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SPEECH/ 10/59

Janez P otočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Where next for the EU Commission's biodiversity policy?

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

WWF Evening Dialogue on Biodiversity (at the Bavarian Representation to the EU)

Brussels, 2 March 2010

Princess Laurentien

Dr Soder

Dear Joe and Honourable Members of the European Parliament

Ladies and Gentlemen

How fitting that this event should be held in a converted research institute – I am a 'recycled' research Commissioner speaking to you in a recycled building! And as we are so close to the European Parliament; MEPs will not have had to use up too many resources to get here.

This is my first 'portfolio' speech as Environment Commissioner, but not the first time I have spoken about biodiversity.

Only a few weeks ago I appeared at my hearing as Commissioner designate.

Then, I spoke about biodiversity being one of my priority areas. Indeed, how could anyone not put biodiversity loss at the top of their global 'to do' list?

I don't say this only because this is the 'International Year of Biodiversity Loss' - I say it because we really don't have any time to lose. This is fact.

I know that in front of this audience, I am probably preaching to the converted, but let me give you a reality check anyway:

  • In Europe, 1 in 6 mammal species are threatened with extinction – marine mammals being particularly at risk; birds too.

  • More than a quarter of the European mammal population is declining with the chance that more species will become threatened.

  • The global situation is bleaker. Our growing global footprint is stamping down hard on ecosystem after ecosystem – 60% of ecosystem services have been degraded in the last 50 years.

And we are the bad guys in this story!

Land-use change, over-exploitation, unsustainable practices, pollution and the introduction of invasive species which have led to habitat and species destruction.

You will have heard the expression the 'Sixth Great Extinction'; could it really be any clearer?

And to those people who still close their eyes and ears and believe that everything will be alright in the end …I have to say:

It won't.

It won't because nature's future is our future. If it falls, we fall too. And the potential risks go across the board: from micro-level changes to the collapse of entire ecosystems and services; things like the provision of food and water and climate regulation. These are the vital backbone of our future prosperity and well being.

They are a crucial slice of life.

Biodiversity is vital to European policy. Our objectives depend on vibrant biodiversity for food security and climate change – where healthy ecosystems are better at adapting to its impacts - and to sustain livelihoods in such diverse sectors as farming, fisheries and tourism.

And as an economist I appreciate just how closely maintaining biodiversity as part of a healthy ecosystem complements our aims for long term economic prosperity. The recent study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) shows us again how expensive it is to destroy our natural world. They even managed to put an estimated price tag on it: By 2050, the cost of doing nothing about terrestrial biodiversity loss would amount to about 7% of global consumption.

I won't say more about the TEEB study, not because it isn't important – it is. But I don't want to spoil the presentation for Pavan Sukhdev, the TEEB's study leader, who will be speaking next!

So things are very, very gloomy. And we are a long way from the bold aims announced back in 2001 when the EU set out to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by 2010.

And maybe gloomier still when we are pretty sure we will miss this target.

However, I would not be doing my job if I did not take some time to list some of our achievements since then.

Because we have achieved a lot and we can – up to a certain point – be proud of our achievements in Europe.

I mean things like:

  • The fact that Natura 2000 now covers an area almost as big as the whole of France and Italy! It is the biggest network of protected areas in the world and it is still expanding – especially at sea. It has halted the destruction and degradation of vital habitats such as wetlands, which are now better protected across Europe than ever before.

  • The Birds Directive, which has had a significant positive impact in protecting many of the continent's most threatened birds in its Special Protection Areas.

  • The Water Framework Directive and the Marine Framework Directive, both of which make an enormous contribution to the protection of biodiversity in Europe.

Like I said, these are real achievements , but we have to be realistic. Because as the old saying goes 'pride comes before a fall'….and at the risk of depressing us all, I have to repeat that our failure to halt biodiversity loss can mean only one thing…we have a lot of work still to do if we want to stop the destruction.

Part of this work will mean looking hard at ourselves and asking a simple question:

Why did we miss our biodiversity target?

Unfortunately there is no one simple answer. Off the top of my head, I could give you six contributing reasons:

  • Breaches of EU nature legislation

  • Lack of money

  • Knowledge gaps

  • Failure to build in biodiversity protection into other policies

  • 'new' threats, like climate change

  • Policy gaps – such as the lack of a comprehensive policy on invasive species or a failure to get agreement on the Soil Framework Directive…soil hosts one quarter of the planet's biodiversity, by the way

They might not necessarily come in this order…but these are the issues we have to address. And we will address them.

And I am glad that we have the International Year of Biodiversity as our 'backdrop'.

As part of the year, a number of new global and EU post-2010 targets will be adopted. Throughout the EU there have already been a number of International Year celebrations and initiatives.

This is an excellent start, particularly given our recent history. You may have heard of the expression "charity fatigue", a modern phenomenon where people stop giving after being exposed to too many appeals. I think it is clear that after Copenhagen, many people in Europe might have found themselves suffering from "environment fatigue". We are fighting hard to stop this happening with biodiversity. The fact that it isn't happening shows just how important and urgent it is.

I know I'm repeating myself – I make no apology for it.

Because, ladies and gentlemen, we have a very short space of time in which to make an impact. In October this year, in Nagoya, Japan, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, will agree a new global strategic plan for biodiversity beyond 2010. If the EU wants to justify its place at the top table, we have to go there with a clear vision of our own post-2010 biodiversity policy.

This vision is becoming clearer. In January we adopted a Communication, setting out a long term vision and identifying different levels of ambition for the EU's mid-term targets.

We are not asking for much….just some basic rules for saving our planet!

If I may quote from the communication, what we want is that:

…biodiversity and the ecosystem services we get for free from nature are preserved, valued and, insofar as possible, restored for their intrinsic value, enabling them to support economic prosperity and human well-being, and averting any catastrophic changes linked to biodiversity loss.

Let me put it a slightly different way: biodiversity is the natural engine for our future, we must not mess it up and if we do, we will pay a very heavy cost…

We have options for how we will frame our vision in more detail – I won't go into those now. I know that the WWF, just as other NGOs in the field, have their own opinion on what we should say and what we should do. I really do not think we are very far apart. Rather I think we are united in enthusiasm for our subject and a will to be bold now.

* *


Ladies and Gentlemen

We exist in a political world and our environmental work cannot be immune from the targets and cycles of European politics.

This is why I am pleased that the Spanish Presidency aims to reach agreement on the EU post-2010 vision and target at the European Council in March, and would like to once again thank Spain for its dedication to this important issue.

Let me tell you how we will proceed: once the EU post-2010 vision and target have been agreed, the Commission will develop a strategy by the end of 2010 setting out what needs to be done practically to enable the EU to achieve the new target.

The most important thing for us now will be to act. I do not like empty slogans or unworkable or overly ambitious strategies. Our aim must be to confront head-on a crisis that is often talked about, but that has so far not been tackled with the sufficient energy and commitment needed to reverse the trend.

Once we have this commitment – and I know it's out there – we are going to have to really take the issue 'by the horns'. This will mean:

  • Assessing the role and value of biodiversity's natural capital at regional and national level if we are to protect it more effectively. Here the TEEB study will be invaluable;

  • Using the highest-quality information. At all levels – national, regional and global – the measuring and monitoring of ecosystems and their capacity to deliver services needs to be significantly improved. We must have a solid baseline on which policies can be built. Here I will be looking directly to the EEA.

Measuring is so important – because something as big as biodiversity is almost impossible to describe and just as difficult to measure. This means we need to be clear about where we are starting from to measure progress effectively. But we can't wait any more – we know enough about the size of the challenge to start without any further delay.

This is echoed on a wider scale, where there is a need to improve the global biodiversity knowledge base. One idea would be to 'clone' the model of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change into a similar body for biodiversity – an Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). A body such as this would give us credibility AND influence…a winning combination.

I would even suggest going further. Because we have to be able to fully factor biodiversity into the policymaking cycle and put it on a par with other economic considerations. We also need to develop new approaches to economic measurement that reflect changes in our natural capital stocks and 'beyond GDP' indicators.

Our new Commission is building a base document, the EU2020 strategy, which will define our work for the next five years and hopefully give us something to be proud of beyond that. This is as I speak, being put into its final form. I have been working hard to ensure that this strategy helps the EU to prosper in a low-carbon, resource constrained world, AND acts to prevent environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and the unsustainable use of resources. These are, I suggest, the ways to preserve our natural assets – those same assets on which our long-term prosperity is based.

At the International Year launch event in Berlin in January, Chancellor Merkel demanded more effort in tackling biodiversity loss. She added that it needs to be done "here, now, immediately – not some time in the future".

How right she was. There are only 8 months to go until we meet in Japan. The truth is, a lot could go wrong in that time – but if we get it right, we have so much tto gain.

Thank you.

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