Cohesion policy: protecting nature and biodiversity

Why invest in nature for regional development?

The health and strength of our economies depend to a large extent on the health and strength of our natural environment and ecosystems. Nature forms the foundation of our food and energy systems and provides air, water, and raw materials. Restoring nature and conserving biodiversity not only makes economic sense but it also provides other benefits to regions and cities such as absorbing heat in urban centres, providing water retention and recreation.
Europe is currently not on track to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. The underlying causes of biodiversity loss (e.g. urban sprawl, intensive agriculture, pollution and invasive species) will probably persist, and the impact of climate change is even projected to intensify. Cohesion policy investments support the EU's nature and biodiversity policies, for instance by strengthening the Natura 2000 network of protected areas.  Such investments also contribute to EU objectives in the fields of water quality, air quality and climate change adaptation, which in turn are important for regional development.
In addition, under its commitment to better regulation, the Commission adopted an action plan for nature, people and the economy in 2017 to improve the implementation of the Habitats and Birds Directives (the backbone of the EU's biodiversity policy). The action plan aimed to increase the awareness of cohesion policy funding opportunities and improve the synergies with other sources of finance.

Cohesion policy support for 2014-2020

EU cohesion policy is a key instrument to support Member States’ investment in biodiversity, nature and green infrastructure. In the investment framework of the 2014-2020 period, Member States have allocated EUR 3.7 billion of EU co-financing to this area. National financing adds to this, and also leverages additional private funding. Cohesion policy is complemented by other EU funding sources, such as LIFE.  Almost 7 million hectares – roughly the size of Latvia – of habitats are supported in order to attain a better conservation status (for more details - see the section on common output indicators below).
The total investments in two categories, i.e. (i) protection and enhancement of biodiversity, nature protection and green infrastructure and (ii) protection, restoration and sustainable use of Natura 2000 sites, are shown in the graph below. 

Tracking biodiversity...

However, the full range of investments that are indirectly related to biodiversity reach more than EUR 10 billion once the allocations to three other related interventions, indicated below, are taken into consideration:
  • waste water treatment
  • adaptation to climate change, prevention and management of climate risks
  • development and promotion of tourism potential of natural areas
The methodology for tracking biodiversity based on the above named interventions, was agreed after the Cohesion policy legislation for 2014-2020 was adopted. More information on the tracking of biodiversity are available in the data story titled "Tracking cohesion policy biodiversity investments".

What is cohesion policy focusing on?

The scope for cohesion policy investments is broad and will usually deliver both environmental gains and socio-economic benefits. In many cases, they focus on the effective management of Natura 2000 sites, following the Prioritised Action Frameworks (PAFs) that EU Countries are required to develop under the Habitats Directive.
Cohesion policy investment can also target the promotion of natural heritage, for the benefit of awareness raising, local development and sustainable tourism. Support can be given, for instance, to walking tours, information displays, visitor centres or other infrastructure.
Important research and innovation funding opportunities are available too. Priorities related to nature and biodiversity are part of several Smart Specialisation Strategies, in which regions identified their strengths and capacities for innovation. The Commission supports these regions in the implementation of their strategies, for instance through the Smart Specialisation Platform.
Nature can also be supported indirectly in other types of cohesion policy investment. Thanks to the mainstreaming of the sustainable development principle, the use of ecosystem-based approaches and nature-based solutions has been promoted horizontally. It has been applied, for instance, in investments targeting climate change adaptation.

Examples of projects...

Naturavita, Croatia
"NATURAVITA" is a Cohesion Fund supported project in the Danube and Drava river basin in Osijek-Baranja County in Croatia which aims to ensure safe public access and pre-conditions for the sustainable management of natural resources, restoration and protection of wetland and floodplain forest areas in the protected and Natura 2000 areas. It will be achieved by demining, establishing forest fighting infrastructure, forest regeneration activities, monitoring and biodiversity increase. The overall project budget is € 49.6 million with implementation time planned until mid-2023.
Roads for nature, Poland
Cohesion policy supported the "Roads for Nature'' project that creates roadside habitats as ecological corridors for a hermit beatle in Poland. The main goal was to restore and protect roadside oak alleys connecting isolated subpopulations of the hermit beetle. This was achieved by planting native tree species along the roads - creating new corridors  and supplementing and rebuilding the existing ones. These corridors also enable migration and development of other new organisms. As a result of the project, 70 ecosystems were combined, including 33 located in Natura 2000 areas.
PANACeA, Interreg Med
ERDF co-financed project "PANACeA" is being implemented in the framework of the Interreg Mediterranean Programme. It aims to streamline networking and management efforts in Mediterranean Protected Areas as a mechanism to enhance nature conservation and protection in the region. PANACeA builds a community of nature conservation stakeholders in the Mediterranean and acts as the Communication and Capitalisation instrument of the projects dealing with protection of biodiversity and natural ecosystems. 

Emphasis on urban green infrastructure

When preparing the 2014-2020 cohesion policy programmes, the Commission emphasised the benefits of supporting green infrastructure. This refers to a network of (semi-)natural areas, designed and managed to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services and protect biodiversity in both rural and urban settings. It brings multiple environmental and climate benefits, fosters a better quality of life and human well being and provides job opportunities. Green infrastructure investments can be a cost-effective alternative or be complementary to 'grey' infrastructure and intensive land use change, for instance for flood prevention. Green infrastructure measures have been particularly considered in the context of urban development programmes, for instance with regard to green walls and roofs, river banks, parks and other green urban spaces.
Green infrastructure in the Ruhr region, Germany 
The Ruhr region in North Rhine-Westphalia has become a champion of green infrastructure. Cohesion policy has supported several projects in the framework of a long-term strategy aimed at transforming the region, including the restoration of the river system, the construction of a bicycle network, the creation of landscape parks, and the conversion of former steel sites and railroads into lakes and green neighbourhoods. This is embedded in nearly three decades of EU funding to support the structural change of this old industrial region into a modern, green metropolis.
Continuous cooperation between local administrations within the Ruhr region has been crucial to this project’s success. City partnerships mean that local knowledge and resources can be shared.
- Michael Schwarze-Rodrian, Ruhr Regional Association

Testing innovative urban solutions

Since 2016, the Commission has been working directly with cities for better funding, better policies and better knowledge, in the context of the Urban Agenda for the EU. One of the specific partnerships has been working on nature. It developed an action plan for the efficient and sustainable use of land and other natural resources to help create compact, liveable and inclusive European cities for everyone and promoting the uptake of nature-based solutions. 
In that context, the Commission provides direct funding to a number of cities to test novel nature-based solutions, within the Urban Innovative Actions Initiative. For instance, in the Italian city of Prato we are developing ‘urban jungles’, high-densely green re-designed urban areas that multiply the natural capacity of plants to abate pollutants and restore the soil. These jungles are turning Prato’s marginal and decaying areas into life-giving green active hubs.

Supporting nature across borders

A significant part of the allocations to nature and biodiversity is implemented through the European Territorial Cooperation programmes, or Interreg. This provides critical funding opportunities for biodiversity conservation across regions, as ecosystems naturally cross borders. 

In addition, the macro-regional strategies (the EU Strategies for the Baltic Sea Region, Danube Region, Adriatic and Ionian Region and Alpine Region) put a strong focus on those EU Countries and regions that are critically linked through shared natural resources. The Strategy for the Danube Region, for instance, has made the protection of the Danube sturgeon as one of its strategic tasks. The aim is not only to save this unique fish from extinction, but also to improve the economic situation of local communities in the middle and lower stretches of the Danube who previously benefited from sturgeon fishing.
Many Interreg projects facilitate and promote the exchange of good practices and the development of joint strategies, including in those EU Countries where the available EU funding for this topics is generally lower. Regions in North East France, Wallonia and Flanders have used Interreg support to launch a cross-border action plan to save wild bees, which are under severe threat although they perform an indispensable function in pollinating crops. The SAPOLL project organises awareness-raising, for instance in schools, supports monitoring by volunteer networks and stimulates academic cooperation.
The European Green Belt project transforms the former ‘iron curtain’ into an ecological network. Stretching over 12,000 kilometres from the North to the South of Europe, it connects more than 4,000 protected areas in 16 EU Countries and 8 eight other countries. In doing so, it creates a corridor of habitats for a great variety of species. At the same time, more than 150 organisations come together in an initiative tailored to the economic, social and cultural needs of local communities.

Supporting nature in the outermost regions

80% of the EU’s biodiversity is hosted by its nine outermost regions – Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Mayotte, Reunion Island and Saint-Martin (France), Canary Islands (Spain), the Azores and Madeira (Portugal). These regions provide the EU and the world with unique heritage, and several economic sectors directly depend on it, including tourism, fisheries, forestry and agriculture. Through its programmes, EU cohesion policy provides specific support for the conservation of these natural assets.

How can you get support?

Cohesion policy programmes provide funding opportunities for all EU Countries and regions until 2020. EU Countries run the programmes via national or regional "Managing Authorities". These give information on the programmes, select projects and assist implementation. Visit the Commission’s Regional Policy Atlas to read about the programmes and find useful contact points. 

The chart below also allows you to find where financial allocations are planned and how they are progressing, by country and by programme (including regional programmes).  You can search for a relevant programme near you by filtering by country. 

Progress in the surface of habitats protected under the common output indicator

One common indicator was proposed for 2014-2020 covering the surface areas of protected and conserved habitats. The chart below allows you to check the common indicator and the progress made by EU Countries per year.

Specific national and regional indicators are also used by some programme (although they cannot be aggregated). 

Further reading

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We are REGIO's sustainable growth team. Contact us at: 
(European Commission, Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy, Smart and Sustainable Growth)