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Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Report from the REFIT conference, Brussels 20.11.2015 by Martin Dieterich

As a part of its Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme (REFIT), the EU commission is currently The European Commission is currently undertaking an evaluation ("Fitness check") of the Birds and habitats Directives. A report on the state and outcome of the fitness check was presented and the opportunity for final inputs was provided during a conference for invited participants in Brussels on November 20th (see link here). The conference was attended by 500 participants representing a broad array of stakeholder groups.
There was basically a unanimous view that the EU Nature Directives should be left untouched. This was expressed by the report itself, the representatives from the EU Commission, European parliament (Environment committee - unanimous statement across party lines), EU Committee of the Regions (the majors!), land users, land owners, the Luxemburg government currently presiding the EU and the Dutch(!) and Slovak governments to follow in the EU presidency. There was no single request during presentations and discussions towards opening the directives!

The main reasons put forward in favor of keeping the directives include:
1. While the Directives’ and the 2010 biodiversity target has not been achieved and the 2020 target will (most likely) not be achieved, there is broad agreement that things would look considerably worse without the directives.

2. Basically all speakers considered lack of implementation as one basic cause for deficiencies in terms of biodiversity targets reached.

3. Lack of cohesion with other policy fields (mainly the CAP) was considered another basic obstacle for the directives to be more successful.

4. About half of the contributions thought that there was a need to change the Annexes without opening the directives - the possibility to open the Annexes while leaving the directives appears to be a quite interesting legal question.

5. There was broad agreement that opening the directives would cause a period of renewed legal and administrative uncertainty and thus should be avoided.

6. There is a need for better financial support of measures connected to the directives - a specific EU conservation fund was proposed by several speakers.

A number of very stimulating contributions - especially Elsa Nickel from the German Environment Ministry almost got standing ovations for her well expressed accusations towards the CAP - request for complete overturn of the CAP (public money for public goods).
In spite of the very positive tone, I have come out of the meeting rather reluctantly. All the high ranking policy contributions praise the need to protect biodiversity and nature because they are our life support systems. At the same time, we know that this has been stated by politicians and administrators alike for the past 20 years and the decline continues. It appears to me that one of the basic causes for failure is that we ask the unrealistic and are happy to swim in the mainstream as long as we do not question the unrealistic. Thus, all these very nice to hear contributions from the environmental NGOs, other stakeholders, policy sector and the commission agreeing that there is a possibility for more biomass production and more nature conservation. More population and more nature conservation. More industry and more urban sprawl and more nature conservation. More economic growth and more nature conservation. "Live well within limits" as the popular proverb, but as soon as it comes to decisions go for more (immediate demand) and forget about the limits.

According to my experiences having lead a local NGO for the past 35 years (urban sprawl as the key topic), working with farmers and doing applied research in agricultural systems (grasslands and arable fields) this assumption that more nature/biodiversity can go with more of everything is pure nonsense - diplomatically speaking not feasible. Thus, we do not resist to a perspective that rationally speaking is unrealistic, but is being put forth jointly by a broad range of stakeholders (conservation allies and conservation I do not really care groups).

The consequence then is, while everybody verbally adheres to the need for protecting nature and biodiversity as a baseline for human well-being, concerns with jobs, material well being, needs of immigrants (refugees) etc. are of course always more immediate. Nature continues to lose out in spite of all these Sunday afternoon speeches and declarations and numerous best practice efforts targeted at reconciliation of the non-reconcilable. Best practice efforts that are never being examined in terms of to what extent they can be generalized (material and social terms) or how long they remain in place after a project has ended, or what side effects they may have elsewhere. Admittedly a very big topic that needs to be addressed!

Martin Dieterich 

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