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OPINION: Restoring nature could be Europe's saviour

by Enric Sala | National Geographic
Friday, 6 March 2020 10:12 GMT

Pink flamingos are seen in the Camargue regional natural park, near Arles, southern France, April 12, 2015. REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelissier

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Europe, almost a quarter of wild species are at risk of dying out and many ecosystems are too degraded to sustain their social and economic benefits

Like a pandemic, the loss of plant and animal species is almost impossible to contain. But we already have all the information and evidence we need to stop it.

And while it’s clear that every country must do its part to restore nature to stop the biodiversity crisis, ecosystems stretch beyond political borders. Yet coordinating international action involves far too many diplomatic meetings and is rarely effective.

But if anyone is up for a challenge like this, it is the European Union - their environmental stewardship knows no borders. In the past few years, the world’s largest trading bloc has clamped down on the import of commodities stemming from the destruction of forests. It has led efforts to protect the high seas. And it has launched a plan to end wildlife trafficking

With the recent adoption of a proposal calling for the protection of the continent’s own land and oceans with the goal of safeguarding its plants and animals, the European Parliament is now addressing the urgent climate change and biodiversity loss crises unfolding in its backyard and worldwide.

Globally, half of all inhabitable land has been converted to agriculture, and over half of the ocean is industrially fished. We’ve lost, as a result, 60 percent of the Earth’s wildlife since 1970; we’re on track to lose one million more plants and animals in the coming decades.  

In Europe, almost a quarter of wild species are at risk of dying out and the majority of the continent’s ecosystems are too degraded to sustain their social and economic benefits - from flood control to tourism.

In response, the EU is calling for the protection of 30% of European territory by 2030 and earmarking a minimum of 10% of the long-term budget to implement these protections. In moving to stem the extinction crisis unfolding within its borders, political leaders recognise the importance of addressing the economic risk that comes when nature is depleted. 

Right now, about 20% of the continent’s land is in areas designated as protected, with Slovenia and Croatia boasting more than 35% of protected lands. More than 10% of the EU’s oceans are in marine protected areas. The European Parliament wants to make it legally binding to bring both those numbers up to 30%.

This bold move by the European Parliament is part of intense global negotiations underway now to iron out the details of a global strategy for stopping species decline and restoring damaged ecosystems that support plants and animals. The agreement, a global deal for nature, will be signed at a major summit in October - as the crisis it seeks to address mounts. 

A study of biodiversity in the Camargue, a protected wetland in southern France, identified a sharp drop in the number of grasshoppers, crickets, locusts and dragonflies in the area, as well as a rise in invasive species of birds and plants. Stopping the agricultural and industrial activity encroaching on the wetlands could help restore these critical species while ensuring crops don’t fail.

Another urgent concern is the decline in fish populations in Europe’s seas, an income source for millions. Sturgeon, a staple of the caviar trade, has become Europe’s most endangered fish. The migratory species, which swims up the Danube River from the Black Sea to spawn, has persevered since the age of the dinosaurs. But dams and pollution along the busy riverway are pushing the species to the brink. Protecting their breeding grounds is imperative for the survival of the species and the industry they support.

With a decades-long conservation legacy, Europe is positioned to implement the protections we need to bring these species back from the brink. A programme in 21 member states revived populations of bison, wolves and other carnivores. The bloc has also pioneered agricultural practices that don’t encroach on critical habitats or decimate insect populations.  

However, many protected areas in Europe are suffering from human activity. Most of the continent’s marine protected areas, or MPAs, allow commercial fishing, including bottom trawling, which has depleted populations of skates, sharks and rays. And industrial agriculture is inefficient and propped up by massive government subsidies.

Protection cannot exist just on paper, and it is not administered like a vaccine, with one shot and then never having to worry again. It’s imperative that when governments meet later this year to sign a biodiversity treaty, they pledge to actively protect much more of their own backyards by 2030.

We need real conservation that restores nature and all the service that it provides, not just lines on a map that give us the illusion of protection. In addition, we need to stop harmful subsidies that perpetuate the destruction of biodiversity.

Whether countries are motivated by environmental stewardship or their economic prowess, their time to act to restore nature is now.