Europe has a stunning diversity of plants, animals and habitats. Few places on the planet have such a contrasting patchwork of habitats, wildlife and cultural landscapes in such a small area.
We need this wildlife to survive. Insects pollinate our crops, for example – a service worth €22 billion to European agriculture every year.
But human activities are putting enormous strain on the environment and driving some species to extinction. The main threats are the disappearance of natural habitats, over-exploitation, non-native species, climate change and pollution.
Today, almost half of Europe’s mammals and a third of reptile, fish and bird species are endangered. This is mainly because their habitats are shrinking as urban areas grow and we take more land for infrastructure like roads.
Half of Europe’s wetlands have now been drained, and almost three-quarters of the dunes in France, Italy and Spain have disappeared.
Most valuable habitats for wildlife are protected by law, but many protected habitats are in a poor state and need to be restored.
Some wildlife species are endangered because of overexploitation – a particular problem in the seas, where overfishing has caused some fish stocks to collapse.
Invasive alien species are plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms that become established in areas outside their natural range. Zebra mussels, for example, reduce water quality in lakes and clog up water systems. Not all these invaders are harmful, but some spread rapidly and out-compete native species. Their economic effect is huge: they cost €12.5 billion a year, and the problem is growing all the time.
Climate change will have big effects in Europe. Some species will adapt and move, but others will struggle to survive. If the temperature rises by between 1.5ºC and 2.5ºC, up to 30 % of plant and animal species may go extinct.
Water quality has improved over the last 20 years thanks to EU legislation, and we are now much better at treating sewage and industrial waste. But we still pollute our groundwater with too much fertiliser. The result is eutrophication – too much nitrogen in our rivers, lakes and estuaries, causing the spread of algae.