Introduction | Protected areas networks | Coverage and representativeness | Designation and management

Since the early 1900s, there has been a continued increase in the coverage of protected areas in Europe on land and at sea. As of 2022, there are over 142,000 protected areas in the 38 EEA member countries. Within the EU27 there are over 134,000 protected areas covering 1.077 million km² on land and approx. 612,000 km² in the marine realm.

Coverage

The protected area system in Europe is strongly influenced by the Natura 2000 network, with over 27 000 sites designated as Natura 2000 sites covering almost 767 000 km² on land and approximately 452 000 km2 at sea. Combined with the nationally designated areas this results in the total protected areas coverage of 26,4% on land and 12,1% at sea across the EU-27.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 requires EU Member States to further step up their conservation efforts to protect 30 % of both its land and sea cover by 2030. The CBD’s Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework also includes a similar coverage target. This means that over the next decade there will be a need to expand the network in the EU, particularly in the marine domain where the distance to target is currently about 18%.

The 30% target should be reached at the EU level in general and in each of its biogeographical and marine regions and not at the Member States level. Current protected areas coverage differs quite significantly among Member States resulting from different reasons. More information can be found in EEA indicators: Nationally designated terrestrial protected areas in Europe and Marine protected areas in Europe’s seas.

 
 

Overlap

The degree of overlap between Natura 2000 sites and nationally designated sites varies significantly among different EU Member States. Outside EU, nationally designated areas also often overlap with Emerald sites. In the marine waters, there can also be overlap with sites designated under one of the Regional Seas Conventions. This illustrates the different processes underpinning designation of protected areas.

 
 

Representativeness

Europe comprises 11 biogeographical regions that together inherit the continent’s great terrestrial diversity. This diversity includes arctic polar deserts and boreal forests in the north, as well as the arid lands and dense mattoral of the south. It stretches from the steppic zones in the east to the extensive heathlands of the west. However, protected areas are not equally distributed among these regions. Whereas the Black Sea region is particularly well covered (69%), the Boreal region (10%) is underrepresented by protected areas (figures based on total combined data from Natura 2000 reported by the end of 2020 and nationally designated areas reported in 2021)

 

In the marine realm there are four regions identified under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, with the North East Atlantic Ocean consisting of four sub-regions and the Mediterranean comprising of four sub-regions. The different regions, and sub-regions show a difference in the proportion covered by protected areas.

 

The coverage of protected areas in Europe varies between the different groups of ecosystems. With 45 %, wetlands are by far the ecosystems with the highest share of protected area coverage – though the total area is comparatively small. Urban area on the other hand has– unsurprisingly – the least coverage. As the most representative ecosystem, forests are protected less compared to the overall coverage of protected area in Europe.