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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

How conservation might evolve over the next 50 years

WWF's 50th Anniversary

Zürich, 29 April 2011

Let me start by offering my very warmest congratulations to the Worldwide Fund for Nature on the splendid results achieved over the last 50 years. I am pleased that you have been able to count on the support of the European Union and I hope that we can continue to give it over the next 50 years.

As an aside, I can tell you that I still have the stuffed panda with which you presented me in Brussels last year – it has a special place in my living room together with two stuffed dogs I have received from my friends. So I am always reminded of conservation.

Which brings me to today's topic. We have been asked to consider how conservation might evolve over the next 50 years.

The European Union has already adopted a vision of where we want our nature and biodiversity to be in 2050.

That vision, which was endorsed by the 27 EU heads of state and government, is of biodiversity and ecosystem services that, forty years from now, are protected, valued and appropriately restored. I would hope that another ten years down the line, the situation will have improved even more.

This vision is based on three key considerations:

  • firstly, ethical: biodiversity should be protected for its intrinsic value;

  • secondly, self interest: biodiversity and ecosystem services are essential to human wellbeing and economic prosperity. They are our natural capital and as such it is in our own self-interest to conserve and restore them;

  • and lastly, self preservation: if we do not succeed in stopping biodiversity loss, we will push some ecosystems past tipping points, beyond which changes become irreversible and, possibly, catastrophic.

The vision was accompanied by a headline target for 2020: a kind of staging post en route to 2050. What is still needed is the way to get us there.

We are exactly four days away from the date of adoption by the Commission of a new EU biodiversity strategy.

This strategy, once endorsed by the EU Member States, will determine the EU's approach to biodiversity conservation over the next decade. It will, hopefully, set the EU on the right track towards reaching the headline target and, ultimately, the 2050 vision.

So what is different about the approach taken in the new strategy that will enable us to reach our ambitious objectives, knowing we failed in reaching those we set ourselves in 2010?

I think I can be reasonably sure of keeping my job if I share the main outline, but not the details, since those are still subject to debate with my colleagues.

The first point is that we should focus on biodiversity as our natural capital; it therefore includes targets and actions not just to conserve the biodiversity we still have left, but to go beyond that and actively restore nature, improve the conservation status of species and habitats, and enhance ecosystem services.

Second is that the approach we are taking this time is to focus targets and actions on the main causes of biodiversity loss in the EU – and all its many negative effects in terms of long-term food security, vulnerability to climate change, energy security, and continued access to water or to critical raw materials.

The six areas for action and the main targets will be to build on the strong framework of protected sites and EU's advanced legislation in this area; to reverse degradation and connect this with green infrastructures; to ensure that agriculture, forestry and fisheries do their share; to step up the battle against invasive alien species on a continental level; and to play our part in the global fight.

So we are focusing on key sectors that present the biggest threat to nature, but also have the biggest potential to help it. These sectors are principally agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. They have to take ownership of their part of the targets and implement the actions necessary to achieve them. They need to play a more prominent role in conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. This summer, shortly after we adopt the strategy, new proposals for Europe's agriculture and fisheries polices will be adopted in line with its objectives. The outcome of political debate on these proposals will probably have more effect on the success or failure of conservationism in Europe than anything else. The strategy will also include targets focused on tackling the main causes of biodiversity loss in the EU – and all its many negative effects in terms of long-term food security, vulnerability to climate change, energy security, and continued access to water or to critical raw materials.

In doing so, the EU will not only be fulfilling biodiversity-related objectives; it will also be contributing to our overarching policy objective of promoting resource efficiency in its widest sense.

I dare to predict that this is actually the main issue for the future of conservation. Transformation of our economies and society are probably the only chance for success in suitable management of natural capital. For this reason I am pushing for resource efficiency to be integrated into all Europe's policies. Resource efficiency needs to become a key principle for businesses, investors and consumers in order to steer them towards the kind of systemic change which is necessary to achieve sustainability.

In the EU we are working on this through what we call a resource-efficient Europe. I am working on a Roadmap to provide further policy guidance for action at EU and national level in this field. This will also provide some tools for monitoring progress as of next year.

One of the most important tasks will be to create or strengthen the market signals for resource efficiency, addressing both the supply and the demand side. It will have to cover a wide range of areas of the economy and the resources that it uses. Some key ways of achieving the goal are to:

  • establish a long-term vision of where we want to be in 2050;

  • identify objectives for 2020 as stepping stones to the long-term goals;

  • develop the right set of indicators, and possibly targets, in order to assess progress; remember that what gets measured gets managed;

  • achieve greater coherence between policies;

  • identify the scope for policy action at national, European and international level.

We have seen quite some success in Europe's response to climate change. We have made our objectives a law and we managed to arrive at internal redistribution of burden sharing. We were able to do that by using ethical arguments and by emphasising that it is economic potential and self preservation that require us to do so. And if we remember that global resource use will keep increasing, with all the consequent scarcities, and depletion of nature and wildlife, we know that we actually have no option other than putting sustainability in the centre of our policy creation.

I should say very clearly that it is probably futile for Europe to make these efforts if the rest of the world carries on consuming resources unsustainably. I am not pretending that Europe is the only good guy here - far from it if we look at the historical picture - but it is an absolutely irrefutable fact that global consumption of resources will be a key challenge in the future.

The world will have a good opportunity to shape a response at the Rio+20 Conference in Rio De Janeiro in 2012.

Rio+20 can mark the start of global transition to what many call a green economy.

The Commission aims to publish a Communication in June this year to map out the key dimensions of what is needed to enable the transition to a green economy, proposing examples of specific actions.

Key areas that we see as regards a future Green Economy, include: Water and access to renewable Energy, Oceans/Marine, Sustainable Agriculture, Materials, Waste, Recycling. All this needs to be coupled with establishing regulatory and market conditions, such as: green incentives, eco-taxes, removal of harmful subsidies and mobilising public and private financial resources. One important area is better governance: improving international governance will require institutional changes and greater business involvement.

There is no question that the next 50 years will throw up all kinds of challenges – not just for conservation but for all the other ways in which we use the earth's resources. We need to keep our eyes firmly on the future and to adapt our behaviour in such a way that we can sustain our planet and ensure that we can continue to live as we would like.

For this we need to work together. Environmental NGOs have an important role to play in enhancing participative democracy via their networks, acting as channels between citizens and decision-makers. NGOs also have a proven capacity to contribute to better implementation of existing policy, raise awareness on environmental issues and provide policy input based on sound scientific evidence. Your continued cooperation is key for meeting the challenges ahead.

Thank you for your constructive, knowledgeable approach and help. And yes, evolution of conservation over the next 50 years depends also on the evolution and conservation of WWF. So I wish you good luck!

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