In Europe, as in the rest of the world, human activities are causing rapid biodiversity loss. Over the last two decades, the EU has been trying to tackle this in various ways, including through the Natura 2000 Network of protected areas. This includes over 27 000 protected areas, covering over million km2, making it the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world. The Natura 2000 Network creates a framework for mainstreaming conservation into a range of sectors. The European Commission led the development of the Natura 2000 Network. Conservation NGOs including BirdLife are closely involved, as are stakeholders from land use sectors such as infrastructure development. Evidence is mounting that the Network is having a positive impact on biodiversity across Europe.
While some Nature 2000 sites are nature reserves, many are privately owned, providing opportunities for biodiversity to be integrated into sectors including agriculture, forestry, infrastructure development, and tourism. This helps Member States to comply with Article 6(b) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which requires that parties “Integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.” Biodiversity mainstreaming is supported by EU law, which requires that all projects likely to negatively affect a Natura 2000 site are subject to an appropriate assessment - with a legally binding obligation to act on the conclusion. This means that any sector may have to modify their plans to ensure compatibility with conservation objectives.
Countries need to report on progress towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets in their NBSAPs. The Network supports these Targets in the following ways:
- The Natura 2000 Network raises awareness of biodiversity values across land use sectors, in line with Target .
- As required by Aichi Target 2, the Network integrates biodiversity into development planning.
- The Network aims to slow the rate of loss of habitats, in line with Target 5.
- The Network supports Targets 6 and 7 on sustainable management of marine ecosystems and productive land.
- The Network currently protects 18% of the EU land area, reaching the goal in Aichi Target 11 of conserving at least 17% of terrestrial areas through ecologically representative systems; it is still being expanded at sea.
- The basis for designating sites is the conservation value for threatened species (Target 12) or habitats (Target 14).
The EU has long recognised that biodiversity in the region is declining. The Nature Directives (the Birds Directive of 1979 and the Habitats Directive of 1992) set out to address this, and list the threatened species and habitats. The Natura 2000 Network is made up of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated under the Habitats Directive, and Special Protection Areas (SPAs), designated under the Birds Directive. Despite this, in 2010 the EU Biodiversity Baseline reported that only 17% of the listed priority species and habitats were in a favourable state. It found that 25% of marine mammal species in the EU were threatened, along with 22% of amphibians and 12% of birds. In terms of ecosystems, from 1990 to 2006 there was a 5% decline in wetland areas and a 7.9% growth in artificial surfaces (e.g. urban and industrial). The efforts to combat biodiversity loss have been outweighed by the continued and growing pressures, including land-use change.
All 28 EU Member States are expected to identify and designate Natura 2000 sites. This is an intensive scientific process, based on biological and ecological criteria (the occurrence and conservation of species or habitat types listed under the Nature Directives). This scientific foundation has boosted the coherence of the network and its credibility with different sectors. BirdLife Europe and BirdLife National Partners have played an important role; SPAs have in most cases been designated on the basis of BirdLife's inventory of Important Bird Areas (IBA). Natura 200 sites should be managed in ways that are sustainable both ecologically and economically. This enhances the prospects for integrating conservation with various land use sectors.
Actions for mainstreaming regionally, nationally and locally include the following:
- At EU-level, the scientific approach is complemented by processes for stakeholder involvement in the management of Natura 2000 sites, including the creation of sector-specific dialogue tabless.
- These have led to pilot projects and tailored guidelines for sectors such as wind energy, forestry and agriculture.
- At national and site level, authorities have also established participatory processes, enabling a range of sectors to discuss conservation objectives, management approaches, potential impacts of plans and projects, and compensatory measures.
- At the local level, extensive communication with different sectors and stakeholders has been critical for positive outcomes, often around the drafting of a management plan.
Successful mainstreaming through the Natura 2000 Network faces a range of challenges. In some sectors, decision makers can lack understanding of biodiversity or argue that the sites impose burdens on business. However, the legislation is not intended to prevent development, but to ensure this is sustainable and compatible with nature protection. It also provides certainty and a level playing field, in a continent that would otherwise have fragmented approaches to conservation. As the legislation has become more familiar, many sectors have become convinced that it is better to work with the legislation in a spirit of cooperation with conservation stakeholders, rather than face uncertainty about acceptance, permissibility and costs of developments. It is quite clear, however, that the credibility of the threat of legal action is paramount. Once legal action was taken in a few high profile cases, attitudes changed and conservation legislation was taken more seriously. There is no doubt that better results have been obtained where energy has been invested in proper communication, including stakeholder dialogue, tailored guidance documents and participatory processes at site level. Very often, results have depended on active champions, whether within the sector (as is the case for the Renewables Grid Initiative), or a champion for specific sites (to actively engage stakeholders, support those that are in compliance, and flag up non-compliance).
While the EU is still losing biodiversity at an alarming rate, there is mounting evidence that the Natura 2000 network has been effective in slowing the decline of species and habitats. Studies (for example by Sanderson et al, 2015) have found that species for which Natura 2000 sites have been designated have fared better than other species, especially in countries that joined the EU earlier, and have done better inside the EU than outside it. Other studies (for example by the EC, 2013) show that if properly implemented, Natura 2000 can bring economic benefits such as tourism, green jobs, and even help reduce social conflict around planned developments, with benefits for the related costs and delays. Examples of how specific Natura 2000 sites drive biodiversity mainstreaming shed light on the impact. In Belgium, for example, a new container dock was proposed for the Port of Antwerp, on the Schelde Estuary, which is designated as both a SPA and a SAC. A court judgement suspended the construction permit, as the plans did not comply with the Nature Directives. This led to direct financial losses estimated at €40 million, but also opened the door for dialogue and cooperation. A formal partnership between the Antwerp Port Authority and Natuurpunt (the largest conservation NGO in Flanders and a BirdLife National Partner) resulted in new breeding sites for gulls and sand martins, a mud flat/salt marsh, and fish spawning area. Target species have increased, including avocets and bluethroats. Today, biodiversity concerns are fully mainstreamed into planning at the port, and it provides a model used by other European ports. A separate case study describes the Renewables Grid Initiative, which brings together power line operators and NGOs, and drew on the Natura 2000 database to develop a protected areas indicator for this sector’s long-term planning.