Biodiversity, nature and soil

The 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development marked a major step forward for the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of nature thanks to the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In 2011 the EU committed itself to halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. Other objectives set out in the Habitats Directive or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) remain to be achieved. Since 1992, LIFE has been the most important financial instrument for the protection of biodiversity in the EU.

Legal basis

Articles 3, 11 and 191-193 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU).


The EU has played an important international role in seeking solutions to biodiversity loss, climate change and the destruction of tropical rainforests. The UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, led to the adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change and of the Biological Diversity Convention (CBD), as well as to the Rio Declaration, a Statement of Forest Principles and the Agenda 21 programme. At the 2001 Gothenburg summit, the EU agreed to halt biodiversity loss by 2010 and to restore habitats and ecosystems. The UN General Assembly declared 2010 the Year of Biodiversity. However, the report entitled ‘The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3’, published by the CBD’s secretariat, shows that the 2010 biodiversity target has not been met. At its meeting held in Nagoya (Japan) in October 2010, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD adopted a revised Strategic Plan including new biodiversity targets for the post-2010 period. The aim is to ‘take effective and urgent action to halt the loss of biodiversity in order to ensure that by 2020 ecosystems are resilient and continue to provide essential services, thereby securing the planet’s variety of life’. The adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing was a crucial achievement of the Nagoya COP. Fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources is one of the three objectives of the CBD, which defines rules on sharing research results and commercial profit.

a.Biodiversity action plans

In May 2006 the Commission adopted a communication entitled ‘Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 — and beyond: Sustaining ecosystem services for human well-being’, which included an EU action plan for achieving the necessary protection of biodiversity. In 2008, the Commission published a mid-term report on implementation of the action plan, concluding that the EU was unlikely to meet its 2010 target of halting biodiversity decline. A new strategy was adopted by the Commission in June 2011 in order to meet the target set by the Environment Council of March 2010 of ‘halting the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems services in the EU by 2020, and restoring them..., while stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss’. In addition to the 2020 target, the new EU biodiversity strategy to 2020 defines the 2050 vision: ‘By 2050, European Union biodiversity and the ecosystem services it provides — its natural capital — are protected, valued and appropriately restored for biodiversity’s intrinsic value and for their essential contribution to human wellbeing and economic prosperity, and so that catastrophic changes caused by the loss of biodiversity are avoided.’ In December 2011 the Council endorsed the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020, with its six targets: full implementation of EU nature legislation so as to protect biodiversity; better protection of ecosystems and greater use of green infrastructure; more sustainable agriculture and forestry; better management of fish stocks; tighter controls on invasive alien species; and a bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.

b.International conventions for the protection of fauna and flora

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that up to 24% of species belonging to groups such as butterflies, birds and mammals have already completely disappeared from the territory of certain European countries. According to data published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2007, in Europe 23% of amphibians, 19% of reptiles, 15% of mammals and 13% of birds are under threat. The EU is a party to the following conventions: the Ramsar Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands (1971); the CITES convention (March 1973); the Bonn Convention on the Protection of Migratory Species of Wild Fauna (June 1979); the Bern Convention on the Protection of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (1982); the Rio de Janeiro Convention on Biological Diversity (1992); and regional conventions: the Helsinki Convention on the Baltic Sea (1974); the Barcelona Convention on the Mediterranean (1976); and the Convention on the Protection of the Alps (1991).

c.Financial instruments

Since 1992 the EU’s dedicated funding instrument for the environment has been the LIFE programme. Nature conservation and biodiversity have been included among the sub-programmes for the four phases already completed. The Commission manages the LIFE programme, which supports projects in Member States and non-EU countries. The fifth phase (the LIFE 2014-2020 Regulation ((EU) No 1293/2013)) was published in December 2013 and consists of two sub-programmes, on climate change and environment. A budget of EUR 1 155 million is available for nature and biodiversity, part of the environment sub-programme; total funding for LIFE 2014-2020 amounts to EUR 3 456 million. Other funding to support biodiversity has been taken up under agriculture and fisheries policies, Cohesion and Structural Funds, and the pluriannual Research Programmes. In 2010-2011 two first calls were launched under BEST, the voluntary scheme for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Territories of European overseas.


a.Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora

The Habitats Directive (Directive 92/43 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, amended by Directive 97/62) established a European network, Natura 2000. It comprises ‘Sites of Community Interest’/’Special Areas of Conservation’ designated by Member States, and ‘Special Protection Areas’ classified pursuant to Directive 79/409 on the conservation of wild birds. With a total area of over 850 000 km2, this is the largest coherent network of protected sites in the world. The Habitats Directive aims principally to promote the conservation of biological diversity while taking account of economic, social, cultural and regional requirements. The Birds Directive covers the protection, management and control of (wild) birds, including rules for sustainable hunting.

b.Invasive alien species

Tighter controls on invasive alien species are one of the six targets of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020. Invasive alien species cause damage amounting to billions of euros every year in the EU, not only to ecosystems but also to crops and livestock, disrupting local ecology and affecting human health. In April 2014 Parliament adopted its first-reading position on the proposal for a regulation on the prevention and management of the introduction and spread of invasive alien species, based on the text agreed with the Council. The regulation seeks — through prevention, early warning and rapid response — to protect native biodiversity and to minimise and mitigate the impact of such species on human health and the economy. In particular, the Member States will have to establish surveillance systems and action plans.

c.Access and benefit-sharing

Following the adoption of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing, the Commission presented a proposal in October 2012 with a view to laying down binding requirements for access to genetic resources in the country of origin and ensuring that the benefits are fairly and equitably shared. An agreement between Parliament and the Council led to the adoption of a final text in April 2014. Under the regulation adopted, genetic resources and traditional knowledge associated with such resources can only be transferred and utilised in accordance with terms mutually agreed between the users (businesses, private collectors and institutions) and the authorities of the country of origin.

d.Exploitation and trade of wild fauna and flora

The CITES convention entered into force in 1975, regulating international trade, specifically the (re-)exporting and importing of live and dead animals and plants and of parts and derivatives thereof, on the basis of a system of permits and certificates. The basic Regulation 338/97 on the protection of wild fauna and flora by regulating trade applies the objectives, principles and provisions of the CITES convention to EU law. In June 2009, Regulation (EC) 398/09 (amending Regulation (EC) 338/97) on the protection of species of wild fauna and flora entered in force. Regarding the protection of marine fauna, Regulation (EC) 348/81 sets common rules for the import of whale or other cetacean products, while Decision 1999/337/EC concerns the EU’s signing-up to the agreement on the International Dolphin Conservation Programme, with a view to helping reduce incidental dolphin mortality during tuna fishing. Directive 83/129/EEC, extended indefinitely by Directive 89/370/EEC, prohibits the import of seal pup products into the EU; in 2009, Regulation (EC) 1007/09 introduced even stricter conditions for importing seal products. In 1991, the Council adopted the Leghold Trap Regulation (Council Regulation (EC) 3254/91), banning the use of leghold traps and the importing of pelts and manufactured goods from wild species originating in countries which allow such trapping methods. Commission Decision 98/596/EC allows imports of furs into the EU from Canada, Russia and the US on account of the commitments made by those countries to implement humane trapping standards. Rules and guidelines for the sustainable hunting of (wild) birds can be found in the Birds Directive.

e.Biodiversity related to animal welfare

Directive 1999/22 sets minimum standards for housing and caring for animals in zoos and reinforces the role of zoos in conserving biodiversity while retaining a role in education and research. The Commission launched the Action Plan on Protection and Welfare of Animals 2006-2010 (COM(2006) 0013), in support of the ‘three Rs’ principle (replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals for research). Directive  2010/63/EU on the Protection of Animals used for Scientific Purposes (repealing Directive 86/609) is based on that principle, and took effect from 1 January 2013.

f.Marine biodiversity

Marine biodiversity comes within the scope of the Biodiversity Action Plans for Natural Resources and Fisheries. The review of the EU Biodiversity Strategy stresses the importance of the ‘good ecological status’ of seas and coastal areas if they are to support biodiversity. Furthermore, the 2002 EU Marine Strategy (COM(2002) 0539) proposes an ecosystem-based approach to conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity. In 2005, a Thematic Strategy (TS) on the Protection and Conservation of the Marine Environment was proposed by the Commission in accordance with the provisions of the 6th Environmental Action Programme. The following TS, the Marine Strategy Directive (2008/56/EC), entered into force in July 2008. It aimed to ensure the good status of the EU’s marine waters by 2020 and to protect the resource base on which marine-related economic and social activities depend.


Forests make up almost 30% of the surface area of the Natura 2000 network. Several measures are aimed at the protection of forests. Regulations 3528/86 and 2158/92 on the protection of the EU’s forests against pollution and fire (which expired in 2002) have been integrated into the Forest Focus Regulation (2152/2003). Council Regulation 1615/89 established the European Forestry Information and Communication System (EFICS), setting up an information system on forestry. The Council resolution of 15 December 1998 on an EU forestry strategy established a framework for forests in support of sustainable forest management (SFM). A Communication on an EU Forest Action Plan (COM(2006) 0302) was adopted in June 2006. A Commission proposal to prevent illegally cut timber or timber products from being placed on the EU market and a Commission communication on measures to reduce deforestation were endorsed by Parliament in July 2010 and took effect in 2012.

Role of the European Parliament

In September 2010 Parliament adopted a resolution on the implementation of legislation aiming at the conservation of biodiversity, in view of the post-2010 target. It expressed deep concern at the absence from the international political agenda of any sense of urgency in relation to halting the loss of biodiversity, and called for improved biodiversity governance in both internal and external relations.

In 2015-2016 the EU institutions have addressed plant health concerns regarding the influx of pests. Parliament defends the following points: an assessment mechanism to identify plants and products from third countries likely to pose risks and empower the Commission to ban them from entering the EU; an extension of the plant health certificate requirement; an extension of the ‘plant passport’ system to all movements of plants for planting within the EU; an obligation on the part of the Member States to establish multi-annual survey programmes for detection and eradication; and updated rules to ensure that growers will be eligible for compensation.

In early 2016 the Commission launched an action plan on wildlife trafficking, which the EU and Member States have until 2020 to implement. In October 2016 Parliament adopted, in committee, an own-initiative report in response to the action plan, aiming at curbing this organised and destructive crime that represents a threat to biodiversity by bringing many species to the brink of extinction. The action plan has three priorities: prevention, enforcement and cooperation. It should ensure effective implementation and enforcement of existing rules. The importance of global cooperation between countries of origin, transit countries and destination countries was stressed. The report is expected to be approved in plenary by the end of 2016.

In the autumn of 2016 Parliament adopted resolutions against the authorisation by the Commission of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — maize, etc. — and for efforts to facilitate the banning of GMO cultivation by Member States in line with the objective of protecting biodiversity, nature and soil.

The global agreement reached at the COP21 conference in Paris in December 2015 to mitigate the effects of climate change was ratified by Parliament in October 2016 and is expected to have a positive impact in the preservation of biodiversity in the decades to come.

Marcelo Sosa-Iudicissa / Lorenzo Vicario