Achieving the 2020 Nature Conservation Targets - A Commission Plan

Recently the European Institutions jointly named 21 May as the European Natura 2000 Day, to emphasise the importance of preserving the natural environment. This comes just a few weeks after the Commission published an Action Plan which aims to enhance the effectiveness of the Birds and Habitats Directives, commonly known as the “Nature Directives”. Natura 2000 is a network of core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species (and some rare natural habitat types), the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world, set up with the aim of conserving European biodiversity. The Commission hopes that the new Action Plan can further enhance this protection by promoting, among others, better coordination as well as compliance and funding opportunities.imp

Various studies have emphasised both the environmental and the economic benefits of the Nature Directives, but there have been voices questioning their effectiveness in practice. Most importantly, the mid-term review of the Biodiversity Strategy found that there was insufficient progress made towards five of the six main Biodiversity Targets to meet the deadline of 2020 – one of which is the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives.

In parallel, and in line with the Better Regulation Agenda, the Commission decided to conduct a “Fitness Check” in order to establish whether the Directives are still fit for purpose and what could be done to improve their efficiency. The resulting study established that, although the Directives are still fit for purpose, further improvements are needed in their implementation. These findings were underpinned by a public consultation of unprecedented size, with more than half a million replies from various stakeholders and members of the general public. Among others, limited resources, weak enforcement, poor integration of nature objectives into other policy areas, insufficient knowledge and access to data, and poor communication and stakeholder involvement have all been named as reasons why the Directives have not been able to fulfil their true potential.

Therefore, in December 2016, the Commission announced that it is developing a concrete action plan to improve the implementation of the Directives, including better coherence with broader objectives and enhanced engagement with national, regional and local authorities, stakeholders and citizens. The Action Plan, which was presented in the form of a Communication on 27 April 2017, does not contain legislative measures, but is a series of actions under four broader categories, a structure which this briefing will follow.

1. Improving guidance and knowledge

The Nature Directives contained rather general rules with a fair amount of discretion being left for practical implementation, since Member States and regional authorities are more adept at understanding the particularities of the protected species and areas within their territories. Although, according to the Commission, this flexibility inspired the development of a wide range of good practices, they also believe that the contrasting approaches led to unnecessary conflicts and problems at times, such as heavy burdens for stakeholders and unreasonably inflexible species protection rules, as well as insufficient awareness among involved parties about their responsibilities.

The Commission identified three areas of action to rectify these flaws. First of all, a need to provide clearer guidance “on the ground” to the responsible public authorities, to allow them a deeper understanding of their responsibilities, but also concerning the amount of room for manoeuvre they have at their disposal to approach local issues in innovative ways (Action 1).

Secondly, Member State authorities are facing difficulties in applying the permitting requirements of the Birds and Habitats Directives, both for Natura 2000 and for species protection rules. The Commission indicated that it would establish a support mechanism by 2019 to address the key challenges related to the application of these requirements (Action 2).

Thirdly, the consultation shed light on the fact that often the Member States lack the necessary amount of knowledge or data to implement the Directives in an effective way. At the European level, the Commission proposed to rectify this issue by, on the one hand, ensuring better public access to data (for example satellite images), and on the other hand by enhanced monitoring which would allow for quick and smooth correction of potential shortfalls in implementation (Action 3).

2. Building political ownership and compliance

One of the most frequent criticisms voiced towards the Natura 2000 network is its relative incompleteness with regards to the marine environment, of which only 6% is covered, as opposed to 18% of the land area of the EU. To redress this, the Action Plan proposes to “complete” the Natura 2000 network (with special attention to the maritime areas), as well as putting in place conservation measures for all sites, since currently only around half of these areas have management plans with suitable measures to achieve conservation objectives (Action 4).

The Commission also proposes bilateral meetings with both national and regional authorities, with the aim of developing common roadmaps and to promote cooperation in management across the different Natura 2000 regions (Action 5). Before these meetings, landowners and other stakeholders would be consulted in order to properly identify the specific local challenges they face when implementing the Directives. The same stakeholders would also be invited to discuss issues at the level of the biogeographical region in order to find possible solutions to common issues, which is particularly important if the protected region in question involves territories from more than one Member State (Action 6).

In addition, the Commission indicated that it would develop separate action plans for habitats and species that are gravely threatened, with special attention to those species which may have coexistence issues with other threatened species, such as large carnivores (Action 7).

3. Investment and funding

It has been established during the “Fitness Check”, and particularly through the public consultation, that there is a lack of funding available for such purposes, especially since the Nature Directives do not explicitly set out how to acquire funds for such projects. The Commission found this especially regrettable considering that, according to one estimate, the €5.8 billion yearly cost of implementing the Directives leads to €2-300 billion in annual benefits. To improve availability of funds, the Action Plan proposes reforming and enhancing already existing funds (such as the budget of the LIFE programme), as well as schemes to stimulate private sector investment (Action 8). Increasing awareness about the specific cohesion policy funding opportunities available is also a key objective (Action 10).

In addition, one of the leading causes for the loss of habitats was found to be agriculture, which means that there is a need for strong cooperation between the efforts of widening biodiversity and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It is pivotal that a certain level of synergy is developed with the CAP, but also with other areas, such as the Common Fisheries Policy or R&D (Action 9 and Action 11). At the same time, green infrastructural projects are encouraged to support connectivity between Natura 2000 areas (Action 12).

4. Better communication and outreach

As mentioned before, the Action Plan’s main goal is to improve the implementation of the Directives at a local level and by the local authorities. The Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the EU’s main body representing regional and local governments, and the Action Plan clarifies that its expertise can be key in raising the effectiveness of the Directives. To take advantage of this, a joint platform is to be set up using the CoR’s capabilities and expertise in order to encourage better exchange of knowledge, as well as engagement by local and regional authorities (Action 13).

Moreover, the Commission emphasised that there is an overall need to raise awareness through various forums about the Directives and the sites, as well as about the general importance of biodiversity, and for this reason the Action Plan also proposes to support the recognition of good management of Natura 2000 sites (Action 14). Another possibility of raising awareness through practical environmental protection measures is to give young people the chance to take part in such endeavours, especially through the recently launched “European Solidarity Corps” programme (Action 15).

Insufficient progress

Naturally, effective actions rarely standalone but are mutually interdependent, and the Action Plan’s main goal is to revitalise the overall preservation efforts in order to achieve the rather ambitious goals of the Biodiversity strategy by 2020. It is widely feared, though, that these targets will not be attained, unless there is a rapid and substantial improvement across all four of the areas mentioned above.

Changing the Directives is a very distant possibility at this time, since neither stakeholders nor Member States truly wish for such a scenario. Although both the Birds Directive (1979) and the Habitats Directive (1992) are old pieces of legislation, they are considered as the “avant garde” of “better regulation”, and milestones in the struggle for nature conversion. Accordingly, most NGOs and stakeholders are afraid that re-opening them would lead to weakened or less ambitious rules, and therefore endorse the Commission’s stance of concentrating on raising the effectiveness of implementation instead.

Next Steps

The Communication has been sent to the Council and the European Parliament, which now have the chance to formally respond to it should they wish to do so. The Council is expected to adopt its Conclusions in response to the Action Plan during the meeting of the Environmental Council on 19 June.

In addition and as a follow-up to the Fitness Check and the publication of the Action Plan, the Commission – together with the CoR and the Maltese Presidency – will host a Conference on the Nature Directives on 6 June 2017. Here, NGOs and private sector representatives will have the chance to comment on the actions and to propose additional practical solutions to the Commission and their fellow stakeholders.

Additional Facts

Full title: Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on an Action Plan for nature, people and the economy [COM(2017) 198]

Proposal Date: 27 April 2017

Type of Procedure: Strategic Consultation