Europe’s ecosystems face increased threats

Europe’s ecosystems face increasing pressure to stay healthy amid rising pollution, overexploitation, urban sprawl and the effects of climate change. These are the findings of a European Environment Agency (EEA) report which takes stock of the condition of Europe’s ecosystems.

The EEA report Mapping and assessing the condition of Europe’s ecosystems: progress and challenges gives a snapshot of current ecosystem health in Europe. It identifies key gaps in data which are essential to properly assess the health of Europe’s many ecosystems. The report concludes improved mapping and assessments are needed in order to understand the problems faced by Europe’s ecosystems and to restore these key life-sustaining systems to better health. This understanding is vital for policymakers to come up with suitable responses.

The wellbeing of our societies is heavily dependent on our thriving ecosystems, which provide the basic building blocks of our day-to-day survival, including fertile soil, fresh water, pollination, natural flood protection and climate regulation. This ‘natural capital’ is being degraded or lost as a result of human activity.

The report looks at eight broad ecosystem types in Europe: urban, cropland, grassland, heathland and shrub, woodland and forest, wetlands, freshwater, and marine. It assesses the pressures and challenges each of the different types face as well as the impacts on habitats and species.

Key findings:

  • An analysis of the data shows that some of the most sensitive ecosystems like heathlands, wetlands and freshwater bodies in Europe are highly concentrated in a small number of countries, which could increase their vulnerability to environmental change
  •  A substantial proportion of these very vulnerable ecosystems are not protected within Natura 2000 EU protected sites, Marine Protected Areas or similar zones that aim to preserve habitats and biodiversity
  • Well over half of all the habitats and species covered by the EU’s Habitats Directive are assessed as being in ‘unfavourable’ condition, and their conservation status is generally declining or stable, with only a small proportion ‘improving’
  • An initial assessment found that habitat change (including pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation) has had the greatest overall impact across ecosystems to date. Pressures like nutrient and pollution loads are still increasing and all ecosystem types are facing increased pressure due to climate change and invasive alien species, leading to further negative effects.

Key gaps in knowledge and data will need to be resolved to improve future assessments of Europe’s ecosystems. Specifically, there is a lack of data on urban and marine ecosystems, a lack of understanding of the combined impacts of multiple pressures faced, a lack of detailed spatial data for mapping impacts on biodiversity, and a lack of understanding of the links between ecosystem condition, biodiversity and ecosystem service delivery.

The EEA has since 2012 supported the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2020 through its activities on ecosystem mapping and assessment. The report forms part of the agency’s contribution to the mid-term review of the European Union’s Biodiversity Strategy to 2020.

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Source: EEA

Cornelis Brand

Project manager, European Environment Agency

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