Drinking rainwater from banana leaf, Nigeria. (c) I. Uwanaka/UNEP peopleandplanet.net
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Drinking rainwater from banana leaf, Nigeria. (c) I. Uwanaka/UNEP
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biodiversity > features > can the new europe meet the biodiversity challenge?

Can the new Europe meet the biodiversity challenge?

Posted: 22 Apr 2004

Ten new countries, with 75 million people, will join the enlarged European Union on May 1, 2004. They will bring with them much of the remaining natural wealth of Europe, but present the Union with an enormous challenge of conserving its rich biodiversity, in the face of rapid development. The following summary of these environmental assets, is based on research by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The ten new countries that will join the European Union on May 1, are Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The total area of the new member states is 738 592 sq km, or roughly 23 per cent of the existing 15 EU states.

New EU Member countries map
Map: IUCN/G. Davila

Biodiversity assets

These new member countries represent a large proportion of Europe's remaining natural wealth. They harbour about one fifth of the continent's forests, have ample freshwater resources, and are rich in animal and plant diversity.

Large carnivores survive in the natural or virgin forests of Eastern and Central Europe, such as the Carpathians, where their natural prey still exists and human impacts are low. The eight Central European states are home to almost half of the world's population of white storks.

However, the big challenge for all the new EU member states is to retain their natural resources while improving the well-being of their people. And this means securing peoples' livelihoods through sustainable development.

Future farming

Employment in agriculture is five times higher, on average, in the new member countries than in the EU of 15 (21 per cent in Central and Eastern European countries compared to 4 per cent in the 15), while agricultural land use covers about 50 per cent of Europe's land surface. Agriculture also contributes between 3 and 7 per cent of the GDP in these countries, some of which aspire to become Europe's major producers of organic food.

However, when new member states enter the EU, they will begin receiving subsidies from the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in form of area payments. There is concern that this new 'soft money' for Rural Development and Structural Funds will destroy traditional landscapes, which are 'greener' than those in most EU states, with their intensive farms.

Environmentalists believe that it would help if farming not only produced food and fibres, but also more consciously contributed to safeguarding and managing the environment in rural areas, including providing employment, recreational services and a quality life for the population.

Protecting forests

The forest area of the enlarged EU will be about 1.38 million sq km, of which some 238,000 sq km - or 17 per cent - is within the ten new EU states.

Bialowieza Forest in Poland. Photo: IUCN
The Bialowieza Forest in Poland will become the new frontier of the European Union. Credit: IUCN

In the 1990's, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe privatised between one third and a half of all forests, through restitution of property and/or compensation schemes. Many of the 2 million new forest owners are unskilled in sustainable forest management, and there is an obvious temptation to seek short-term profit from their new property through over-exploitation and clear-cutting

Since the new member states are strong round wood exporters, the EU forest market is likely to become almost self-sufficient. However, the increased diversity of the EU 25 will challenge the existing forestry regime, which will need to be consolidated.

Fish and water

The amount of fish caught in Eastern European freshwaters has declined by nearly a third over the last 10 years. The reasons include over-fishing, the loss of natural spawning areas,and contamination with PCBs, heavy metals and other pllutants.

Some 18 per cent of Europe's population live in countries that are water stressed. Among these, two new member countries - Cyprus and Malta - have the highest Water Exploitation Index, 44 and 38 per cent respectively. This index, developed under the European Water Framework Directive, provides an overview of those countries where freshwater resources are more strained by water abstractions.

Agricultural use puts the biggest pressure on freshwater ecosystems. Countries with the highest agricultural water use such as Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, consume in some cases over 10 per cent of their annual available resource. Agricultural pollution is another threat to freshwater resources.

The countries of Eastern Europe have ample water resources. Poland, for instance, has 1,391 m3 per capita renewable water resources, of which 321 m3 per capita is used. Of this, 75 per cent is used for industry, and only 11 per cent for agriculture. In Romania, on the other hand, which has applied to join the European Union, almost 60 per cent is used for agricultural purposes.

Even though none of the accession countries suffer from water scarcity, the impacts of their water use on the environment are visible in fragmented and polluted waterways. Much effort is needed to meet the requirements under the European Water Framework Directive.

Coastal Areas

Europe borders nine major seas: Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, White Sea, Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea, Baltic Sea, North Sea, and the North Atlantic Ocean. Indented by numerous bays, fjords, and seas, continental Europe's highly irregular coastline is about 38,000 kms long, equal to the earth's circumference at the equator.

While no official and clear marine legislation exists at the EU level, a European Marine Strategy is currently under development.

Four Baltic countries are joining the EU, doubling the number of Baltic member states in the Union. This month (April), all eight countries approved the designation of the Baltic Sea as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA) for which urgent protection measures are needed. A compromise, however, needs to be found in view of Russia's opposition to the PSSA agreement, if the threats facing it are to be met. These include pollution, eutrophication (depletion of oxygen in water caused by nutrients), and invasive species. Some studies suggest that up to 90 per cent of marine life in the Baltic is at risk.

Tuna fishing, Sardinia, Italy. Photo: Antonio Pais/FAO
Tuna fishing. A raised landing net brings the tuna to the surface in Sardinia, Italy.
© Antonio Pais/FAO
Three new member states (Cyprus, Malta and Slovenia) join the four EU countries in the Mediterranean. As with the Baltic countries, the new Mediterranean Sea states share environmental threats of marine invasions and pollution. Increased reliance on desalination (up to 60 per cent dependency) is of particular concern for Malta and Cyprus. Tourism - especially coastal tourism - is of high importance to the national economies of the new Mediterranean EU states, resulting in increased consumption of freshwater and energy, and pressure on coastal and marine facilities.

Developing marine aquaculture and controlling inshore trawl fisheries, add to the challenges the new EU will have to address. All applicant countries are required to adapt their legislation to the 'acquis communautaire' and to set up the necessary administrative machinery to meet the demands of the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

Protected areas

Around 18 per cent of the current EU's land surface is designated under NATURA 2000, a European network of protected areas. This ecological network is an important objective of the so-called EU Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, and will contain special areas of conservation to enable the natural habitat types and the habitats of species to be maintained or restored.

One problem facing the new member countries is the risk of losing potential NATURA 2000 sites, and the valuable species they contain, due to rapid development of their infrastructure. This would have very serious consequences for European biodiversity.

The marine environment faces similar challenges. In 2003, European Environment Ministers committed their countries to implement a Network of Marine Protected Areas by 2010. However, significant progress has yet to be made in order to meet this deadline. IUCN and WWF have suggested a step by step procedure to establish an offshore NATURA 2000 network.

Endangered Species

Critically Endangered Iberian Lynx. Photo: IUCN/P. Jackson
Critically Endangered Iberian Lynx.
© IUCN/P. Jackson
Overall, some 780 European species are listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Of these 64 animals and plants, including the Iberian Lynx, the Mediterranean Monk Seal, the Common Sawfish, the Baltic Sturgeon, and the Spengler's Freshwater Mussel, are classed as Critically Endangered - the top threat category in the IUCN Red List.

Numerous large carnivores used to occupy the extensive forests that once covered Europe. To survive, these animals need large undisturbed territories, natural prey and as few conflicts with people as possible. Wherever these conditions disappear, large carnivores disappear as well.

Once abundant throughout Europe, brown bears are now restricted to three main populations, in the Carpathians, the Balkans and Scandinavia, and their numbers are estimated to be about 12,800. The Romanian Carpathians cover 1.4 per cent of Europe's territory but are home to 43 per cent of the bears, 30 per cent of the wolves and 30 per cent of the lynxes in Europe, excluding Russia.

Wolves also inhabit these three regions, together with the Iberian Peninsula and Italy; numbers are estimated to be about 9,800. Lynx are found mainly in the Carpathians and Fennoscandia. In other parts of Europe, large carnivores are rare and live in small isolated populations. Both the brown bear and wolf are listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention as strictly protected species, whilst lynx is listed in Appendix III as a protected species.

Law and Policy

The European Union has some of the world's most progressive environmental legislation, yet its protectionist policies on agriculture and trade, especially the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), have contributed to damage to the environment within Europe and, indirectly, across the globe. The priority is to ensure that the impact of these double standards is not amplified with the accession of the ten new member states.

The current EU states have to integrate increasing amounts of environmental legislation into existing mechanisms, whereas the new member states must build environmental issues directly into their sectoral policies. This presents both opportunities and threats. For example, if the present Common Agricultural Policy was applied in rural areas of Central Europe without special consideration for the rich biodiversity and diverse mosaic of livelihoods, the consequences could be environmentally damaging.

Climate Change

The big question for the enlarged EU, is how this group of 25 countries will fulfill its pledge to combat climate change. Under the Kyoto Protocol, all 25 countries are committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eight per cent from 1990 levels over the period 2008 to 2012. The EU 15 are sharing the burden of this commitment, with some required to reduce more than eight per cent and some less, taking into account their specific national situations. Germany, for example, is pledged to reduce emissions by 21 per cent, while Spain is actually allowed to increase emissions by 15 per cent. Last month the first country plans were handed over to the European Commission.

The new members will be brought into the scheme, and there is optimism that they may even outdo the EU 15. Emissions in these countries declined sharply in the 1990s thanks to economic decline and restructuring. Per capita carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in Poland and Slovakia are now lower than the EU average. Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia are leading the way in renewable energy sources, as the new member states work towards the target of 21 per cent renewable electricity by the year 2010.

Nevertheless, energy efficiency in these countries, though improving, is still well below the EU 15 average. And as economic growth picks up in their emissions from transport and energy are bound to rise. There is much work to be done to ensure that long-term infrastructure investments in the acceding countries are sustainable.

Related links:


IUCN Office for Central Europe

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