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Nature, landscapes and biodiversity

Nature and Biodiversity

Nature under stress

There is no abundance of undisturbed nature in the densely populated Netherlands. Population growth and economic development have led to land-use changes, such as in the form of agriculture and urbanisation. Today, there is less nature than there was some centuries ago.

The term biodiversity refers to the variety, or diversity, of life on earth: the plants, animals and fungi, as well as the communities they form and the habitats they live in. Biodiversity loss is often named as one of the major global environmental issues of our time, along with climate change and the sustainability of the energy supply.

In this topic, we will address the following  issues.

1. Why are nature and biodiversity important?

2. What is the policy on nature and biodiversity?

3. How are nature and biodiversity changing?

4. What is causing these changes?

5. What could policy do to conserve and develop nature and biodiversity?

1. Why are nature and biodiversity important?

Social, economic and intrinsic value

The goods and services provided by nature are important, or even indispensable, for human survival on earth. Consider, for example, the production of wood or the dunes offering protection against flooding. These are what we call ecosystem services. Nature and biodiversity are also considered to have their own, intrinsic value, apart from their usefulness to humankind.

2. What is the policy on nature and biodiversity?

Global, European and Dutch policy

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Netherlands and other countries have signed up to agreements regarding the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The European Union has also implemented the Birds and Habitats Directives, the most important instrument of which is the Natura 2000 (the European network of protected natural areas), the EU Water Framework Directive and the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive.

As an EU Member State, the Netherlands has also designated Natura 2000 sites. They form part of the National Ecological Network, the most important instrument in the Netherlands for nature conservation. Agricultural nature management is applied both inside and outside the nature network. With its Government Vision 2014 ‘Natural Way Forward’, the Dutch Government strives for nature conservation and a more sustainable use of nature and its services. In addition, it hopes to increase social involvement in nature. This vision marks a change in thinking: nature does not belong next to, but at the heart of society.

3. How are nature and biodiversity changing?

Nature and biodiversity under pressure

From a historical perspective, large amounts of nature have been lost, in the Netherlands, in Europe and worldwide. Large areas of natural land have disappeared through cultivation and urbanisation. In addition, the quality of the remaining nature areas has been affected by human use and pollution. On the other hand, certain species have also benefited.

The Living Planet Index is an indicator of trends and changes in the species occurrence of more recent populations. Many species are on the Dutch Red List of threatened species. Both show that some species’ numbers are declining, while others are increasing again. Ecosystem quality is poor, in many places. After a long period of decline, in recent years, species’ numbers and ecosystem quality are seen to be stabilising.

Certain species and habitats have declined to such an extent that they are currently being protected. Many of the protected species and habitat types in Europe have not yet reached a favourable conservation status. Most bodies of water in the Netherlands do not meet the desired biological quality of the European Water Framework Directive. However, some indicators show that policy measures do have a positive effect on acreage, quality or occurrence of species.

The links in the text above lead to current information about the status and trends of Dutch species and ecosystems.

4. What is causing these changes?

Size and quality of protected habitats insufficient for successful nature conservation

At the global level, the five main contributors to biodiversity loss are loss of habitat, eutrophication, the unsustainable use of natural resources, invasive species, and climate change. The last of these will become increasingly important in the future.

From an historical perspective, European habitat loss due to agriculture has been the main cause of the changes in biodiversity. For example, many forests and marshes have been converted into croplands and meadows. In the remaining more natural areas, biodiversity decline has mainly been caused by certain types of land use (forestry), and by the fragmentation and disturbance of nature. In addition, the biodiversity in areas of extensive agriculture is also decreasing, because of intensification in the more favourable agricultural locations and the abandonment of the less favourable locations.

In the Netherlands, the processes of agricultural intensification and urbanisation largely took place in the 20th century. This resulted in a reduction in the size and quality of natural areas. And although, in recent decades, the acreage of nature has increased to some extent as a result of agricultural land being reconverted into nature areas, the quality of the remaining nature is still under pressure. The main problems with respect to this quality are eutrophication, overfertilisation, acidification, desiccation and fragmentation of the natural environment. Eutrophication, overfertilisation and acidification are caused by an oversupply of nutrients —such as nitrogen, phosphate, ammonia and sulphur dioxide— being deposited in natural areas. However, over the past decades, environmental pressure has been decreasing.

Environmental pressure is largely being caused by the production and consumption patterns of our society, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The amount of land that is currently needed for Dutch consumption is about three times the land surface of the Netherlands. This is known as the land footprint, which also has an impact on the biodiversity footprint.

5. What could policy do to conserve and develop nature?

Protect nature and address the causes of decline

Spatial protection measures can be taken to prevent building, logging and intensive fishing in nature reserves. Outside these reserves, changes in forestry and fishery, for example, could enable a more sustainable use of ecosystems. In addition, implementation of climate- and emission-related measures in agriculture, transport and industry are important for reducing the pressure on nature. Governments may also contribute to sustainable international supply chains in which the exploitation of ecosystems remains within sustainable limits, with the trade of certified products, in turn, encouraging sustainable production methods.

PBL formulated six suggestions for Dutch nature policy in its Nature Outlook 2010–2040:

  • Base nature policy on people’s motives;
  • Create a robust foundation of nature areas;
  • Anticipate changing desires in society;
  • Respond to changes in the use of the North Sea;
  • Take a strategic approach to European policy;
  • Make policy that is coherent.

Further information