Europe has set ambitious policy goals to allow nature to recover and thrive, increasing the societal benefits of a healthy natural world.. Much needs to be done to reverse the deterioration of nature’s health, from protected areas and green and blue infrastructure to restoration, re-naturalisation and the use of nature-based solutions to climate change, says the European Environment Agency.
He adds that protecting nature is the first step. “Biodiversity in Europe continues to decline, but the forests, mammals and birds that benefit from conservation measures have recently seen a positive evolution,” he says.
Conservation initiatives for more than 2,000 species are currently covered by EU legislation such as the Birds and Habitats Directives. At the heart of these directives is the EU’s Natura 2000 network of protected areas, the largest of its kind in the world. It represents 18% of the EU’s land area and 8% of its maritime territory.
Some of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats are protected by Natura 2000. Protected areas include breeding and resting areas for rare and endangered species, while some rare habitats are themselves declared protected areas.
The aim of the new EU biodiversity strategy is to increase the protected area to reach at least 30% of the EU’s land area and 30% of the surrounding seas by 2030. Primary and old-growth forests and other carbon-rich ecosystems, such as peatlands and grasslands, will be the focus of conservation initiatives.
The strategy also calls for planting at least 3,000 million trees between now and 2030 to support biodiversity and restore ecosystems. More forests will also be managed to encourage biodiversity-friendly practices.
Developing the Trans-European Network of Natural Areas by expanding protected areas to reach the 30% target is part of the biodiversity strategy. Many Natura 2000 protected areas are already associated 29 with natural and semi-natural landscapes that provide ecosystem services, such as pollination, soil fertility, flood control and recreation, and are essential for mitigating climate change and disaster risk. The Emerald Network of Areas of Special Interest, to which the EU contributes through Natura 2000, also supports the same efforts. Together, these areas form a network of green infrastructure across Europe. Studies show that nature is better protected in this network, including more land that provides the necessary services and experiences less pressure on ecosystems.
However, barriers such as roads, railways, urban areas and agricultural land fragment the landscape, limiting the movement of species and impeding network development. Increasing network connectivity helps ensure habitat conditions improve, prevent biodiversity loss and improve the provision of ecosystem services.
free flowing water
Barriers hamper the health of Europe’s water bodies. There are more than a million barriers in Europe’s rivers, including dams, gates and locks. Most are small and outdated. They contribute significantly to the poor state of nature in our rivers, as many species need free-flowing rivers to thrive and currently Sediment movement downstream is impeded, causing blockages and disrupting habitats.
The Biodiversity Strategy aims to restore at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers by 2030 by removing barriers, building diversions for fish migration and restoring sediment flow. By October 2020, almost 5,000 dam removals were recorded in Europe based on data from 11 countries. Floodplain and wetland restoration is also an important element of this work.
The wild is calling
While previous solutions required intensive management processes to restore nature, renaturation is a newer, more natural approach. When spaces are identified where natural processes are encouraged, nature is allowed to heal itself so that it can manage itself again. Initiatives such as Rewilding Europe are working to increase Europe’s biodiversity in this way.
There are currently eight major renaturation areas in Germany, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Sweden. Various renaturation projects are implemented there, such as the restoration of free-ranging populations of European bison in the southern Carpathians in Romania and the conservation of black and griffon vultures in the Rhodopes in Bulgaria.