Bending the curve of biodiversity loss: identifying drivers of conservation success in the EU

At the start of the current decade, a set of ambitious EU biodiversity targets were set to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020. Despite this policy goal, the data show that substantial proportions of species and habitats remain threatened or have an unfavourable conservation status, and it seems clear that the 2020 targets will not be met.

However, there has also been measurable progress where conservation actions have been well designed and properly implemented at sufficient scale to halt, or even reverse, negative trends. These success cases provide key lessons on effective approaches that can be shared to achieve better overall results now, as well as informing the development of the post-2020 regime. Identifying the drivers of success constitutes an important step towards the development and uptake of more effective measures for the conservation of biodiversity in the EU and elsewhere.

A new study by IEEP and partners for the European Commission set out to identify the main success factors underpinning conservation success stories relating to the habitats and species that are the focus of the EU nature directives (i.e. Birds Directive and Habitats Directive). The study draws on Member State monitoring and reporting data and 53 in-depth case studies across the EU (please find an example here).

The study confirms that strong and coherent conservation governance backed up by political support is a key ingredient in reaching genuine improvements in the status of habitats and species. Furthermore, success stories are also commonly underpinned by targeted research, to diagnose the cause of decline, and adequate funding to test and deploy management solutions that led to recoveries that are sustainable in the long-term. The participation and motivation of key stakeholders (eg landowners, farming organisations, foresters, hunters, fishers, industry and local communities) is also crucial, as is the wider recognition by society of the value of nature conservation. In addition, the findings demonstrate the importance of protected areas as the cornerstones of national and international conservation strategies; by securing key sites and also acting as a catalyst and focus for concerted action.

Interestingly, the study also revealed that broad scale measures, such as those tackling air and water pollution, were by themselves generally unable to deliver improvements in the conservation status of the habitats and species that are the focus of the nature directives. This is, for example, the case with the Water Framework Directive, even though it has been effective in tackling water pollution. However, such broad non-site based policy measures and actions have often been an essential element of the policy mix that has contributed to the conservation of many habitats and species, especially those that have dispersed distributions or that are sensitive to pollution.

As part of the Think 2030 platform for science-policy solutions for a more sustainable Europe, IEEP has outlined policy options and ways forward for the post-2020 era of EU’s biodiversity policy. In particular, we highlight the need to build a social movement to halt biodiversity loss, step up action to implement existing EU policies, strengthen and reform EU policy frameworks, make the EU budget work for biodiversity, increase EU action to tackle global biodiversity loss and support EU action through better knowledge and evidence. With respect to the latter point, better understanding the drivers of conservation success is key to replicating and rolling them out on a wider scale. The study by IEEP and partners therefore provides an important contribution to the current discussions on the EU and global biodiversity policy regime for the post-2020 era.