Ecosystems and their services

Europe’s ecosystems, on which we depend for food, timber, clean air, clean water, climate regulation and recreation, suffer from unrelenting pressures caused by intensive land or sea use, climate change, pollution, overexploitation and invasive alien species. Ensuring that ecosystems achieve or maintain a healthy state or a good condition is thus a key requirement to secure the sustainability of human activities and human well-being. This guiding principle applies for all ecosystems including marine and freshwater ecosystems, natural and semi-natural areas such as wetlands or heathlands but also managed ecosystems such as forests, farmlands and urban green spaces.

In October 2020 the EU published the "Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services: The state and trends of ecosystems in the European Union" Report. This report gives an assessments of the key ecosystems in the EU, evaluates the EU 2020 biodiversity targets and provides a baseline for the 2030 biodiversity policy and EU nature restoration plan.

Protecting ecosystems and biodiversity are key policy targets in the EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 and the European Green Deal. EU and national policy makers require information on the extent and condition of ecosystems to improve their management. For further information on the EEA’s work on ecosystem accounting, visit this page on Ecosystem Accounting.

Ecosystems are vital for human well being

What are ecosystems?

Ecosystems are defined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) as ‘a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit’ (UN, 1992). Ecosystems are multi-functional. Each system provides a series of services for human well-being either directly, e.g. as food and fibre, or more indirectly by e.g. providing clean air and water. Ecosystem assessment is an instrument for structured and targeted analysis of environmental change and its impact on human well-being. The structural and functional entities of ecosystems are key entry points for our understanding of how species interact with each other and their abiotic environments, and how these interactions are affected by human activities.

Ecosystems contain a multitude of living organisms that have adapted to survive and reproduce in a particular physical and chemical environment. Anything that causes a change in the physico-chemical characteristics of the environment has the potential to change an ecosystem’s condition, its biodiversity and, consequently, its capacity to provide services. Any activity that removes or adds organisms can change the functionality of an ecosystem. An ecosystem assessment should evaluate all of the relevant factors affecting the ecosystem’s structure and function.

Spatially-explicit mapping is required to capture different gradients and variations of the relevant components, in space and time, affecting ecosystem function (Maes et al., 2014). The assessment of ecosystem condition provides information about its capability to continuously provide services for human well-being. This knowledge is essential to document the on-going loss and degradation of ecosystems and their services, the subsequent socio-economic impacts, and the identification of pathways towards sustainable development, in order to maintain the delivery of services. As such, ecosystem assessments provide the input for decision-making by addressing and integrating basic information to sectoral policies, i.e. mainly, territorial planning, nature protection, agriculture, forestry, freshwater, marine, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and air pollution reduction

The 2020 Mapping and assessment of ecosystems and their services (MAES) Report

This report presents an ecosystem assessment covering the total land area of the EU as well as the EU marine regions. The assessment is carried out by Joint Research Centre, European Environment Agency, DG Environment, and the European Topic Centres on Biological Diversity and on Urban, Land and Soil Systems. This report constitutes a knowledge base which can support the evaluation of the 2020 biodiversity targets. It also provides a data foundation for future assessments and policy developments, in particular with respect to the ecosystem restoration agenda for the next decade (2020-2030). The report presents an analysis of the pressures and condition of terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems using a single, comparable methodology based on European data on trends of pressures and condition relative to the policy baseline 2010. It can be can be downloaded from here.

Key message 1. We need to upscale conservation and restoration of terrestrial ecosystems to reverse the loss of ecosystem services. On land, 3.3 million km2 or 76% of the EU’s terrestrial ecosystems have no legal designation; particularly forests, agroecosystems, urban green spaces and soils are largely unprotected. Yet, these working landscapes provide most of our food and timber, help regulate water flows, host insects that pollinate crops, store carbon or they are used by people to recreate. The assessment shows that our society is increasingly dependent on ecosystems. The demand for all these ecosystem services increased since 2010 but the potential of ecosystems to deliver these services is slowly declining. The result is a growing deficit: 54% of the human demand for regulating and cultural ecosystem services is insufficiently covered by ecosystems. This gap can be only closed through targeted ecosystem restoration, in particular in places where people need ecosystems for protection against floods, pollination, or recreation.

Key message 2. The progress that is made in certain areas such as designation of protected areas, pollution reduction, improving air and water quality, a rising share in organic farming, the expansion of forests, and the efforts to maintain marine fish stocks at sustainable levels show that a persistent implementation of policies is effective and needs to continue. Air quality and water quality are improving in the long term. This improvement is related to a long-term reduction in the emissions of specific air and water pollutants. However, pressures from air and water pollution are in many places still above critical levels and thus continue to cause harm to ecosystems. The area of forests is expanding and so, too, is biomass and the amount of dead wood, a proxy for forest biodiversity. In agroecosystems, the share of utilised agricultural area increased to 7%. In the North East Atlantic Ocean, fish catches are presently below maximum sustainable yield. Acknowledging that ecosystems and often also species are reacting slowly on changes we mammals have profited mostly the measures to improve environmental condition. These positive trends are the result of continued policy efforts to reduce pollution and to achieve a more sustainable use of ecosystems.

Key message 3. The positive effects of declining trends in land take, and air and water pollution on ecosystems and biodiversity risk to be overtaken by increasing impacts of climate change and invasive alien species. The average temperature is rising at a rate of 1°C every 30 years. The effective rainfall is, on average, decreasing because evapotranspiration by forests is increasing. Thus, less water infiltrates in soil and is available for water-limited ecosystem functions such as carbon sequestration. The number of extreme drought events is significantly increasing. Species respond to these changes by expanding their range upward (in mountains) or northward. Restoring ecosystems and creating corridors between natural areas will facilitate species movements and increase the coherence of the EU’s nature network. However, caution is needed to avoid the further spread of invasive alien species. The assessment shows that all ecosystems in the EU are now substantially exposed to invasive species. Importantly, natural ecosystem types are less affected than heavily managed and modified ecosystems such as urban areas, croplands and grassland. This suggests that a robust nature network made up by healthy ecosystems may be the first line of defence against invasive alien species.

Key message 4. Protecting 30% of the EU territory requires protecting ecosystems that have often been overlooked in conservation planning. The Natura 2000 network covers 18% of the EU land territory. This 18% is unevenly distributed across the different ecosystems since it focuses on biodiversity-rich habitats. Heathlands and shrubs, inland wetlands, sparsely vegetated lands such as dunes and mountains, rivers and lakes, and coastal wetlands represent only 10% of the EU land area but 42% of their common extent is protected under Natura 2000. Of the remaining 90% of the EU land area, mainly agroecosystems, forests and urban areas, only 15% is designated as protected area under Natura 2000. There are specific gaps in the protection of grassland and forests. For instance, almost halve of the 500 thousand km2 of grassland in the EU qualifies as Annex 1 habitat; yet only one third of these habitats is actually protected under Natura 2000. When designating new areas to achieve the 30% target, also cropland and urban ecosystems should be considered in order to achieve favourable conservation status overall. At present, 8% of the cropland area and 3% of the urban ecosystems is part of Natura 2000. Urban nature, roadsides and specific farmland habitats are under certain conditions important pools of species and habitat diversity and therefore these ecosystems are justified targets for enhanced protection and act as buffer zones. Moreover, they can help increase the overall coherence of the Natura 2000 network by providing ecological corridors connecting natural areas.

Key message 5: Forests show encouraging signs of recovery but pressures remain high undermining forest condition. Forests cover 38% of the EU land area, hosting a dominant part of Europe’s terrestrial biodiversity, and contributing significantly to climate change mitigation. Nevertheless, after millennia of forest use, currently only between 2 and 4% are primary and old-growth forests. Today, most forests are semi-natural (89%); the remaining share are plantations. Forest area has increased in Europe by 13 million hectares in the period between 1990 and 2015 due to both natural processes and to active afforestation. More forest area does not necessarily mean healthier and biodiverse forests. Changes in climate and tree cover loss, resulting from due to wildfire, storms, and harvesting, have been increasing. Pollutants remain a concern even if the trends point in the right direction. One out of four trees suffers from leave damage, due predominantly to unidentified drivers, followed by insects and abiotic factors, mostly drought. This trend is upward. Increased evapotranspiration suggests functional changes in forests. However, there are also some positive signals. Some structural indicators of condition have shown improvement in the long and short term, for example forest area, biomass volume and deadwood. Likewise, ecosystems productivity is increasing. The abundance of common forest birds did not show significant changes in the long term, though a 3% decrease was reported since 1990. Buffer strips around forest would increase biodiversity including forest birds and thereby reduce insect populations, which affect trees (e.g. bark beetles). Nevertheless, the situation seems to be slightly improving in the last few years

Key message 6. Agricultural biodiversity, a key asset for farmers, continues to decline. Agroecosystems cover almost halve of the EU land area (36.4% cropland and 11.4% grassland). So improving the condition of agroecosystems is essential to meet an EU level restoration target. The assessment shows that the structural condition of agroecosystems, measured by indicators including landscape mosaic, crop diversity, share of dominant crop, share of high nature value farmland, and share of protected agroecosystems, remain stable while organic farming has notably increased reaching 7% of the utilized agricultural area. However, this has not prevented the further erosion of agrobiodiversity. Since the start of the observations in 1990, the farmland bird index declined with 33%; the grassland butterfly index with 39%. Reversing these trends depends on reducing pressures. The assessment demonstrated that pressures on agroecosystems are still high, particularly in terms of nutrient and pesticide use.

On land forests (36%) and cropland (36%) are the dominant ecosystem types in the EU, followed by grasslands (11%), urban areas, (5%) heathlands and shrub (4%), rivers and lakes (2.5%), inland wetlands (2%) and sparsely vegetated land (1.5%). In terms of land cover changes, the extent of most ecosystem types has reached a rather stable value over the last 10 years apart from urban areas, which increased in size with a rate of 3.4% per decade. Agroecosystems, inland wetlands, heathlands and shrub slightly decreased since 2010 (<1% per decade).

Reporting at the national level

Target 2 Action 5 of the EU biodiersity strategy to 2020 states that "Member States, with the assistance of the Commission, will map and assess the state of ecosystems and their services in their national territory by 2014, assess the economic value of such services, and promote the integration of these values into accounting and reporting systems at EU and national level by 2020." In order to deliver Action 5 the Working Group MAES (Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services) was established in 2012 under the Common Implementation Framework (CIF). Members of the group provide updates on progress in their countries twice a year and a barometer is updated accordingly

Reference material

Typology of ecosystems

Correspondence between Corine Land Cover classes and ecosystem types

Crosswalks between European marine habitat typologies

Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services (CICES)  

Categories of ecosystem services (MA, TEEB and CICES)

Reference data for ecosystem mapping

Indicators of ecosystem conditions