Interreg boosts biodiversity and Natura 2000 sites across the EU

Since 1990, Interreg projects have supported nature conservation across the EU. Currently, the Interreg programme is in its fifth cycle focusing on cross-border cooperation in Europe. As a result of this cross-border cooperation, Interreg projects have proven to be a good mechanism in supporting nature in the EU. With the EU possessing a transnational network of protected areas, Natura 2000 sites, such cross-border cooperation is vital in the protection of Europe’s nature.

Interreg: focus on nature

The multinational nature of Interreg is one of its defining characteristics. Interreg is formed around three types of multinational cooperation: cross-border, transnational and interregional. Over time, the Interreg programme has increased its funding of transnational activities concerned with environmental protection.

In the current Interreg V programme, the EU has set aside €581 million of investment for nature and biodiversity. Interreg funding is available for the transboundary protection and restoration of biodiversity and soil, as well as the promotion of ecosystems services. Numerous projects have, in this vein, helped achieve these targets through supporting Natura 2000 sites and promoting green infrastructure.

The success stories from Natura 2000 in retaining Europe’s biodiversity would not be possible without Interreg’s contributions. Many Interreg projects, like Centralparks, are multidisciplinary in nature. This subsequently helps link Natura 2000 to socio-economic issues, through a cross-border and cross-sectoral exchange of knowledge and practices.

What is Natura 2000?

Natura 2000 is referred to as a network of protected areas in Europe. Essentially, it is a combination of protected areas laid out in the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives. The Birds Directive aims to protect all wild bird species found in the EU through the designation of Special Protection Areas. Furthermore, the Habitats Directive protects ‘rare, threatened or endemic animal and plant species’, and around ‘200 rare and characteristic habitats’ in their own right. This covers many habitats, from marine wetlands to Alpine meadows. In total, there are over 27 000 Natura 2000 sites all across Europe, and Member States reassess the status of these areas and their protected species every 6 years. Above all, both of these directives protect vulnerable habitats and species, regardless of their geographical location in Europe.

The benefits of Natura 2000 are wide-ranging. In addition to focusing on the species and habitats outlined in the directives, Natura 2000 sites provide safe areas for numerous other others animals and plants, ensuring a healthier ecosystem on the whole. With a healthier ecosystem, humans also benefit. Natura 2000 sites help increase the security of vital ecosystems services such as drinking water provision, flood protection, temperature regulation, and food provision. When estimating the worth of the Natura 2000 sites all together, scientists have come up with a figure of between, €200 to €300 billion per year. This outlines the importance of Natura 2000, not just to nature, but to human livelihoods as well.

The role of Centralparks

Many protected areas targeted by Centralparks are part of Natura 2000. Centralparks adopts a strategic approach to their management, working across the whole Carpathian region.

Centralparks draws experience from partners across multiple sectors, including the Piatra Craiului National Park Administration and Danube-Ipoly National Park Directorate. These two project partners manage numerous Natura 2000 sites in Romania and Hungary respectively. In addition to their expertise, partners from academia, the state and the non-governmental sector also contribute their knowledge to enhance the livelihoods of local communities through biodiversity conservation and the improvement of protected area management, including Natura 2000 site management.

Lasting impacts

Currently, Interreg works to enhance the effectiveness of the Natura 2000 sites. Its focus on management, planning and restoration through cross-border and regional cooperation has benefited Natura 2000 sites in this respect. Despite the many good practices that originate from Interreg projects, they are sometimes not well known outside the Interreg community.

While Centralparks helps promote Natura 2000 management through a perspective that encompasses wider socio-economic issues by including cross-border and cross-sectoral experience and practice exchanges, it also ensures a long lasting impact of these efforts. By ensuring that the Carpathian Convention endorses any strategies and recommendations made by the project, it makes sure of the project’s long-term implementation and the transferability of its best practices to other parts of the Carpathian region, which include Natura 2000 sites.

Centralparks contributes to climate change adaptation in the Carpathian Mountains

In amongst other challenges, the Carpathian Mountains face a threat from the global phenomenon of climate change. A publication coordinated by the UN Environment Programme highlights the threats climate change pose to the Carpathian region and the mitigation measures to deal with such threats. Above all, the need to enhance cross-border cooperation such as the Centralparks project in adapting to climate change was a key outcome of this paper.

The realities of climate change

Current projections show that the Carpathian region will begin to experience increasingly irregular rainfall and a generally warmer climate. Scientists from Eurac Research expect a rise in temperature of around 3.0-4.5 ̊C by the end of the current century. Consequently, these changes will have a profound impact on both the human and natural elements of the Carpathian region.

Primeval forests and grasslands which make the Carpathians so unique will be negatively impacted by climate change. In turn, this will affect biodiverse rich areas which support large carnivores like bears, lynx and wolves. Climate change will also impact ecosystem services in the region. For instance, the freshwater that flows into the Danube, Dniester and Vistula from the Carpathians, will change due to climate change, potentially impacting an area much larger than the immediate Carpathian region. Unless the region adopts mitigation and adaptation measures, climate change will have a major impact on the environment, economy and human well-being in the Carpathian Mountains.

Impact on livelihoods

In the Carpathian region, there are two sectors whose fates are very much connected with climate change. The tourism and agricultural sectors are at risk from the adverse effects of climate change and these two industries support many livelihoods in the region. A warming climate, especially in winter, has already impacted the tourism industry. Periods of snowfall have shortened and the snow line is now at a higher elevation. This has not only reduced revenue for organisations that are reliant on winter tourism, but also changed the seasonal scenery expected by tourists during the winter months.  

On the other hand, the warming climate provides the agricultural sector a longer growing season. While the season will be able to start earlier, this is not necessarily good news. An earlier snowmelt results in reduced discharge and drinking water supplies in the summer, leading to increased risk of drought. Subsequently, wildfires will become more common and agricultural pests will pose a higher risk. Extreme patterns of rainfall will also result in more flooding, erosion and landslides, affecting settlements, farmland and other productive land.

Most importantly, if those in the area take no adaptation measures to combat these effects, then the region could suffer greatly. Economic and livelihood losses will be compounded by a loss of species and reduced ecosystem functioning. This ends up creating a vicious circle of socio-ecological degradation.

Impact on ecosystems services

Climate change impacts the whole ecosystem and can result in a series of cascading effects if adaptation is not pursued. Key parts of the ecosystem that may be affected include the region’s hydrology, forestry and biodiversity.

When looking at the hydrological system, the aforementioned landslides impact the land’s ability to retain water. Subsequently, this has a significant impact on other parts of the ecosystem as well. A reduced ability to retain water negatively impacts the provision of water for agriculture and other purposes.

Climate change may lead to a greater threat of pests and diseases affecting trees, which could devastate the forestry industry. Forests are also at greater risk to fires under a warming climate. The relevant authorities and foresters need to appropriately manage this threat, so as to not cause extensive disruption to the ecosystem and sector. Moreover, climate change will force management priorities to change in this area towards a greater focus on bioenergy.

Related to forestry is the issue of biodiversity. Climate change will lead to an increased fragmentation of habitats and open the door to invasive species. This will reduce the ability of ecosystems to respond to the changing climate, ultimately resulting in a loss of species. As a result, reduced biodiversity will lead to negative impacts on ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, pest control and pollination.

Evidently, nature is an interconnected system and knock-on effects have the ability to impact the whole system for the worse. In order to avoid such impacts, stakeholders should adopt a management approach with an outlook oriented towards the future challenges posed by climate change. The Carpathian Ecosystem Services Toolkit, developed within Centralparks will be able to provide comprehensive information to policymakers and management practitioners regarding the costs and benefits in environmental management decisions.

Science-based adaptation measures

One underlying conclusion of this report was the need for a science-based informed decision making regarding the future management of the Carpathian region. Improved data collection and information availability about local mountain specific impacts will play key roles in targeting climate change adaptation measures in sensitive areas like the Carpathians. An effective implementation of adaptation measures requires a concerted effort from all parties with a direct interest in the Carpathians.

Currently, the Carpathian Convention is the primary force behind coordinating supranational efforts in the region. Creating a region resilient in the face of the threats posed by climate change requires increased regional cooperation. As it already forms a key mechanism for cross-border cooperation, the strengthening of the Carpathian Convention’s mandate, such as through harmonising the efforts of the Carpathian Network of Protected Areas, will build on the foundation already there. Climate change adaptation can be more successfully implemented when such action is taken, increasing regional cooperation and coordination. This also has a positive impact on maintaining biodiversity and ecosystems services as a strengthened mandate for the Carpathian Convention will also lead to cooperation through other institutions too, such as the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, which will help improve the overall health of the region’s hydrology in the face of the challenges posed by climate change.

Harmonisation of policies

There is generally less funding in Ukraine and Serbia, the two non-EU signatories to the Carpathian Convention, resulting in a lack of uniformity in management approaches across the region. Owing to better structured policy frameworks, the EU member state signatories to the Carpathian Convention have made similar strides in adaptation, thanks to the harmonisation of laws and guidelines through the EU. However, this also needs to include Ukraine and Serbia to in order to maximise the effectiveness of adaptation measures. 

Future policies in the region must be harmonised in order to prepare for adaptation to future changes. On the topic of biodiversity, stakeholders from the different countries should aim for further cooperation. This will help create ecological networks and corridors to allow for the migration of species under climate change. As such, Centralparks works closely together with Carpathian experts to harmonise biodiversity protection and sustainable development, through the development of several expert policy support documents.

Monitoring activities also require standardisation in order to maximise the potential of science based decision making. By standardising indicators and monitoring systems, it allows for easy comparability of data from across the whole region. In turn, this helps facilitate more efficient adaptation planning. A particular prevalent example that the report proposes is that of the harmonising forest monitoring systems. Centralparks brings forward a new approach for habitat management planning. During the project, a forest state assessment methodology will be introduced as an innovative technique to serve multi-aspect and small-scale multiple evaluation of forests.

Involving all

Integrating rigorous science into decision-making is only one part of the puzzle. If there is no support from stakeholders then it could make these efforts to pursue adaptation measures futile. Therefore, increasing awareness regarding climate change adaption amongst stakeholders is crucial. This will allow them to acquaint themselves with the challenges ahead and the potential methods to tackle them. Subsequently, this will help ensure the active participation of all stakeholders in decision making, allowing for adaptation at multiple levels.

The Carpathian Mountains faces a grave threat from climate change, to both its cultural, natural and economic value. However, if decision-makers made right moves to strengthen the area’s resilience now, the region can adapt to climate change and mitigate the worst of its effects.

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Upcoming meeting of the Steering Committee of the Carpathian Network of Protected Areas

On the 2nd of December 2020, the roundtable meeting of the Steering Committee of the Carpathian Network of Protected Areas (CNPA SC) is due to take place, in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention, the Interreg CE Centralparks and Interreg DTP ConnectGREEN projects. The meeting aims at facilitating the exchange and plan the upcoming collaborative work focused on protecting the natural and cultural heritage of the Carpathians.

Carpathian roundtable meeting: progress and future plans

Centralparks is supporting the Carpathian Network of Protected Area’s endeavours in creating a more sustainable Carpathian region. The Steering Committee aims at supervising the work of the CNPA, assessing the progress and addressing the challenges the network might face. Supported by the ongoing Carpathian Interreg projects Centralparks and ConnectGREEN, the Steering Committee of the CNPA is conducting its next roundtable meeting, in online format, to discuss:

  • Relevant outcomes of the recent COP6 of the Carpathian Convention related to CNPA work and activities 
  • The strengthening of the Carpathian Network of Protected Areas and its Steering Committee’s work in achieving biodiversity objectives
  • The uptake of the results from the Centralparks and ConnectGREEN projects
  • The organisation of upcoming CNPA events
  • The post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework
  • The Carpathian Convention‘s and CNPA’s role in and contribution to the post-2020 process 

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The general aims of the CNPA 

The CNPA aims to promote sustainable development and conservation in the Carpathian area. By creating linkages between protected areas in the Carpathian Mountains, the CNPA consequently supports the implementation of the Carpathian Convention. The CNPA also plays a role in representing the protected areas’ needs regarding national, regional and international organisations and authorities. As a result, this approach ensures the protection of the Carpathians’ unique nature and culture at all governance levels. 

In the face of rising threats to the Carpathian Mountains, above all caused by human interventions leading to habitat fragmentation, the CNPA aims to enhance the protection of the entire biogeographical region by facilitating cross-border cooperation. The CNPA can subsequently boost conservation activities in the region and ensure greater ecological connectivity in the Carpathians. Correspondingly, the CNPA’s existing thematic and ecological networks, as well as its awareness raising activities, can contribute greatly to achieve these goals.