More fully protected areas are needed in Europe to achieve the 2030 goals

More fully protected areas are needed in Europe to achieve the 2030 goals

The conservation of global biodiversity, in parallel with the fight against climate change, should be one of the most urgent objectives of our era since the uncontrolled exploitation of species and ecosystems by our species, whose population is constantly increasing, has exceeded the threshold of the 8 billion inhabitants. This impacting human presence on a large part of the globe has already caused degradation, destruction and fragmentation of 70% of the earth's surface and caused a loss of biodiversity greater than the extinctions caused during the history of life on Earth, so much so that we have defined it "the sixth mass extinction". In Europe, after centuries of land exploitation with a very high population density (almost 200 people per square kilometer live in Italy), it can be said that no contiguous area exceeding ten thousand square kilometers is left free of human impact. In other words, in Europe we cannot walk more than 100 km in a row without encountering some sign of human presence (which is not the case in larger areas such as the USA, Equatorial Africa, South America or Russia). However, even in the Old Continent, there are still areas with high wildness and rather intact ecosystems protected, mainly within national parks and reserves.

In 2020 the European Commission published the "European Biodiversity Strategy for 2030" which, however ambitious, represents an action plan to protect biodiversity and reverse the degradation of European ecosystems increasingly threatened by human activities. With this strategy, the European Union aims to expand the network of protected areas up to 30% of its territory and to dedicate integral protection to 10% of the surface of all EU countries. Although the integral protection of this surface, equal to one tenth of the area of ​​the EU countries and much lower than that proposed globally by the biologist Edward O. Wilson with its Half Earth project, it may not be sufficient to guarantee the complete conservation of biodiversity, however it represents a fundamental starting point for the long-term conservation of ecosystem processes and the maintenance of high levels of biodiversity even in hyper-anthropized Europe.

The goal of fully protecting 10% of the EU's land area is ambitious and in a study we just published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, which we coordinated as the University of Bologna together with various European institutions, we have created the first European-wide analysis of strictly protected areas (classified by the IUCN as integral reserves, wilderness areas and national parks) across the EU, studying how extensive integral protection is at the level of biogeographical regions, countries and elevation gradients. What we have discovered is that the current strictly protected area in the EU27 is highly unbalanced between biogeographical regions (some, such as the continental, Atlantic and steppic ones, are very little protected), countries (for example, Belgium protects only 0.8% of its territory) and altitude belts (we find very few strictly protected areas in the plains and at low altitudes) and , with very rare exceptions, falls short of the 10% Strict Protection goal. Only Luxembourg and Sweden are above the 10% threshold identified by the EU, with Finland very close. Therefore, it will be necessary to work with determination and speed to approach the conservation objectives set by the EU 2030 Strategy for biodiversity through rigorous international cooperation between countries and the commitment of individual states to identify national areas to be allocated protection.

The study we conducted also reveals that the current scenario could, very probably, be even worse than the one we have observed since the management of some protected areas, such as the peripheral areas of national parks (in Italy, for example, all areas that are not A, highly protected in the heart of parks), does not always correspond to complete protection. In fact, some national parks, despite being classified as strictly protected, allow a wide range of anthropogenic activities in some of their areas, such as forestry, agriculture, hunting or grazing of domestic animals, hindering the conservation of endangered species and the functioning of ecosystems.

The time has come, even in Europe, to preserve large spaces without (or with very limited) anthropic disturbance to ensure real ecological connectivity. Paradoxically, the health of ecosystems (from which ours also derives) and the protection of the species they host (from which ours also derives) depend much more on what we will not manage and give back to Nature, than on what we delude ourselves that we can control and we will subtract them. Contrary to what has been said recently regarding river management to limit the damage of floods, if we leave room for Nature and stop presuming that we know how to manage it, it will run its course (literally!) and we will learn to respect it and get to know it more, instead of fearing it.

Our research shows that Italy is better off than many of the other 27 EU countries (ranks 5th, see chart below), but is still a long way off the EU's 10% target. The strictly protected area in our beautiful country, which - it should not be forgotten (even if it is not a sporting merit!) - is the European champion of biodiversity, is 0.2% within integral reserves and 4.9% in national parks, for a total of 5.1% of full protection. Means that we're halfway there, but there is still much to do. Our cousins ​​across the Alps are in much worse shape (France does not exceed 0.8%), as is the locomotive of Europe (Germany fully protects only 0.6% of its territory), which together with Portugal, Malta, Greece, Poland, Denmark and Belgium do not go beyond 1%.

“According to the European Commission – as explained by Prof. Alessandro Chiarucci of the University of Bologna, co-author of the study – in strictly protected areas all industrial, extractive and destructive uses and activities that disturb species and ecosystems such as mining, deforestation, aquaculture and construction, etc. . they are usually not permitted and are not contemplated by the EU. Fully protected areas are only effective if left essentially undisturbedwith limited and well-controlled human activities that do not interfere with natural processes".

would, therefore, It is necessary to identify potential areas to expand comprehensive protection with low economic and social costs, including, for example, areas with a high biodiversity value, but low population and land use. Considering, however, that in Europe most of the territory has been profoundly modified by man, strictly protected areas should also include territories that currently have a lower protection status, such as the Natura 2000 network, and which can recover their biodiversity value through restoration and rewilding (see map below). To achieve the objectives set by the EU 2030 Strategy for biodiversity, it will therefore be urgent to identify areas useful for fully protecting 10% of each member country.

Unfortunately, until now, an analysis of strictly protected areas in the EU had never been carried out and this has limited the definition of conservation policies on a large scale. We hope that this study represents a further step towards greater conservation of European biodiversity.

*Roberto Cazzolla Gatti is a conservation biologist and professor at the University of Bologna

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