Nature conservation: filling in the gaps

22.10.2018

A computer program can help identify the best candidates for future conservation areas.

Landscape planner Anke Müller

An apparent contradiction is what first inspired me to write my dissertation: on the one hand, the European Union is creating more and more conservation areas; on the other, flora and fauna species continue to die out, and habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate. And this trend is not just problematic in terms of wildlife conservation; the loss of biodiversity also impacts our climate – because diverse, intact habitats like moors and forests bind carbon that could otherwise escape into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Where conservation areas are still lacking is an aspect I’m investigating in my dissertation at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN). To do so, I began by researching what the EU had done to date. In the process, I realized that the EU has now reached one of its most important goals: conservation areas now account for 18 percent of Europe’s land mass; that’s one percent more than promised. Yet it has failed to reach a second key goal: it hasn’t yet adequately taken into account every type of habitat, and hasn’t declared 10 percent of each of Europe’s 43 “ecoregions” as protected areas. But that’s something the EU has to achieve by 2020; it has agreed to do so at various climate summits.

Six ecoregions could still use some improvement. They include the “English Lowlands beech forests” and the “Po Basin mixed forests” – comparatively small regions, and niche landscapes, so to speak. Surprisingly, however, another region – one that sprawls across several countries – is also on the list. Beeches, oaks and pines dominate the “Atlantic mixed forests,” which stretch from the Pyrenees to the German-Danish border. Yet the massive region is hardly uniform; in addition to forests, it is also home to habitats like running waters, moors and meadows. In order to preserve Europe’s biodiversity, we would need to protect at least a sliver of each habitat.

That hasn’t happened yet. In the Atlantic mixed forests, for example, there are no bog woodlands of the so-called type 91D0*: deciduous forests with moor birches or Scots pines on damp, nutrient-poor and acidic soils. Such forests can or once could be found in France, Belgium and the Netherlands – and were once common in northern Germany. But after centuries of drainage, they’re now in dire straits.
So who needs to take action? Which country has to create the remaining conservation areas? Though there are no guidelines to provide answers, it would make good sense to create them where the EU’s goals could be reached most affordably. That’s most often possible in areas where the land isn’t very fertile. If there are no major impacts on their commercial interests, landholders are more likely to accept the limitations that conservation entails. And less-farmed areas often provide a safe haven for rare plants and animals.

For my dissertation, I gathered information on land prices throughout Europe, and developed a computer program that compares them with the presence of habitats that warrant protection: no mean feat, since I had to first devise a suitable algorithm. It took a year and a half before I was able to start identifying districts, duchies, counties and comtés that would be good candidates. Some are only a stone’s throw away from Hamburg, e.g. in the district of Rotenburg (Wümme) or Lüneburg.

Actually, we’re very close to reaching the EU’s goals. Only an additional 0.35 percent of Europe’s land mass would need to be declared as conservation areas; that’s 15,000 square kilometers – or 20 times the area of Hamburg.

This content was first published as a guest article in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt in October 2018.

Landscape planner Anke Müller is a member of the Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN) and is currently pursuing her doctoral studies at Universität Hamburg’s Research Unit Sustainability and Global Change.

Link to Scientific Paper