All around the world, human activities pose a severe threat to the remaining natural heritage. Therefore, it is essential to protect intact ecosystems and landscapes, including their diversity of species and habitats.

Nature conservation activities play the key role in halting the loss of biodiversity and reducing pressure on ecosystems. These activities entail a huge variety of different instruments, ranging from individual activities, such as creating insect hotels or roof gardens, over local restoration measures, such as afforestation, re-naturing rivers or the removal of invasive alien species, to adaptation of policies on national and transnational level. Additionally, activities to target a general change in using resources and services provided by nature are vital to reach a sustainable relationship with our environment.

Due to population density, the high living standards and the intense human intervention over many centuries, Europe’s natural landscape is broken down into a mosaic of small landscape features. What remains are “islands of nature” that need to be protected and connected via effective conservation measures.

One fundamental conservation measure targeting species and habitats as well as broader ecosystem functions and services is the designation of protected areas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines protected area as:

"a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values"

The term 'protected area' covers a variety of designations given to parcels of land and bodies of water by national legislation. In Europe, there are more than 470 different types of designation used, including  Natura 2000 sites, UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, and many more.

European policy regarding protected areas is mostly the product of initiatives from three main sources:

In reality these are often linked. With the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and its 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, Parties of the Convention were required to at least protect 17 % of their land and 10 % of their sea area by 2020 (Aichi target 11). As part of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, the CBD will define a strategy for biodiversity protection and renew the Strategic Plan and its Aichi Targets.

An early turning point for biodiversity conservation in the EU was the implementation of the Birds Directive on the conservation of wild birds (1979) and the Habitats Directive  on the conservation of species and habitats (1992). Together, they envisage the creation of protected areas as a means to achieve their nature conservation objectives and are frequently referred to as EU Birds and Habitats Directives or – more shortly – the Nature Directives. The Special Protected Areas (SPAs) classified under the Birds Directive, and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) designated under the Habitats Directive form the Natura 2000 network, a EU‑wide ecological network of protected areas. The establishment of the Natura 2000 network has been an important milestone and a turning point in the history of European protected areas.

EU Nature directives are crucial for protecting the environment in Europe

Data on European protected areas are comprised of two main datasets: The European perspective, including 38 members of the European Environmental Agency (EEA38) and the perspective of the European Union (EU) with its 27 Member States (EU27). This excludes the United Kingdom that withdrew from the European Union on 31 January 2020. In the 38 European countries, the growth of nationally designated protected areas has been exponential, reaching 1.26 million km2 and more than 130 000 sites. As a result, nationally designated protected areas cover almost 23 % of Europe's terrestrial territory and inland waters. The overlap between these areas and the Natura 2000 network highly depends on the individual designation approaches in the respective EU Member State (see more under Coverage). All information relating to nationally designated areas is provided in a central entry point, the European nationally designated areas database.

Europe has designated more protected areas than any other region in the world

Another important network of protected areas is the Emerald network. It is an ecological network of Areas of Special Conservation Interest (ASCIs) set up by the Contracting Parties to the Bern Convention — the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. It is to be set up by each contracting party or observer state to the Convention and thus involves all the EU Member States, some non-Community States and a number of African States. The Emerald Network and Natura 2000 are based on the same principles, and are thus fully compatible with each other, helping to develop a coherent approach to the protection of natural habitats and species in the European continent. Together, they form the most extensive protected area system worldwide. Due to limited data availability, however, this report does not provide statistics on the Emerald network.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 lays out targeted action to put Europe on the path to ecological recovery within the next decade

Following its predecessor – the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 – the European Commission adopted the current EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 and an associated Action Plan in 2020 as a core part of the European Green Deal. It aims to put Europe's biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030, enabling a wide range of benefits for people, the climate and the planet. Key elements concerning the EU protected areas are the increase of their area to at least 30 % for both land and sea. New designations should either help to complete the Natura 2000 network or be under national protection schemes. Furthermore, the strategy indicates that at least 10 % of these areas shall be strictly protected, specifically the areas of very high biodiversity and climate value or potential. Here, ‘strict protection’ does not necessarily mean that the area is not accessible to humans, but leaves natural processes essentially undisturbed to respect the areas’ ecological requirements. Other key aspects of the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 involve measures beyond the establishment of protected areas. To avert genetic isolation, allow for species migration and enhance healthy ecosystems, protected areas shall be part of a “truly coherent and resilient Trans-European Nature Network” connecting them through ecologic corridors. Furthermore, the strategy emphasizes the need for broad restoration activities as essential measures to prevent the decline of valuable ecosystems as well as habitat and species. In this context, it especially targets already degraded ecosystems at land and sea by enforcing sustainable agricultural practices, improved pollinator protection and the restoration of rivers and forests.