Environmental threats to rural areas

Rural areas are impacted by climate change and biodiversity losses. It affects their surrounding ecosystems, their economy, and the well-being of rural populations. Supporting the sustainable transition of these areas is crucial and the new EU Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas, could play a pivotal role. 

The second part of the 6th assessment report of the IPCC published at the end of February 2022 highlights the strong existing interactions between ecosystems, climate and human society. It also shows that climate change impacts rural areas, affecting their surrounding ecosystems, their economy, and the well-being of rural populations. Furthermore, other environmental changes potentially threaten them. In this context, and given that 20% of the EU’s population lives in rural areas, supporting the sustainable transition of these areas seems crucial and the new EU Long-Term Vision for Rural Areas, announced by the European Commission in December 2021 could play a pivotal role.

Climate change is leading to a rise in temperature, changes in precipitation patterns and increases the occurrence and intensity of extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, floods, and droughts. For instance, in the EU, national temperature records were broken in 8 member states in the last 3 years1,2. These various changes are already impacting the European economy and the well-being of its population. The EEA estimates that “direct economic losses caused by weather- and climate-related extremes in the EEA member countries amounted to approximately EUR 453 billion (in 2017 euro values) in Europe over the period 1980-2017”, with different impacts between regions and populations, southern and rural regions, and poorest households being the most affected1. Regarding rural areas specifically, impacts are of different natures, intensity, and they will increase in the coming future (IPCC 2022). First, changes in climate conditions affect crop yields and generate substantial production and income losses in the primary sector (agriculture, forestry, and fishery), whose activities remain an important part of rural areas’ economy (representing 12 % of rural jobs on average in the EU3. Other economic sectors contributing to the economy of rural areas (e.g. tourism, industry) are also affected due to water scarcity, disruption of energy supply and increased impacts of flooding (e.g., through damage to infrastructure, reduced mobility, etc.). Climate change also has further direct and indirect impacts on rural areas’ population health and well-being. Heatwaves are particularly dangerous for the oldest (main population of rural areas) and July 2021 floods in Europe, for instance, killed more than 200 people.

Beyond climate change, other environmental threats affect the sustainability of rural area. Rural areas are home to most of the EU’s biodiversity, but protected habitats and species show poor status and declining trends. For example, the population of farmland birds declined by one-third between 1990 and 2016, and the grassland butterflies index shows a decline of around 35% of the monitored species between 1991 and 2018 (EEA, 2020). Soil and water health and quality are also declining. This loss of biodiversity and degradation of natural resources represents a significant threat for rural areas, as ecosystems produce ecosystem services, such as pollination, biological pest control, or the regulation of freshwater quality. Similar to climate change, biodiversity loss will also have a negative economic impact. Regarding the agricultural sector, the absence of insect pollination, for instance, would result in a reduction of between 25% and 32% of the total production of crops which are partially dependent on insect pollination in Europe4, significantly impacting rural areas’ economy and people5. The risk of increasing phytosanitary pressures due to the introduction of new pests, diseases, and weeds also poses a significant threat to water security and food safety. Moreover, the decline in biodiversity and landscape diversity impact both tourism activities, as rural areas become less attractive and rural populations’ mental health6.

To echo these threats, the EU Long-Term Vision for Rural Area aims for stronger, connected, resilient and prosperous rural areas by 2040. It takes a holistic view of the main challenges brought about by environmental and climate threats and identifies climatic, environmental, and social resilience and the need for prosperous rural areas as key objectives. It then proposes a rural pact bringing together a wide range of actors at the EU, national, regional and local level in a common framework for cooperation and a rural action plan, supporting initiatives for climate mitigation and adaptation7. However, while these actions are likely to contribute to strengthening rural areas’ climate resilience, the plan needs to be further elaborated. For now, it remains difficult to assess its potential to improve rural area’s sustainability because it lacks details about how actions will be implemented. For instance, how will carbon farming be promoted for peatland restoration and conservation? Moreover, most initiatives target climate adaptation and mitigation specifically. Further actions will be needed to ensure the sustainability and environmental resilience of rural areas, as some environmental threats, like for instance decline of biodiversity and loss of services are not tackled in the rural action plan.

This blog is part of the SHERPA project and was first published on the SHERPA website.

© Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

___________________

EEA (2019) The European environment — state and outlook 2020: knowledge for transition to a sustainable Europe. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

2 Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in 2019 and Ireland, Spain, Italia in 2021
Yiqing QI (2021). CARTE. Ces records de chaleur qui sont tombés en Europe depuis 10 ans, jusqu’aux 48,8° en Sicile. Ouest France website.  

3 EC (2019). AgriData - Jobs and growth in rural areas - (EU27). European Commission website.

In Europe, it is estimated that about 84% of all the crops that have been studied are depending on or benefiting from insect pollination (Williams, I.H. The dependence of crop production within the European Union on pollination by honey bees. Agric. Zool. Rev. 1994, 6, 229–257).

5 Zulian, G., Maes, J., & Paracchini, M. L. (2013). Linking land cover data and crop yields for mapping and assessment of pollination services in Europe. Land, 2(3), 472-492

6 EEA, 2019; Filipova et al. 2021.

7 Supporting rural municipalities in energy transition and fighting climate change, developing carbon farming for the restoration and conservation of peatland and financing research on soil health and food.

___________________

References

De La Chesnais, E and Masson, V. (2016). Inondations : 4 milliards d'euros de pertes pour les agriculteurs. Le Figaro. 

EC (2018). EU rural areas in numbers : Key data for rural areas today, broken down by topic. European Commission website.

EC (2018 b) CAP SPECIFIC OBJECTIVES …explained – Brief No 8. European Commission. 

EEA (2019) The European environment — state and outlook 2020: knowledge for transition to a sustainable Europe. European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

EEA (2020) State of Nature in the EU: Results from reporting under the nature directives 2013-2018. EEA Report No 10/2020, European Environment Agency, Copenhagen.

Eurostat (2018), Glossary: Rural area. Eurostat, Statistics explained website 

Filipova T., Kopsieker L., Gerritsen E., Bodin E., Brzezinski B. and Rubio-Ramirez O. (2020) “Mental health and the environment: How European policies can better reflect environmental degradation’s impact on people’s mental health and well-being”. Background paper by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal).

Yiqing QI (2021). CARTE. Ces records de chaleur qui sont tombés en Europe depuis 10 ans, jusqu’aux 48,8° en Sicile. Ouest France website.

IPCC (2022). Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

Zulian, G., Maes, J., & Paracchini, M. L. (2013). Linking land cover data and crop yields for mapping and assessment of pollination services in Europe. Land, 2(3), 472-492.