What the Green Deal means for Europe’s biodiversity

Erik Gerritsen is a Senior Policy Analyst at IEEP

The EU institutions have raised the stakes on biodiversity, but will the Green Deal deliver?

Last week, the European Commission presented the first outline of its flagship Green Deal, the roadmap to its aim to become the greenest Commission to date. Each of us has, of course, a different association with the colour green, but many people associate it with our living planet.

In a press release, Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen declared that the Commission is “determined to succeed for the sake of this planet and life on it – for Europe's natural heritage, for biodiversity, for our forests and our seas”.

Such ambition is refreshing, certainly at the high political level. It is also urgent – given our inability over the last decade to meet our biodiversity targets.

Earlier this month the European Parliament’s environment committee adopted an ambitious draft resolution on biodiversity, calling for the EU to show leadership at the global level as well as at home. On 19 December, EU environment ministers adopted similar biodiversity conclusions, showing a great sense of urgency and willingness for the EU to act decisively.

This raises expectations on the European Commission to come forward with ambitious proposals to meet this ambition.

But does the Green Deal have what it takes to preserve and restore Europe’s biodiversity?

The transformational ambition expressed at the core of the Green Deal is important for biodiversity. Central to the challenge is our two-planet lifestyle that keeps undercutting our life support systems, not least through an oversized food system. This is about much more than just a discussion about the use of pesticides. We’re talking about space for nature preservation and restoration at home and abroad.

Preserving and restoring ecosystems is the safest bet to prevent us from breaching the ultimate planetary boundary

The Green Deal brings back some of the strategy developed under the Barroso Commission for a European economy within planetary boundaries, beautifully summarised in the title of the 7th EU environmental Action Programme (EAP) – “Living well, within the limits of our planet”.

Preserving and restoring ecosystems is the safest bet to prevent us from breaching the ultimate planetary boundary – that of extinction. If done right, restoration can also significantly help mitigate and adapt to climate change. For more, see our previous biodiversity blog.

The cornerstones of the joint EU biodiversity protection are the Birds and Habitats Directives.

The Natura 2000 network established through their implementation is the largest network of protected areas on the planet, covering 18% of the EU’s land and 9% of the marine territory.

In this context, the Commission’s plan for “increasing the coverage” of protected areas might be missing the mark.

Instead, the focus should be on a swifter and more effective implementation of the Directives – first, to protect and restore the biodiversity hotspots we still have; and second, to connect them with restored and recreated green infrastructure linking up the network.

The priorities for how to address this, adopted in the EU Action Plan for Nature, People and the Economy, are still relevant, but the plan expires at the end of 2019. The Green Deal does not provide sufficient clarity on the next steps.

The Green Deal does not provide sufficient clarity on the next steps

Similarly, EU water policy action so critical to EU nature and biodiversity is in urgent need of an implementation push, now that its years-long fitness check concluded recently it is not the legislation that’s unfit, but rather its implementation

The Green Deal includes a priority action to green European cities, which would certainly benefit biodiversity and be welcomed by the large and growing majority of EU citizens living in cities. It would also help people to reconnect to nature, an important prerequisite for increasing political support for nature protection.

The health and social benefits of nature are increasingly well understood, and more urban nature could greatly support disease prevention – through, for example, local climate regulation – while providing a range of other ecosystem services such as natural water retention.

Even though cities in some European regions hold more biodiversity than their surrounding countryside, urban nature is, in most cases, highly modified and will not provide the scale of nature-based solutions required to help solve our biodiversity and climate challenges.

More importantly, many European cities and their citizens have already taken up this challenge themselves.

One of the issues that have mobilised action is pollinator conservation, supported through the successful EU Pollinators Initiative, which deserves a follow-up in 2020. In light of the subsidiarity principle, the EU’s current legislative competence and the Green Deal’s large number of priorities, we would, therefore, advise the Commission to focus its efforts on biodiversity integration with its other flagship initiatives most notably on climate, food and farming and the blue economy – for example on fisheries.   

The European Commission’s renewed ambition on ecosystem restoration and nature-based solutions is most welcome.

The Commission's renewed ambition will require a significant step up in investment

It will, however, require a significant step up in investment, as well as implementation, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to ensure that targets agreed between the EU institutions are met. This has been painfully missing over the last 10 years in the implementation of highly relevant but toothless EU policies such as the EU Green Infrastructure Strategy and Adaptation Strategy.

There were great steps forward made on climate mainstreaming in the proposals for the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), and climate finance also features strongly in the Communication on the Green Deal.

Nature and biodiversity, however, have been overlooked in both, while many years of experience with an integration approach to EU biodiversity investment shows many remaining challenges, not least in the adequate funding of the Natura 2000 network.

Allowing a similar investment gap under the new MFF would be the surest way to fail on a new EU biodiversity strategy once more. The Commission must be, therefore, much more concrete about where the climate and biodiversity mainstreaming objectives meet and ensure that Member States prioritise these win-win solutions in their operational planning for the most relevant funds – not least, the CAP Strategic Plans, Regional Development Plans and Operational Programmes under the European Marine and Fisheries Fund.

The Green Deal holds many promising initiatives that together have the potential to turn the biodiversity crisis around in Europe, while also helping to do so abroad by reducing the EU’s global footprint.

However, before the Deal is sealed, EU policy- and decision-makers should:

  1. Focus more strongly on delivery mechanisms to implement existing EU legislation as well as renewed restoration ambitions
  2. Ensure clear commitments for biodiversity integration with other newly proposed Green Deal initiatives, most notably the Farm to Fork Strategy
  3. Be much more concrete in the finalisation of the MFF and subsequent programming on how to fill the biodiversity investment gap towards 2027.  

For more in-depth recommendations for a strategic EU biodiversity policy framework towards 2030, please see our Think 2030 paper ‘Valuing biodiversity and reversing its decline by 2030’.