Meeting the EU 2020 Biodiversity targets: mainstreaming conservation

Struan gave the following speech at a meeting of the European Parliament's Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development on Tuesday 24 September 2013 in Brussels.

Established in 1994 with the support of IUCN - the International Union for Conservation of Nature - the cross- party Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity & Sustainable Development now enjoys the greatest support of any parliamentary intergroup. We have more than 200 MEP members and were formally endorsed by the EPP-ED, the Socialists & Democrats, the ALDE Group and my own ECR Group. With a first class secretariat provided by EBCD (The European Bureau for Conservation & Development) we have provided a dynamic forum for MEPs to learn, debate and create policy geared towards maintaining and enhancing biodiversity, fighting climate change, while aiming always for sustainable development.

It is a sad fact that scientists reckon we are currently suffering the worst biodiversity loss that the world has ever known. They believe that between 150 and 200 species are being lost every 24 hours. Many of those losses can be attributed to climate change. We need to teach the public that biodiversity is valuable; it has an economic, social, aesthetic and practical value from which every one of us individually benefits. Biodiversity services purify the air we breathe, act as a global air conditioning system, provide us with rainfall and oxygen and fertilise plants. We have never put a price tag on these ecosystem services because they are invaluable. But sadly, some people think that anything that is free has no value and therefore can be exploited and abused.

Here in the EU we have set a series of 2020 targets to counter these problems. But we have to take care that the policies we pursue are sustainable. The drive to produce biofuels is causing global deforestation, which as well as releasing massive quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, could also lead directly to global famine. Deforestation is responsible for more greenhouse gas than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes and boats combined.

We are potentially creating a bigger global problem than we set out to resolve. In the US, vast quantities of maize are being converted to bio-ethanol. This in turn has led to huge tracts of the Amazonian rainforest being burned to make way for growing maize and soya as food crops to make up the shortfall.

Meanwhile the Indonesian rain forest is being torn up to make way for biofuel crops like palm oil to supply the EU market. Such policies are thus destroying the world’s air conditioning system while at the same time releasing millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. That's why ten days ago we voted in Strasbourg to limit biofuel targets to 5.5%.

But greed instead of care for the environment has become the defining feature of our strategy for tackling climate change and the race to biofuels is potentially threatening the lives of millions of people as the global population soars from its present 6 billion to an estimated 9 billion by 2050. An extra 6 million people are born every month. By 2030 the world population will have expanded by such an extent that we will require a 50% increase in food production to meet anticipated demand. By 2080 global food production would need to double. But the reality is that an area the size of the Ukraine is being taken out of agricultural food production every year due to drought and as a direct consequence of climate change. Global food production is declining rather than expanding and our headlong rush to produce biofuels is taking even more land out of food production.

Linked directly to this argument on sustainability is the question of renewable energy. Allowing windfarms to be developed on peatland is a catastrophic mistake and will cause irreversible damage. Peatlands form a crucial part of the world’s air conditioning system. Peatlands and wetland ecosystems accumulate plant material under saturated conditions to form layers of peat soil up to 20 metres thick – storing on average 10 times more carbon per hectare than other ecosystems. Peatlands occur in 180 countries and cover 400 million hectares or 3% of the world’s surface. Scotland, Finland and Ireland have a unique role to play in preserving and maintaining this global resource. Over one sixth of the world’s blanket bog is located in Scotland.

Nevertheless in the headlong rush to cut carbon emissions the EU and the UK government are throwing money into renewable energy without any coherent planning strategy to determine where wind farms should and shouldn’t be built. The result is that there are dozens of outstanding planning applications to build giant wind turbines on blanket peat bogs in Scotland, causing immense damage to the environment and releasing vast quantities of CO2 – in other words achieving the exact opposite of what was intended!

Similarly, fragile marine ecosystems like seagrass meadows, kelp forests, maerl beds and salt marshes are being dug up to provide offshore renewables. These natural carbon capture & storage ecosystems store ten times the carbon of tropical rain forests and yet we are tearing them up to build gigantic concrete and steel renewable systems. Again this is massively destructive and wholly misguided.

We need to pay more attention to the ecosystem services provided by different aspects of our EU environment such as the peat bogs and the blue carbon marine ecosystems. They form an essential part of our global air-conditioning system and we cannot allow them to deteriorate or to be destroyed by misguided development.

But let us not despair. The Economist last week ran a feature which claimed that more economic growth, not less, offers the best hope for averting a further great extinction of species. The article argued that as people become wealthier they demand stricter controls on the environment from their political leaders. They donate to environmental NGOs who put pressure on politicians. Richer countries generally have better governments and better governments combat pollution and help biodiversity to survive. They cite examples of the American Bald Eagle whose population had fallen to only 412 breeding pairs in the 1960s, but which has expanded to over 7,000 now.

They also point out how whale populations are mostly recovering thanks to a moratorium on commercial whaling. An even better example of improving or stable biodiversity between rich and poor countries with good and bad governments is the case of South Korea, one of the world's fastest growing economies, where forest cover is stable and North Korea, which has lost one third of its forests in the past 20 years. But the Economist says that the problem of biodiversity loss is in no way solved. Thousands of species are teetering on the brink of extinction and climate change and/or demand for land could tip many of them over the edge. So we have work to do and that is why it is so important to have this conference in the European Parliament today.

Struan Stevenson, MEP

President of the Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity & Sustainable Development