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Why a biodiversity strategy is at the core of the European Green Deal

Q&A with European Parliament member Bas Eickhout

Croatia's Plitvice Lakes, set within a nationally protected forest area with more than 1,400 plant species. Clark and Kim Kays, Flickr
7 October 2020
7 October 2020

On 20 May 2020, the European Commission adopted the Biodiversity Strategy as one of the most heavy-hitting frameworks under the umbrella European Green Deal. Initially, it was intended in part to set a precedent and send a strong message to other member states that would be attending the UN Convention on Biological Diversity summit (CBD COP 15) in Kunming, China, where a new global agreement on biodiversity conservation would be born.

But the COP’s postponement from October to 2021 due to COVID-19 leaves the EU’s strategy standing alone as one of the most ambitious multilateral sets of biodiversity goals – and certainly the most up-to-date, reflective of the pandemic, economic realities and past biodiversity targets that haven’t yet been met.

Some of the measures, to be achieved by 2030, include:

  • Establish protected areas for 30% of all European lands and 30% of European seas
  • Restore at least 25,000 kilometers of rivers to free-flowing states
  • Reduce pesticides by 50%
  • Plant 3 billion trees
  • Increase organic farming and biodiversity in agriculture
  • Reverse the loss of pollinators
  • Mobilize EUR 20 billion per year for biodiversity

Here, Landscape News spoke with European Parliament member and strategy co-designer Bas Eickhout about why the strategy was put forth now, what it will cost, how it will affect European politics, and why, most crucially, biodiversity and climate change must be addressed together.

Courtesy of Bas Eikhout
Courtesy of Bas Eikhout

Why was the biodiversity strategy designed and developed as a standalone piece of the European Green Deal?

When the new European Commission was coming up with the Green Deal, there was pressure to look at the broader set of issues beyond just climate. One of the main challenges ahead is the decline of biodiversity and the decrease of ecosystem goods and services, so it became a clear point. Another very practical reason is, of course, that in 2020 the Aichi targets for biodiversity are expiring, and we failed miserably.

The strategy addresses COVID-19 very explicitly despite being developed largely beforehand. How much was it restructured or reframed in response to the pandemic?

The structure to a large extent was already there. The COVID crisis was mainly confirming some of the issues, such as the vulnerability of our ecosystems and economic systems, which are linked. The debates and discussions we had been having on protected areas and the like were already in there. But I think, due to the corona crisis, there was a bit more attention given to the agriculture production chain and some of the other elements.

The strategy is quite wide-reaching, from expanding protected areas to restoration to organic farming. Which parts do you think are within reach, and which will be the most challenging to achieve?

I think the goals for protected areas are within reach. For the first time, there’s an explicit proposal for maritime protected areas in addition to terrestrial. These proposals have a good chance; whether the protected areas will reach 30 percent remains to be seen.

What becomes a bit more complicated is when we get into restoration. There need to be investments in improving weakened and deteriorated ecosystems. When we are talking about reforestation, there’s a climate link, which makes it easier. What is complicated is the link to the agriculture system. The pressure of agriculture on ecosystems is a tough battle, and the agriculture lobby is still strong in Europe.

Are there any solutions that can help that battle along?

Whether you like it or not, making clear the link with climate helps, which works best through measures for adaptation. And I also think we can still improve the research and knowledge in the political arena on our agricultural systems, and their vulnerability as the climate has greater extremes with droughts and intense rain periods. The buffer capacity of our current agriculture system is quite limited, and large-scale monoculture agriculture is vulnerable. New models of agriculture like agroforestry and agroecology can help this, where you are trying to bring agriculture and ecosystems together instead of agriculture just being a system that is producing food.

Why isn’t biodiversity seen as part of climate?

There can be a lot of issues that work against each other. From a climate perspective, an ecosystem is carbon. From a biodiversity perspective, it’s more than carbon. When you’re talking about reforestation, for example, it’s more than creating a carbon sink. It’s more than just planting a tree. But if we can make that link from biodiversity back to carbon and climate, we can make sure that policies work hand-in-hand – and even profit from it.

The strategy has an intended budget of EUR 20 billion annually, mobilized from public and private sectors. How is this going to be affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19?

If you take the Green Deal seriously and want to restructure your economy, this means a long-lasting investment agenda that isn’t over by 2021. The COVID crisis is certainly putting an additional burden on it, but on the other hand, what is now fascinating is that for the first time ever, there is a really serious discussion on a European investment agenda. I think COVID has made that possible; without it, I don’t think countries like Germany or the Netherlands would have supported it. Now the big question is if it really looks at future-oriented and transformative investments.

How much is the strategy’s success dependent on member states’ implementation piecemeal as opposed to the EU’s collective implementation?

Success on the ground depends on how concrete the plans are. For that, we need to be tougher beforehand on the criteria by which we’re going to judge these national strategic plans. A country can very quickly say, “I’m delivering your national strategic plan here, and I’m improving on biodiversity, on climate, on whatever.” But how? What are the indicators? What are the targets so that you can seriously check whether those national strategic plans make sense?

How legally binding will this strategy be?

This is another of the battles that lies ahead. Europe has long been paying lip-service to biodiversity with the quality of protected areas and landscapes, but the pressure on ecosystems is still increasing or hardly improving. So we need our biodiversity target-setting and strategies to be more binding.

Whether or not we can manage to have more legally binding measures from Brussels is challenging for two reasons. First, biodiversity is politically on a lower level than climate, so there’s less of an appetite of member states to give more power to Brussels on that issue. Plus, there is always the battle between member states and the European level. Biodiversity is, to a large extent, linked to political decisions on what you do with land-use – spatial policy, so to say. When you talk about climate, you talk about emissions from industry or the energy system. For biodiversity, when you look at measures aside from agriculture, you very quickly start talking about spatial planning. And that comes down to national competence, so it’s less high on the EU political agenda.

As a new global post-2020 framework for biodiversity is developed, how can this strategy influence other parts of the world?

I think everyone is wondering how we can have a Paris moment for biodiversity, because that’s what we need. And it’s a nice slogan, but what does it mean? One of the crucial elements of Paris was the political priority. There was high pressure and political willingness to do something. But it was also that there were more examples of bigger economies delivering on climate mitigation and, at the same time, economic development. For politicians, that’s still the big fear: is biodiversity at the cost of our economic system?

So what you need are good examples, showing that a country with an adult economy is also improving on biodiversity, and that biodiversity goes hand-in-hand with delivering economic prospects. Without good examples, it remains a theory.

Therefore, if we as Europe do not show that we are serious and willing to really look critically at our own system and change things in order to improve biodiversity, it’s going to be very difficult to make a success of the [CBD] summit. Others will say that we talked about it but didn’t deliver on it ourselves, weren’t willing to change. I think that was part of Paris’s success – European countries were changing already for climates. And for that, this biodiversity strategy is so important. It’s practice what you preach, basically.


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