Threat to European biodiversity 'as serious as climate change'
Most of Europe's species and habitats are in poor condition and the risk of extinction continues to rise, environment chiefs are to warn at a major biodiversity conference in Athens this week
- guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 April 2009 16.53 BST
A report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) to be published next month sounds the alarm that most species and habitats across the continent are in poor condition and the risk of extinction continues to rise.
New figures for the UK also show that even the most important and rare plants and animals are suffering: eight out of 10 habitats and half of species given the highest level of European protection are in an "unfavourable" condition.
Species at risk in the UK range from insects like the honeybee and swallowtail butterfly, to mammals and birds at the top of the food chain such as the otter and the golden eagle, said the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH).
The losses threaten to undermine vital ecosystem services like clean water and fertile soils, which underpin both quality of life and the economy, said Jacqueline McGlade, the EEA's executive director.
"Much of our economy in Europe relies on the fact we have natural resources underpinning everything," McGlade told the Guardian. The losses of wildlife and habitat are a threat to being able to live sustainably within the enviroment in the future, she said. "Some of the losses are irreversible."
McGlade will present findings from the agency report at a major conference next week called by the European environment commissioner Stavros Dimas. He is worried that the European commission has failed to meet a pledge to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, and recently warned "the loss of biodiversity is a global threat that is every bit as serious as climate change".
"The reasons that we are losing biodiversity are well known: destruction of habitats, pollution, over-exploitation, invasive species and, most recently, climate change," Dimas will tell the conference in Athens. "The compound effect of these forces is terrifying."
At another high-level conference in London on Wednesday, organised by the CEH, leaders from business, government, academics and NGOs will warn that ecosystems underpin human lifestyles from air, water and food to resources for industry.
Professor Lord May of Oxford, a former government chief scientific adviser and president of the Royal Society, said: "Our massive and unintended experiment on the planet's reaction to unsustainable levels of human impacts is approaching crisis point. The future is not yet beyond rescue, provided we take appropriate action with due urgency."
The EEA report says although there have been some conservation successes, including halting the decline of common songbirds, the "overall status and trends of most species and habitats give rise to concern".
Figures for the habitats and species awarded special protection under the EU habitats directive reveal that across 40 countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union, 50-85% of habitats and 40-70% of species were in an "unfavourable" condition, and many more could not be assessed because of a lack of information.
Across Europe, the biggest declines from 1990 to 2000 had been for bogs and fenland, heathland and coastal habitats. Woodland, forests and lakes had grown, but these increases were dwarfed by the biggest habitat expansion, which was "constructed, industrial, artificial habitats".
Populations of some European common birds stopped falling in the 1990s, but all groups of birds had fallen in numbers since 1980, and other species groups like butterflies, amphibians and pollinating insects had declined dramatically, said the report.
The report notes that habitats and species in the habitats directive were chosen because they were under threat, and so were harder to conserve.
"Ecosystems generally show a fair amount of resilience," it adds. "Beyond certain thresholds, however, ecosystems may collapse and transform into distinctly different states, potentially with considerable impacts on humans."
Reforms to be put to the conference in Athens include better management of protected areas, which now make up more than 17% of the European Union territory; targets for economic sectors, such as transport, to ensure they do not have a negative impact on the environment; and more work on putting a "value" on ecosystem services so conservationists can argue their case against developers, said McGlade.
"This is not about putting a price on everything, it's a value. This will transform the discussion because somebody can say 'you're eating away at our capital - grassland', or whatever the landscape or species is."
In a statement, Defra, the UK environment department, said the government fully supported strong international targets, but said many conservation schemes were working.
"For example, England's Sites of Special Scientific Interest are in better condition than ever at 88.4% in favourable or recovering condition compared with 57% in 2003," it added.
Globally, last year's annual "red ist" of endangered species from the IUCN conservation organisation warned that the world's mammals face an extinction crisis, with almost one in four of 5,487 known species at risk of disappearing forever.
Some UK species at risk
Mammals - Dormouse, otter
Birds - Golden eagle, cuckoo
Insects - Swallowtail butterfly, garden tiger moth, stag beetle
Amphibians - Great crested newt
Pollinators - Honeybee, several kinds of bumblebee
Source: Centre for Ecology & Hydrology