Natura 2000 is the world's largest coordinated network of protected areas, established by two pieces of EU environmental legislation: the so-called Birds and Habitats Directives. The Natura 2000 network now comprises over 27000 sites across the 28 EU Member States. It covers over million km², more than 18% of the EU terrestrial area and over 4% of the marine area where EU Member States have national jurisdiction. The EU Birds and Habitats Directives and Natura 2000 are the cornerstone of the EU biodiversity policy and the backbone of its Green Infrastructure. The central provision of this EU legislation is set out in Article 6 of the Habitats Directive which aims to avoid deterioration of sites. Damaging infrastructure projects of overriding public interests are permissible in the absence of alternatives and where compensatory measures are provided to offset any losses and to ensure the overall coherence of the network.
Despite aiming to safeguard areas of high biodiversity value, protected areas in the EU and other parts of the world are under pressure from economic development projects (e.g. roads and motorways, hydropower, wind and other energy developments, flood protection measures and dams, urban sprawl, tourism infrastructure). Effective land use planning and a sound permitting procedure are key to ensuring that on one hand protected areas do not prevent the development of critical infrastructure and on the other hand these developments do not lead to avoidable destruction of protected areas. Articles 6. and 6.4 of the EU Habitats Directive provide an essential legal tool for sustainable development to help achieve this difficult balance.
New developments within Natura 2000 are not systematically excluded, but they must be done in a way that respects the integrity of the sites and their species and habitats. To ensure that this happens, the Habitats Directive provides a specific permitting procedure and approval mechanism for plans and projects in and around Natura 2000 sites. This requires that any new developments likely to have a significant negative effect on a Natura 2000 site undergo an impact assessment in order to assess the potential implications for the conservation objectives of species and habitats present in the protected sites. If this shows that the impacts are likely to be significant then the project must be refused and alternatives explored, unless mitigation measures can be introduced to remove these threats. In exceptional cases, and where there is an absence of alternatives, the Habitats Directive does however allow damaging activities to be undertaken within Natura 2000 sites if they are for imperative reasons of overriding public interest. But then compensation measures must be taken to ensure that the overall coherence of the Natura 2000 Network is not compromised, thus ensuring the principle of no net loss.
The fact that on top of national legislation protecting protected areas there is also this supranational legally binding tool has proven essential in safeguarding a high amount of invaluable natural treasures, such as the Rospuda Valley in Poland or the Santonia Marshes in Spain which would otherwise have been sacrificed in order to satisfy short term local or national political needs. Thanks to this EU legislation, several projects have been modified so that they do not negatively affect the protected areas because of the intervention of the European Commission or the European Court of Justice. The application of these provisions still faces a lot of problems in several parts of the EU but they increasingly become common practice. There is a growing recognition of the value of integrating Natura 2000 into development and spatial planning strategies of authorities. Well prepared and objective assessments can prevent/reduce conflicts and delays at the permitting and implementation stage of developments. Central to this is ensuring the necessary expertise to deliver good quality assessments.
The Habitats Directive supports the principle of sustainable development and integrated management. Its aim is not to exclude socio-economic activities from Natura 2000 sites, but rather to ensure that they are undertaken in a way that safeguards and supports the valuable species and habitats present, and maintains the overall health of natural ecosystems. The permitting procedure provisions of the Habitats Directive have proved essential in integrating nature conservation into the minds and approaches of other sectors. Thanks to these provisions, road authorities, energy companies, and other sectors must take seriously the effects of their projects on protected areas. As a result, nature conservation requirements are embedded into decision making processes involving development issues such as in land use plans of EU Member States.