The European Union’s ambitious new biodiversity strategy is generally good news for nature in Europe, but for the rest of the world the picture is less clear.

Will the EU fulfil its ambition of leading by example to restore global biodiversity or will it protect Europe’s nature by exporting the problem elsewhere? Khaled Diab explores the thorny issue.

The European Commission has unveiled its new Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, which the EU executive describes as “a comprehensive, systemic and ambitious long-term plan for protecting nature and reversing the degradation of ecosystems”.

The document, which, along with the Farm to Fork Strategy, was released on World Bee Day, proposes a more ambitious vision and programme for restoring and protecting nature in all its flourishing variety, especially when it comes to enforcement, than its predecessor, which expires in 2020.

“The coronavirus has taught us how important it is to listen to scientists and heed their warnings and scientists have been warning about the threat posed by biodiversity loss to our own survival for decades,” explains the EEB’s Policy Manager for Biodiversity and Water Sergiy Moroz. “Restoring and protecting nature brings so many benefits, from climate and flood protection to defence against the emergence of new diseases.”

The natural world is in peril as human activity threatens mass extinction around the globe. For example, humanity has wiped out 60% of the global population of wild animals since 1970.

In Europe, too, the situation is dire, despite the fact that the EU has some of the toughest nature laws on the planet. The EU is on track to meet only six out of 35 environmental targets, according to a damning report released by the European Environment Agency last year.

“Europe’s environment is at a tipping point. We have a narrow window of opportunity in the next decade to scale up measures to protect nature, lessen the impacts of climate change, and radically reduce the consumption of natural resources,” urged the EEA’s Director Hans Bruyninckx at the time.

Healing nature

Using existing Natura 2000 sites as a base, the new strategy seeks to protect at least 30% of all EU seas (up from the current 19%) and at least 30% of all EU land (up from 26%) by 2030, with areas of high biodiversity or climate value receiving even stricter protection.

One important cornerstone of the strategy is a nature restoration plan, supported by €20 billion of targeted funding every year. Drawing lessons from the failure of its previous voluntary targets to arrest biodiversity loss, the Commission intends to propose new legislation with binding targets to restore nature across the EU. These targets include restoring at least 25,000km of European rivers to make them free-flowing again.

In addition, the strategy allocates more resources for the implementation and enforcement of the EU’s flagship nature laws.

Beyond Europe’s borders

The European Commission’s vision for the rest of the world is just as ambitious as it is for Europe. The Commission wants the EU not only to lead by example but also to lead the charge towards restoring all the world’s ecosystems by 2050 and gaining global commitment for what it calls the “net-gain principle” in which humanity puts back into nature more than it takes out of it. “As part of this, the world should commit to no human-induced extinction of species,” the strategy states.  

Towards that end, the Commission has indicated that the EU will push for an “ambitious legally binding agreement on marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction”.

It also proposes stronger implementation, monitoring and review processes at the international level.

Later this year, the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity will debate and adopt a post-2020 framework for global biodiversity. By moving forward already with its own post-2020 biodiversity strategy, the EU can lead by example at the Convention’s 15th Conference of the Parties, which is due to take place in October 2020 in Kunming, China, and will revolve around the theme of “urgent action on biodiversity for sustainable development”.

“Global efforts under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity have largely been insufficient. Nature cannot afford any half measures or lack of ambition,” the Commission’s draft biodiversity strategy spells out unequivocally. “In this spirit, the EU is ready to lead all efforts… to agree an ambitious new global framework for post-2020.”

No room for trade offs

Despite the Commission’s haughty aspirations, what the strategy does not say about international commerce is, at a certain level, more telling than what it does mention.

Trade policy will actively support and be part of the ecological transition,” the EU’s biodiversity strategy clearly states. “In this spirit, the Commission will ensure full implementation and enforcement of the biodiversity provisions in all trade agreements, including through the EU Chief Trade Enforcement Officer.”

However, the Biodiversity Strategy does not mention the need to abandon or renegotiate damaging free trade deals. Unlike the clear and binding targets proposed for restoring and preserving biodiversity in the EU, the language used to refer to the EU’s free trade agreements (FTAs) is rather vague and non-committal. “The additional action in the global chapter related to trade or reducing EU consumption is very weak,” notes the EEB’s Sergiy Moroz.

“The Chief Trade Enforcement Officer is not the tooth fairy,” emphasises Perrine Fournier, trade campaigner at forestry NGO Fern, which is a member of the EEB network. “Unless fundamental changes are made to make trade and sustainable development commitments specific and enforceable, the enforcement officer will have little bite.”

Without enforcement, biodiversity loss in tropical rainforests may, paradoxically, continue unabated or possibly even accelerate as economic actors, both outside and inside the EU, take their destructive activities to less-regulated areas of the world.

Invisible hand

One particularly problematic FTA into which the EU has entered is with the Southern Common Market or Mercosur (a trading bloc of South American nations). The deal was sealed, after two decades of negotiations, last year, at around the same time that large swathes of the Amazon were going up in smoke, with devastating effects for the rainforest’s biodiversity.

Despite the new trade accord’s vaunted environmental credentials on paper, environmentalists fear that it will contribute to the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the human rights violations that underpin it. Civil society was so alarmed by the implications of the trade deal that more than 340 organisations, including the EEB, sent out a joint letter in June 2019 in which they urged the EU to halt negotiations.

Environmental groups see a yawning contradiction between the EU’s environmental commitments and the laissez faire approach embodied in the Mercosur FTA. Despite the Commission’s assurances that the Mercosur accord will adhere to the highest environmental standards, critics expect that rather than Europe exporting high standards, the deal will lead to the importing of environmentally damaging produce and products.

Cowboy attitudes to nature

The vast majority of the deforestation in Brazil and other Amazon states has been due to the clearing of land for cattle rearing. The EU already imports 120,000 tonnes a year of Brazilian beef, and this figure will undoubtedly balloon under the new free trade deal, spelling even more devastation for the Amazon.

More worryingly still, under the Mercosur deal, the EU is expected to import greater quantities of bioethanol and soy as feedstock for biodiesel to meet its climate commitments at home. The trouble is biofuel not only diverts arable land from food production, it is also a major cause of deforestation, including in the Amazon.

“Ironically, despite Europe’s significant contribution to deforestation in the Amazon and other forested areas, this is not counted when the EU is measuring its sustainability,” explains Patrizia Heidegger, Director for Global Policies and Sustainability at the EEB. “This enables us to ignore our footprint in the outside world, look at the growing forest cover in Europe and believe we are becoming more sustainable.”

Although China is currently the world’s largest importer of soybeans, the EU is the world’s premier importer of soymeal and the second largest importer of soybeans, according to ‘Who is paying the bill?’, a major report commissioned by the EEB, on the externalities of EU policies. The areas of deforested land given over to these environmentally destructive monocultures is bound to expand in the context of the EU-Mercosur trade deal.

Reducing Europe’s pressure on global biodiversity requires, amongst other measures, lowering our imports of protein crops like soya to feed farm animals. This is only possible if we reduce livestock numbers and phase out industrial livestock farming in Europe, as we do not possess enough land here to feed all our farm animals at current levels of production. To find out more about how our food system can be made healthier for humans and the planet, check out the resources produced by GoodFood4All, a campaign organised by the Make Europe Sustainable for All project.

However, neither the Biodiversity nor the Farm to Fork strategies seriously tackles the issue of meat overproduction and overconsumption. “If European governments really want to improve public health, helping farming produce and people consume food that is healthy and sustainable is a great place to start,” says Célia Nyssens, the EEB’s Agriculture Policy Officer, “in that sense, this strategy is a real missed opportunity.”

In addition, we need to avoid other biodiversity-destroying products, such as biofuels, oil and gas extraction, as well as mineral mining, involving habitat destruction.

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