it is of course essential that the maintenance of the capacity of ecosystems to deliver services, and the integration of their economic values, are already clearly articulated in biodiversity policies and strategies.

The International Year of Biodiversity is a golden opportunity to show our common commitment to life in our planet. Next month, the 193 Parties to the Convention are set to adopt a Strategic Plan for the next 10 years, with a long-term vision and headline target for global biodiversity.

The European Heads of State have already committed to an ambitious vision and headline target for biodiversity. In March, a long-term 2050 vision for biodiversity and an accompanying 'headline target' for 2020 was adopted by the Council and subsequently endorsed by EU Heads of State and government at the Spring European Council. The aim of the new target is to halt biodiversity loss and, beyond that, to take action to actually improve the status of biodiversity and ecosystems where possible, to enable them to effectively provide the services we need most.

The new target also incorporates ecosystem services, which were not covered explicitly in the former target, as well as a global dimension, committing the EU to step up its efforts to address global biodiversity loss, recognising that we depend also on biodiversity and ecosystem services in the rest of the world.

Achieving the new target in 10 years' time will require that we set priorities and really focus our efforts on actions that will make a difference.

The Commission is now developing a new biodiversity strategy for the EU. We are leaning towards a strategy built around a set of 6 sub-targets focused on a mixture of ecosystems, driving forces, pressures and responses.

The strategy will substantially benefit from the full implementation of the EU's existing nature legislation. In that context, the adequate management of the Natura 2000 network and its sufficient financing will be of key importance.

Integration with other sectoral policies should remain a key priority. The review of the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policies, and the debate about the post-2013 EU financial perspectives offer unparalleled opportunities to ensure that our 2020 biodiversity target is reflected in the outcomes of these processes. This is also an opportunity for the EU to show that different policy objectives can be coherent and mutually reinforcing.

As part of the new EU biodiversity strategy, we will focus a specific sub-target on efforts to increase the resilience of ecosystems, prevent their further degradation and fragmentation, and restore them to the greatest extent possible. This will involve investing in "Green Infrastructure" as part of the EU’s natural capital.

We are keen to ensure that our own strategy is compatible with the global strategy. Compatible, but not necessarily identical. In adopting our target before the global one, we wanted to set a marker for the level of ambition that should be expected of one of the most developed regions of the world faced with a deep crisis.

In doing so, we have reaffirmed our commitment to addressing this serious challenge within Europe, but also to stepping up our contribution to global efforts to address it. Although the richness of Europe's biodiversity should not be underestimated, most of the world's emblematic biodiversity is found elsewhere and in particular in the developing world. Funding biodiversity projects and programmes in developing countries will remain a key aspect. In addition, we can do more to address our ecological footprint, including through our upcoming Initiative on resource efficiency.

I would like to finish by inviting you to share your views with the Commission on what should be the main elements of the new EU Biodiversity Strategy. To do so, I would encourage you to reply to our internet consultation (My Voice in Europe) which is open until 22 October.

Thank you. I wish you a very successful and productive day.

1 :

Sacha Baron Cohen – creator of Ali G, Borat and Bruno - went to Christ's, Cambridge

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