Environment

Clamping down on invasive alien species

01/06/2013

Invasive alien species (IAS) are one of the most important causes of biodiversity loss, damage to ecosystem services and threats to fragile ecosystems, such as islands. They can also harm human health and the economy. To prevent and tackle the destruction they wreak, the Commission has proposed legislation to ensure a coordinated response by national authorities across the European Union.

What is an alien species?

An alien species is an organism introduced outside its natural past or present distribution range by human activity, either directly or indirectly, intentionally or accidentally. Those which have a negative impact on biodiversity, socio-economy or human health are considered as invasive. Japanese knotweed for instance, introduced from Asia in the 19th century as an ornamental plant, has since invaded the European countryside.

Europe plays host to some 12 000 alien species, of which 10-15% are considered invasive. Their numbers have expanded as travel and trade around the globe increase. Climate change may also produce new opportunities for alien species to proliferate and become invasive, causing harmful environmental effects that may last generations.

The problem is not only growing, it is also costly. The annual losses caused by IAS in Australia, Brazil, India, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States are estimated to be around $300 billion a year. In Europe alone, the economic costs of these invasions are calculated to be at least EUR 12 billion a year.

Taking action

The need to tackle invasive alien species is one of the six priorities identified in the EU’s 2020 biodiversity strategy adopted two years ago. The new draft legislation puts those objectives into practice.

Since IAS know no boundaries, the Commission is emphasising the need for a coordinated approach, which respects international commitments and allows countries flexibility for their special circumstances. Joint priorities will need to be set. With several hundred such species in Europe, attention will be directed to the most damaging.

Prevention is the first line of defence – an approach also being implemented in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Under the proposal, a ban would be introduced on the most harmful species. Member States would be responsible for preventing their entry into the EU by making greater use, for instance, of the border checks already in place for imported live animals and plants.

If prevention fails, an early warning system would enable national authorities to act immediately. As a third resort, emphasis is being placed on more effective and coordinated management of dangers already present.

Action will be needed to control the pathways introducing IAS. The proposal is to gradually build measures up on the basis of needs and experience.

 

Nature and biodiversity