Biodiversity the biggest victim of record European summer
The record-breaking summer heat that swept through Europe this year left behind a lot of devastation. The most visible impact was dried up rivers, which have led to water, power and even food crises as European governments struggle to keep their populations fed, hydrated and with adequate power.
While newspapers and television shows have been screaming loudly about Europeans suffering from an unprecedented summer, few have bothered to report about the impact that the heat waves and forest fires have had on the continent’s already-fragile biodiversity.
In France, the alarm was sounded about the impact of heat waves on birds, while in Bavaria hedgehogs faced starvation as worms burrowed deeper in search of moisture. In Spain, baby birds died when they tried to jump out of nests that had become hot like ovens, while in almost every country in the EU, dried rivers, lakes and ponds led to tens of thousands of fish perishing.
The state of biodiversity in Europe suffered tremendously in the summer heat and subsequent flash floods, but it has only worsened a situation that was already alarming due to centuries of neglect. Though it is a self-proclaimed champion of all things environmental and conservation, Europe’s performance in preserving its own natural heritage and biodiversity has been absolutely pathetic.
Centuries of industrialization, mining, the expansion of human settlements and industrial-scale farming have led to one of the most severe degradations in biodiversity in the world. It is symbolic that even indigenous species like wolves and bears have become extinct practically all over Europe. The damage to marine and floral biodiversity is expected to be even more severe.
For the past few decades, Europe has been making big plans and even bigger proclamations about biodiversity conservation and restoration. A report by the EU on the state of biodiversity in the 2007-12 period showed that only 23 percent of animal and plant species assessments and 16 percent of habitat type assessments were considered to be in a favorable conservation status. On the other hand, 60 percent of species and 77 percent of habitats were in an unfavorable condition. As a result, the report said there was a sharp decline in the number of species. For instance, there was a decline of 50 percent in grassland butterfly species between 1990 and 2011 and there were no signs of recovery. Similarly, European bird populations have fallen by 12 percent since 1990, while farmland bird numbers have fallen by 30 percent.
The EU has set up several strategies and targets to restore its biodiversity. In 2010, it came up with the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020. This strategy was meant to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020 and to restore them as far as possible, while also helping to curb global biodiversity loss. It came up with six key lofty targets. These included showing better conservation and even secure status for 100 percent more habitats and 50 percent more species. It also wanted to restore at least 15 percent of degraded ecosystems, make fishing sustainable by 2015 and, even more absurdly, ensure healthy fish stocks by 2020. It also aimed to control or eradicate invasive alien species.
Europe’s performance in preserving its own natural heritage and biodiversity has been absolutely pathetic
Ranvir S. Nayar
Unfortunately, the EU has failed on every single count, at least on all the measurable targets. Rampant overfishing has continued, leading to frequent disputes between EU members; most notably, it was one of the last stumbling blocks in the EU and UK reaching a Brexit agreement.
Perhaps to cover up its abject failure, last year the EU came up with another biodiversity strategy, with targets in two time frames. It has set another series of highly ambitious, almost improbable, targets for itself, which are to be achieved by 2030 or 2050.
While in the short-term, by 2030, the EU wants to restore 30 percent of all degraded land and seas, it wants to restore all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. It also wants to cut the use of chemical pesticides by 50 percent and bring at least 25 percent of agricultural land under organic farming management.
Its other targets include the restoration of at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers and a reduction of 50 percent in the number of endangered species, or those on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which are threatened by invasive alien species. It also aims to plant billions of trees and ensure that no primary forests are destroyed, besides fully restoring fish stocks.
While certainly nobody would question the need or the wisdom behind setting these goals, the real challenge for Europe is how it gets from here to there. Way back in 2010, when it set out its initial targets, the effects of global warming and climate change were certainly around the corner but had not begun decimating Europe and the rest of the world like they have been over the past few years. The excessive heat waves and forest fires that have hit almost all of the continent since have made it even more challenging for Europe to conserve the little that it has, let alone meet the enhanced targets the EU has set for itself.
This year’s unprecedented energy crisis does not help either, as it has led even the most vitriolically anti-coal countries to rethink the decision to end coal mining and many have actually reopened and expanded the mines they had been phasing out.
In such a scenario and with barely seven years to go before its next deadline, it is much more of an uphill task for Europe to even be able to keep its current biodiversity intact. The other targets seem out of this world for now.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group.