Putting nature first. The European Commission’s strategy for the Decade of Action

The European Green Deal will help rebuild a more balanced relationship between human activities and natural resources. A crucial goal, now more than ever.

The year 2030 features prominently in any discussion about the biggest challenges facing the international community in the coming years. This is the deadline by which the 193 UN member states have committed to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that constitute a global action plan for people, the planet and prosperity. It is also the year in which average global temperatures could surpass pre-industrial levels by 1.5 degrees Centigrade according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), unless we immediately enact massive decarbonisation efforts. The European Commission has thus prepared itself to face the the so-called Decade of Action that lies ahead. Through the European Green Deal, the Commission has created a framework of strategies, tools and actions that will be a turning point on the path to the continent’s green future. One in which nature will be the guiding principle.

More nature: the European Commission’s future vision

It is hard not to dream of a lush, green Europe, one in which nature, in the Commission’s words, returns to the heart of our lives. This goal is delineated in the Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, announced in May, a commitment consistent with the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration which aims to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.

Europe today is already home to the most extensive network of protected areas in the world. Natura 2000 was established in 1992 and currently consists of 27,000 terrestrial and marine sites. These cover 18 per cent of the Union’s territory, a figure that reaches up to 35 per cent in the Balkan Peninsula. Protected marine areas cover a total of 440,000 square kilometres, half of which distributed between France (132,000 square kilometres) and Spain (84,000).

natura 2000, slovenia
Slovenia is the European country with the largest amount of Natura 2000 protected areas © Neven Krcmarek/Unsplash

However, the Commission wants to raise the bar even higher. Over the course of the next ten years, it promises to plant three billion trees, and for 30 per cent of Europe’s territory – and the same proportion of its seas – to become protected areas with much stricter regulations on the protection and restoration of forests. By eliminating barriers that impede the passage of migrating fish and improving sediment flows, at least 25,000 kilometres of free-flowing rivers will also be restored. This issue is very important in Italy, for example, a country where only 43 per cent of rivers are in a good ecological state, the WWF reports.

Towards a more sustainable food system

If in recent decades we’ve witnessed severe destruction of biodiversity, a large part of the blame lies with industrial agriculture and, more generally, a food system that is inconsistent with the Earth’s needs. The FAO has published some unequivocal data: of the 6,000 or so species of plants that are grown as food across the world, a mere nine make up two-thirds of total agricultural production, and of the 7,745 local breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 per cent are at risk of extinction. And almost a third of fish stocks are overfished.

This is where the European Commission’s Biodiversity Strategy intersects with Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and the From Farm to Fork strategy. Through a series of ad hoc measures, the Commission intends to reduce use of chemical pesticides in general, as well as the most dangerous ones, by 50 per cent. At the same time, the Commission will act decisively to stop the worrying decline in the populations of pollinators, in consideration of the fact that approximately 70 per cent of food crops depends on these insects.

bees, flower, pollinators
Over two-thirds of food crops are pollinated by bees © Getty Images

“To provide space for wild animals, plants, pollinators and natural pest regulators, there is an urgent need to bring back at least 10 per cent of agricultural area under high-diversity landscape features. These include, inter alia, buffer strips, rotational or non-rotational fallow land, hedges, non-productive trees, terrace walls and ponds,” the Biodiversity Strategy reads. All these elements are systematically sacrificed for the sake of industrial monocultures, even though they have a crucial value in absorbing atmospheric carbon, avoiding soil erosion and degradation, and filtering the air and water. In these respects, organic farming is the way forward. In 2018, 7.5 per cent of agricultural land in the EU was farmed organically, covering a total of 13.4 million hectares. Over the next ten years, the Commission wants to bring this figure up to at least 25 per cent, a fact that also bodes well for the economy as this model generates 10-20 per cent more jobs per hectare.

Biodiversity is an investment, not a cost

Essentially, Europe wants to invest in biodiversity, even in financial terms. In November, the EU Parliament and Council approved a measure stating that at least 30 per cent of the Union’s budget and of the Next Generation EU fund will support the European Green Deal’s goals. Starting from 2023, 7.5 per cent of annual expenditure will go to biodiversity specifically, a figure that will rise to 10 per cent starting from 2026. The aim is to mobilise 20 billion euros per year split between EU funds, financing from member states and private capital.

It makes sense to see this spending as an investment rather than simply a cost because healthy natural capital is an asset. WWF study Global Futures examines six ecosystem services: water, timber, fishing, CO2 storage by trees, coastal protection, pollination. If business as usual continues, the decline in these services will lead to an average reduction in global GDP of 0.67 per cent per year until 2050. This is equal to losses of about 442 billion euros every year. If we target sustainable development instead, GDP will grow at an average rate of 0.02 per cent per year, with yearly profits amounting to over 450 billion euros.

Our continent’s prosperity is closely tied to its ecosystems. Today, there are already 104,000 people working in the conservation and management of areas in the Natura 2000 network, which also indirectly generates 70,000 extra jobs. And this figure doesn’t even take tourism into account: out of 12 million workers in the sector, one in four have links to Natura 2000.

A return to nature to recover from the pandemic

Nature also offers less tangible but even more critical benefits to our lives. We came to realise this when, shut in our homes during lockdown, we started feeling the powerful need to walk in nature and feel the sun on our skin. “We humans are part of, and fully dependent on, this web of life: it gives us the food we eat, filters the water we drink and supplies the air we breathe. Nature is as important for our mental and physical wellbeing as it is for our society’s ability to cope with global change, health threats and disasters. We need nature in our lives,” reads the opening of the EU Biodiversity Strategy.

This decade started with tackling a pandemic that “is raising awareness of the links between our own health and the health of ecosystems,” the Commission writes. “When restarting the economy, it is crucial to avoid falling back and locking ourselves into damaging old habits. The European Green Deal – the EU’s growth strategy – will be the compass for our recovery, ensuring that the economy serves people and society and gives back to nature more than it takes away”.

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