Opinion: The silent crisis

06 February 2012 | Article

Europe is in a crisis. An economic and euro crisis. Merkel and Sarkozy dominate the front pages of our newspapers. At the moment economists and their analyses seem to interest even more people than the weather forecast. And the euro countries desperately try to collect 500 billion Euro to fill its emergency fund. This crisis is very vocal and hard to oversee.

Behind this overly present crisis a silent crisis is taking place: the extinction of animals and plants, and the destruction of natural habitats. The loss of biodiversity. Although we consider ourselves the guardians of planet Earth, we are responsible for an extinction rate that has only been surpassed by the disappearance of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

It is not terribly difficult to stop the loss of biodiversity. Most important of all is the political will to act. Nice words are not enough. The Environment Council of December 2011 was very disappointing. One of the most important things we need to do for biodiversity – mainstreaming – was not recognised by the Council. It is however essential that we integrate biodiversity in all other policy fields, like agriculture, fisheries, development and trade policy.

Agriculture is crucial, given the fact that 50% of European surface is agricultural land. Nature cannot survive without using this land. With relatively simple measures, like using fewer pesticides, planting flowers along the fields and using fewer fertilizers huge gains can be made. With current practices, often agricultural areas are nothing more than biological deserts. The fisheries argument hardly needs any explanation. If we do not hurry up, our seas will be empty and we will need to find recipes for the last species left: jelly fish.

Furthermore, we need to enrich our national accounts with natural capital. Logging a forest creates economic growth. Leaving a forest aside is not reflected in our accounts. A child understands that that is not right. That also means that in the real economy, value of nature should be part of production costs. We should end the practice of free riders, making money by destroying nature and sending a virtual bill to society at large. By doing so, we create new financial instruments for the preservation of nature. But we have to go even further. The EU should introduce the so-called No Net Loss principle. That means that projects, public or private, should have no negative impact on biodiversity. If so, the damage has to be compensated.

An exciting idea is to create European wildlife parks, almost equal to parks such as the Serengeti in Africa and Yellowstone in the USA. Europe has several large areas with poor agricultural land that are being abandoned by farmers and other inhabitants. We try to keep these farmers at their farms by giving them many EU subsidies. They have no perspective at all, nor have these regions. Creating wild life parks with dynamic new activities like tourism would radically transform them into some of the most exciting places in Europe.

We need to convince our political leaders of the fact that protecting our natural wealth is not just a luxury policy in times of prosperity, but that it actually enhances our quality of life and the economy. This silent crisis deserves their attention as much as the economic crisis does.

MEP Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy is the Rapporteur for Biodiversity at the European Parliament.