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Speech: From reliable, high-quality information on ecosystems and their services to better protection of biodiversity

European Commission - SPEECH/14/404   22/05/2014

Other available languages: none

European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

From reliable, high-quality information on ecosystems and their services to better protection of biodiversity

High-Level Conference on Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services (MAES)

Brussels, 22 May 2014

Ministers, your Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this conference on the mapping and assessment of ecosystems and ecosystem services. You may wonder why the Commission has chosen to organize a high-level event on what at first sight might appear a rather dry and technical issue. Well, in general I think we need to keep in mind that environmental policy is dependent upon good science and reliable data. We simply won't succeed in achieving our ambitious goals for biodiversity protection unless we are also prepared to invest in a strong knowledge base to support and inform actions on the ground.

That is why, I am very happy that Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn has agreed to co-host this Conference with me and I would like to thank the colleagues working in DG Research & Innovation, and in particular in the Joint Research Centre, for their invaluable contribution. Without their tireless enthusiasm and that of colleagues in the European Environment Agency – not to mention my own services, DG Environment -- the results and successes you will hear about today would not have been possible.

***

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would ask you for one moment to imagine a multi-national company that is drawing up its development plans for the future. You would expect that the CEO and the Board would want to have good information about the state and projected future trends of its financial, human, intellectual and material capital. Now, try and imagine what the reaction would be if the CEO and the Board were informed that reliable information on these key components of the company’s current health and prospects was not available, and that future planning would have to be based on a rather eclectic mixture of un-coordinated statistical information, anecdotal evidence and guess work. Such a situation is obviously unimaginable; no major company could ever be run in such an irresponsible manner. And yet, this is precisely how we are behaving in relation to our stewardship of the natural capital of planet earth.

I hope that at the end of today’s reflections you will have a better appreciation of why these issues are important, what we in the EU are trying to do about it and how this work links in to the work being carried out at a global level.

As spelled out very clearly in the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, and in the EU's new Environment Action Programme, we are committed to protect, conserve and enhance biodiversity both for its intrinsic value and because of the wide range of benefits that natural systems provide to human society. Put another way, we are protecting biodiversity because it is the right and ethical thing to do, but also because it is in our own self-interest.

The importance of Island Biodiversity both in terms of its unique character and its contribution to the local and regional economies, as highlighted in the video message from the Executive Secretary of the CBD, illustrates very well the strong interdependence between ecosystem health and human wellbeing.

The protection of endangered and rare species of plants and animals has been a cornerstone of nature protection policy for many decades. The establishment of the Natura 2000 network, including more than 27,000 protected natural areas covering more than 18% of the EU's land area, is a major achievement, not only for nature conservation but also for the protection and restoration of ecosystems and the delivery of services.

Just yesterday I handed out the first EU Natura 2000 Awards to five remarkable sites in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Spain, in recognition of their success in protecting nature and providing socio-economic benefits.

The recognition that human wellbeing is inextricably linked to the health of natural systems has probably always been implicitly understood, but was made more explicit in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessments. Other initiatives, particularly The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity led by study leader Pavan Sukhdev, who is here with us today, and the World Bank's Wealth Accounting Ecosystem Services Initiative (or 'WAVES') have helped raise the prominence of natural capital and ecosystem services on the political and business agendas. So, at least in terms of raising awareness and understanding of the importance of these issues, we are definitely making progress.

However, global meetings, high-level conferences and nice speeches do not stop biodiversity loss: this only happens if ideas and concepts lead to changes in behaviour and action on the ground. And for this to happen, we must give people the tools they need to do a better job. In particular, they need to have the right data to inform and support their decision making.

So what information do we need? To answer this, we need to take a step backwards and first consider what we are going to use the information for.

  1. We are of course interested in protecting species and habitats and making sure that we have extensive, resilient and productive natural systems. We also want to have ecosystems in good condition, both in terms of structure and function: that means rich biodiversity with healthy stocks and flows of energy and materials.

  2. We also want to manage our landscapes in order to get the best outcomes in terms of ecosystem services. For example, in a typical agricultural mosaic landscape, we would be looking to nature to provide the following services: pollination, an adequate supply of clean water, protection from flooding and erosion, recreational opportunities, and space and habitats for flora and fauna to thrive. In cities on the other hand, we would be looking to nature-based solutions to facilitate water management, to reduce heat stress, to optimise energy and water use, and to provide parks and green spaces for recreation: in general, to create attractive places to live and work.

  3. Finally, if we are going to achieve our objectives for biodiversity, we need business and governments to be aware of how their actions and policies impact upon natural capital, and that these impacts are properly accounted for.

When you look at the nature and scope of all the different things we want to achieve, then it is rapidly apparent that we need to go beyond the collection of data relating to the condition and distribution of individual species and habitat types. This is why, in the context of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, we included a specific action dedicated to improving knowledge of ecosystems and their services in the EU. Specifically, Action 5 of the Strategy requires that Member States, with the assistance of the Commission, map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services in their national territory by 2014, assess the economic value of such services, and promote the integration of these values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national levels by 2020.

This action is the basis for the MAES initiative. Through MAES we want to provide the best available information on natural capital to guide decisions on complex public and private issues. How to best plan new grey infrastructure developments so as to minimise impacts on ecosystems and key services they provide. How to best devise green infrastructure and restoration strategies to maximise biodiversity and associated ecosystem services. Simply put, MAES is about quality of life. It is the tool we need to develop more effective strategies to protect both the urban and rural environment and the resource base they provide for people, wellbeing and sustained prosperity.

For the last 2 years, the Commission in association with the European Environment Agency has been working intensively with experts from the Member States and stakeholders to make sure that the national authorities have the best possible support to carry out this work by the end of 2014. We recognize that the results at the end of this year will represent the first step towards the ultimate objective, which is for all Member States to have the capacity to develop comprehensive and detailed maps and assessments of ecosystem condition and ecosystem services across their territories.

We have also started work on the challenge of natural capital accounts, which will contribute to the realisation of the accounting and reporting systems referred to in Action 5 of the Biodiversity Strategy.

During the course of today's conference we will be presenting the results of the work that has been carried out so far, and demonstrating how this information can be used in the development and implementation in a wide-range of associated policy sectors.

Without giving too much away, and recognising that it is somewhat unorthodox to draw conclusions in an opening speech, I would nevertheless like to point out a few already now, to whet your appetite for the discussions to follow:

  1. The first conclusion is that a lot of relevant data exists at national and EU levels. However, this data has often been developed in different policy sectors, and quite often there is a lack of awareness across the different policy areas. Therefore, the first message is that we need to make the maximum use of the data that already exists;

  2. The second conclusion is that some of this data is considered confidential, or access to it is restricted. A typical example of this problem is the data on farm holdings, including detailed information on farm boundaries, land parcels, land use and crop cover. All the Member States collect this information. However, only one or two Member States, including my own country Slovenia, make this information available outside the Ministry of Agriculture, even though it would be extremely useful in the context of biodiversity protection. While we recognise that national databases do contain potentially sensitive information, it surely must be possible to find an IT solution that allows the other data to be made available and put to good use;

  3. The third conclusion is that we are a long way from having a coherent and comprehensive information system of a scale and quality that would allow the optimum delivery of our biodiversity strategy. This is not to say that we cannot get to work already with the data that already exists, but it does mean that we will need to invest more resources in the monitoring, mapping and assessment of ecosystems and ecosystem services. While I fully appreciate that spending budgets are already over-stretched, when you take into account the many billions of euros in ecosystem services that we receive from nature each year, the amount that we spend to understand the status of the natural capital that delvers these services is woefully small.

  4. The final conclusion I would like to mention is that there really is no time to waste. Although the ecosystem accounting and reporting objectives of the biodiversity strategy are only expected to be completed by 2020, the quality of the natural capital accounts will depend heavily on the outputs of the mapping and assessment. There is already a fair amount of work ongoing at national level within the EU and internationally, as you will hear this afternoon, and the MAES initiative can build on this to develop guidance to Member States for the next steps. This is an essential part of MAES: ultimately, it will demonstrate how our economy and society depend on natural capital, and ensure that impacts and dependencies on ecosystems are adequately taken into account in decision making at all levels.

***

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very proud of what the MAES initiative has already managed to achieve, and I hope that by the end of today you will understand more about this work and share my appreciation of its importance. I hope that you will take the message back to your countries and organisations that this is an action that merits your support and active participation.

We should also keep in mind that the MAES action is contributing to wider international initiatives. To name just a few, these include the regional ecosystem assessments under the newly established Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services; the TEEB process; the Experimental Ecosystem Accounting initiative under the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting; and the finance sector-driven Natural Capital Declaration.

Ministers, your Excellences, ladies and gentlemen, healthy ecosystems are a pre-condition for human wellbeing. To be able to conserve and enhance ecosystems and the services they provide to human society, we need to understand how ecosystems function, and we need good data. In the EU we have launched an ambitious and comprehensive action to develop that understanding and to secure those data. The MAES initiative will support the work of the Member States and European businesses and will also contribute to global initiatives. Your participation in today’s conference in such numbers is testimony to the fact that you recognize the importance of this work. I would like to thank you for your engagement and I wish you an enjoyable and productive day of discussions.


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