The European Commission presented the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy on last 20 May which aims at bringing “bringing nature back into our lives – a genuinely ground-breaking new policy approach to help us to protect and restore our precious Biodiversity”. The strategy recognises that we humans are part of, and fully dependent on, the web of life represented by large scale protected areas and small urban garden from microscopic organisms to blue whales.

The strategy represents good news for large natural ecosystem areas (“wilderness”) and natural, old-growth forests. In the line with the European Green Deal, the Biodiversity Strategy addresses the key drivers of biodiversity loss, such as unsustainable use of land and sea, overexploitation of natural resources, pollution, and invasive alien species. A few elements, which following the zero draft of the Convention on Biological Diversity, are very forward looking:

  • Legal protection of 30% of terrestrial and sea area
  • Strict protection for 10% of total area, offering great potential for large natural ecosystem areas, which clearly applies to all remaining EU old growth/primary forests along with other ecosystems
  • Establishment of comprehensive green & blue ecological connectivity

The strict protection is an important point not only for biodiversity protection, but also for delivering the EU’s commitment of being carbon neutral by 2050. There will surely be further discussions about this, especially because the management of forest is a shared competence between the European Commission and the Member States. The exact allocation of responsibilities and how to guarantee a larger scale the protection of forests as one of the management options while also implementing the EU bio-economy strategy will be in interesting debate between the Commission and the Member States.

Why does the protection of natural forest matter? Based on United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Green-House Gas accounting rules, climate mitigation depends on the carbon stocks in the biosphere and atmosphere, not sequestration rates as annual flows. Any substitution benefits of using bioenergy are currently included in the energy accounts. In order to minimize the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the cumulative carbon in forest trees and soils must be maximized. Prof William Moomaw and collegues suggested the new term proforestation, which argues that the maximum carbon storaged in forests occurs when forests are allowed to continue growing.

The new EU Nature Restoration Plan proposed within the Biodiversity Strategy also resonates global intentions with core focus on ecosystem services. The UN decade on ecosytem restoration, which aim at restoring 350 million hectares of degraded land between 2021 and 2030, could generate USD 9 trillion in ecosystem services and take an additional 13-26 gigatons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. The proposal within the EU biodiversity strategy to agree on Legally binding Nature Restoration Targets by 2021 for degraded ecosystems is an obvious link to that. As part of the EU Nature Restoration Plan the Commission suggested planting 3 billion trees by 2030, which coupled with the protection of old-growth forests is an important step towards the EU target of being carbon neutral by 2050. This offers a meaningful contribution to the forest sector, but must be carried out very carefully. Planting forest monocultures for instance might help to sequester more carbon, but will have no positive impact on biodiversity protection.

There is also an open question linked to the bioenergy aspect within the biodiversity strategy, because of a relatively vague wording. “The use of whole trees and food and feed crops for energy production – whether produced in the EU or imported – should be minimised.” says the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. However, the definition of minimal use of whole trees is unclear, and over 300 scientists sent an open letter to the Member of European Parliament on 15 May 2020 which called to “protect the carbon stocks in remaining primary and older forests, and allow these and secondary forests to grow and restore their ecological potential for carbon storage and biological diversity”. Otherwise meeting with the stated EU climate goals in the coming decades will not be possible.

So, there are clearly disputed elements within the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy. Its proper implementation will require adequate funding and enforcement on the ground. The 20 billion Euro funding per year, which is mentioned in the document, is relatively under budgeted for the scale of the task, and will have to come from private as well as public funds. Unfortunately, the source of funding remained unclear and the decrease of the amount of LIFE+, the only biodiversity committed budget line of the EU, is not really promising.

The implementation of the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy will surely be very challenging, and strong cooperation will be required between the European Commission and the Member States, but the Commission is to be congratulated for sticking to its guns, so far, in advocating necessarily ambitious objectives for protection and restoration.