EU Green Deal and biodiversity strategy: A new beginning or nipped in the bud?

Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)

We look back at October’s tumultuous CAP and biodiversity week and reflect on its implications for the achievement of the European Green Deal’s biodiversity objectives and the fresh EU commitments for an ambitious new global deal for nature.

Green Week opened with the publication of the flagship report on the state of nature in the EU.

The report provides the most in-depth assessment of the health of European nature and reveals that, despite some improvements, biodiversity in the EU continued to decline in the period 2013-2018.

Unsustainable agriculture and forestry, urban sprawl and pollution remain the top pressures affecting habitats and species reported by the EU Member States. Peatlands, grasslands, dune habitats, and species associated with agriculture are of most concern. The ongoing negative impacts of unsustainable agricultural practices emphasise the need for a fully integrated approach between the EU 2030 Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies.

These strategies are intended to be mutually reinforcing but lack important common targets. Even the Biodiversity Strategy's specific 10% target for high diversity features on farmland does not appear in the Farm to Fork Strategy, which is a significant omission. 

The Biodiversity Strategy's specific 10% target for high diversity features on farmland does not appear in the Farm to Fork Strategy, which is a significant omission

European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius, opened the Green Week with a rousing speech and reaffirmed that biodiversity and nature “are riding high on the EU policy agenda”.

On the last day of Green Week, EU environment ministers adopted conclusions on the Biodiversity Strategy, supporting the proposed increase in ambition on protected areas (30% by 2030, with 10% strictly protected), a binding ecosystem restoration initiative, and biodiversity funding of at least €20 billion per year based on Member State’s prioritized investment needs. However, only the slightest reference is made to the EU’s agricultural policy representing over a quarter of the EU budget.

This is remarkable in light of the overwhelming evidence on

  • farming’s dependence on resilient ecosystems;
  • the state of farmland biodiversity; and
  • the CAP’s current poor performance in stimulating more nature-inclusive farming (including by the European Commission and the European Court of Auditors) while currently representing the largest EU investment programme for biodiversity.

While Commissioner Sinkevičius was giving his speech, the EU Agriculture Ministers had already started a marathon meeting to find a common position on the future CAP, while the European Parliament set out on a four-day plenary vote on its own CAP position.

An IEEP analysis of both positions shows that while the Council and Parliament introduced welcome new commitments on ring-fencing, they significantly lowered the proposal’s already moderate green ambitions in particular on basic rules on conditionality.

For example, while the State of Nature in the EU report highlights the critical threats to grassland ecosystems, both the Council and Parliament restricted the scope or removed altogether the proposed ban on ploughing of permanent grasslands in Natura 2000 sites. This is despite the fact that the protection of the environmentally sensitive permanent grassland – on which ploughing is currently banned – has been one of the most important CAP greening measures in the current period of 2014 to 2020.

Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber)

One day before discussing the CAP, EU agriculture ministers endorsed the Farm to Fork Strategy, emphasising the necessity to ensure consistency and coherence between its proposed measures and those in other key relevant policies including specifically the CAP and EU-Biodiversity Strategy.

The lack of coherence in approach is striking and puts in question both the ambition of Member States on the F2F and whether implementation decisions around the CAP will address the urgent need to improve the farmland and wider biodiversity, as highlighted in the State of Nature report. The unwillingness of lawmakers to make the CAP fit for Green Deal purposes will, if not rectified before negotiations are over, deal a fatal blow to the achievement of the new Biodiversity Strategy before it has even started.

Luckily, there is hope in other quarters: The State of Nature report and the Green Week highlighted plenty of conservation successes from across Europe, where targeted efforts to protect and restore nature have allowed it to bounce back – at times, spectacularly.

In France, for example, conservation measures like wetland protection, restoration and awareness-raising activities have increased the breeding population of the Eurasian Spoonbill (pictured in the main photo) from 20 to almost 200 pairs. In Germany, successful conservation measures improved the conservation status of the Eurasian Beaver (pictured above left) from near threatened in the mid-nineties to least concern in only 15 years.

There is clear evidence that conservation success is possible, and EU leaders need to reflect on these successes and evaluations of how biodiversity is dealt with in other policies, to make a real, tangible and lasting difference. Last year, IEEP and partners compiled evidence for the European Commission on measure-driven improvements in biodiversity and reviewed their success factors. Although the report’s recommendations are not surprising, it is the first time they are backed up by real European conservation outcomes at scale.

Here, we highlight three of them, which, if scaled up, should bring about improvements in the State of Nature when the next report is due in 2026. The recommendations should be on the authorities and stakeholder’s priority list when operationalising the 2030 Strategy in the coming months:

Planning and governance

Global and European visions and strategies lack concrete, integrated national, regional, and local action plans to make sure common goals are achieved. As a result, silo-acting has stymied progress in implementation. The European Commission has shown leadership by making the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy a cross-cutting initiative between its services and owned at the highest political level. The EU Member States should follow this lead and develop SMART action plans together with all relevant authorities and stakeholders in line with international commitments. Both the EU and the Member States are already committed to doing so under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), however current plans lack teeth on coherence with key policies such as on agriculture, forestry and fisheries. These plans should be explicit on how existing, and potentially synergistic, EU legal commitments on biodiversity under the Nature-, Water- and Marine Strategy Frameworks will be met.  

Adequate investment

While Heads of State agreed to dedicate 30% of the EU’s long-term budget (MFF) for 2021-2027 to climate action, biodiversity action remains neglected despite the calls by the European Parliament to earmark 10% of the MFF for this objective. The EU Member States must ensure funding needs are met both through sufficient national core funding for nature and biodiversity and biodiversity-proofing EU investment. The CAP positions demonstrate how vested interests remain vehemently opposed to tying EU public money to biodiversity objectives. The EU institutions should therefore closely scrutinise proposed national implementation decisions, for example in the CAP strategic and operational plans, and intervene when the Member States fail to meet investment needs identified in their Prioritised Action Frameworks, which identify priority funding needs for the Natura 2000 network.

Increasing the effectiveness of management on the ground

As emphasised by the EU environment ministers, evidence shows a large scope for improving the effectiveness of management in the field within and beyond protected areas. A recent study prepared by IEEP and partners for the European Environment Agency identified the key opportunities for achieving this in the EU’s Natura 2000 network. The study shows that the full implementation of existing legal requirements and adherence to established management guidance would already be a leap forward. The study also identified opportunities for learning between the Member States and regions. Many nature authorities and site managers currently lack the knowledge, skills and/or time to do so. Improving this capacity should be a priority in the planning and investment of Member States. Where authorities fail to take necessary conservation measures, enforcement action should be taken at the appropriate level.

Main photo by Ryzhkov Sergey, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons