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European protected areas increased in the last decades, covering over 1.84 million km² of land and sea. With an area of just over 1 million km², the central driver behind this achievement is the Natura 2000 network. On national level, countries exhibit quite distinct approaches in protected area designations and priority setting.
> Europe's protected areas cover 22.7 % of the terrestrial surface and 8.25 % of the marine realm, for the EU this figure is 25.7% of the terrestrial surface and 11.1 % of the marine realm.
> For the last two decades, the EU Nature Directives and Natura 2000 were the main driver of protected area action in Europe.
> The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 requires Member States to further increase the protected area coverage (to 30 %), especially with regards to offshore marine areas and areas with strict protection regimes.
Since the early 1900s, there has been a continued increase in the coverage of protected areas in Europe on land and sea. As of 2020, there are a over 130 000 protected areas in the 38 EEA member countries. These sites cover over 1.27 million km² or 22.7 % on land and approx. 570 000 km² in the marine, covering 8.25 % of the sea. Within the EU 27 there are over 118 000 protected areas covering 1.06 million km² or 25.7 % on land and approx. 556 000 km² in the marine, covering 11.1 % of the sea.
With over 130 000 sites, Europe has more protected areas than any other continent in the world and amongst the highest proportion of its area covered by protected areas.
Protected areas coverage across the world
UNEP-WCMC (2021). World Database of Protected Areas. March 2021.
EEA, SEBI 007 (2020)
The protected area system in Europe is strongly influenced by the Natura 2000 network, with over 27 000 sites designated as Natura 2000 sites. Of the over 1.27 million km² of European terrestrial surface covered by protected areas, over 760 000 km² are part of the Natura 2000 network. This indicated, that even though national sites are predominant in numbers, the Natura 2000 network entails over 70 % of area covered by European protected areas, encompassing Europe’s most representative sites. Marine Natura 2000 area covers an area of around 440 000 km², equaling 8.8 % of the European protected area coverage on sea. As far as the terrestrial coverage is concerned, the Natura 2000 network is largely complete. The marine component of the network however is still largely incomplete in many countries, and mostly includes inshore waters, leaving the offshore waters with poor protection levels. Results show that despite the fact that coastal area makes up only a small part of the sea compared to the vast offshore waters, its marine protected area coverage is six times higher (EEA, 2018).
The new EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030 requires EU Member States to further step up their conservation efforts to protect 30 % of both its land and sea cover by 2030, of which 10 % will have to be strictly protected. The CBD’s post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will have a similar coverage target. This means that over the next decade there will be a need to expand the network in the EU, on land by about 4 % and in the seas by 19 %.
Minimum of 30 % land and sea covered by protected areas by 2030
Looking at the national level, the degree of protected area coverage is highly diverse. As of 2020, most countries have a terrestrial coverage of around 20 % (e.g. France, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Norway). The country with the highest coverage is Luxembourg with over 50 %. Countries like Bulgaria, Cyrus, Croatia, Estonia, Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia have a coverage of around 40 %. However, in total numbers, France provides the highest terrestrial surface area, with close to 148 000 km2.
Marine protected areas show an even higher margin of different coverages between European countries with access to marine waters. France (50 %) and Germany (45 %) are countries with a particular high share of marine area covered by protected areas and the (small) marine area of Slovenia even exhibits full coverage. In other countries, such as in Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Italy, Ireland or Norway, the designation process lacks behind.
The coverage on national level is highly diverse, both on land and sea
The differences between countries can have various reasons and are highly country specific, ranging from a simple lack of resources or knowledge to complex designation issues. Looking at the Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland for instance, terrestrial land is only scarcely populated. Therefore, it is to argue whether vast regions need to be conserved by an official protected area designation.
More information on the progress of the Natura 2000 network and its coverage is available from the Natura 2000 Barometer and the Natura 2000 Network Viewer.
The degree of overlap between Natura 2000 sites and nationally designated sites illustrates the extent to which countries have made use of their nationally designated areas. It further underpins the dimensions on which Natura 2000 sites extend beyond national systems. Natura 2000 sites cover 72 % of the area of the protected areas network in the EU. Overall, the overlap between Natura 2000 and national designations amounts of 37 %, with Natura 2000 sites exclusively accounting for a further 35 % and with national sites covering a further 28 % exclusively.
There are different patterns among countries and the differences in approaches reflect the diversity of historical, geographical, administrative, political and cultural circumstances (as shown in the figure below). In establishing Natura 2000 sites, countries also have the flexibility to introduce new designation procedures, adapt existing ones or underpin designations by other legal acts. See the indicator SEBI 007 for more information.
The countries that joined the EU most recently — Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia — have extended their protected areas very significantly through creation of Natura 2000 sites, with little overlap. Similar situations exist in Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Portugal and Slovakia.
European protected areas have increased in number and area both on land and sea over the last number of years. In 2000, over 742 000 km² of the terrestrial European territory (EEA38) was covered, by 2020 this figure has risen to over 1.27 million km². In the marine realm, this figure has risen from approximately 90 000 km² in 2000 to over 570 000 km² in 2020. The withdrawal of United Kingdom from the EU in 2020, however, had considerable effects on the European protected area coverage, especially in the marine, with a loss of over 200 000 km² of marine protected area.
EEA38 terrestrial protected area growth between 2000-2018
EEA38 marine protected area growth between 2000-2018
EEA38 terretrial and marine protected areas growth 2000-2018
Source: Marine protected areas. EEA Storymap 2018
Most of the protected area growth in the last 20 years in Europe can be attributed to the designation of Natura 2000 sites in the EU Member. On national level, the growth between 2000 and 2020 was highly diverse. On the one hand, there are numerous countries with a continuous rise along the years, others with sharp increases in single years. Austria, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Liechtenstein and Poland already started with a quite high area coverage which (more or less) steadily increased throughout the years. Other countries like Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, the Netherlands Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia chose a step-wise designation process in single years. For many of these countries, this is correlated with the year of accession to the EU.
Growth is even more pronounced for marine areas, where most countries, such as Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Sweden had practically no or very few protected areas designated in 2000 and increased their area significantly within a few years. Other countries only showed marginal development throughout the period 2000-2020.
Europe comprises eleven 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 (68 %), the Boreal region (10 %) is underrepresented by protected areas.
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.
Proportion of each biogeographical region covered by protected areas
North East Atlantic Ocean
Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Coast
Greater North Sea, incl. the Kattegat and the English Channel
Ionian Sea and the Central Mediterranean Sea
Western Mediterranean Sea
The European territory consists of a wide range of different terrestrial ecosystems. An analysis based on the MAES ecosystem grouping shows that forests (43 %) and agricultural land (42 %) are by far the two most dominant terrestrial ecosystems. The surface of inland water bodies (wetlands, rivers and lakes) is comparatively small.
European ecosystems exhibit different degrees of protected area coverage
Composition of the EU by Ecosystem
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.
Proportion of protected areas covering ecosystems
In some countries, protected areas cover the representative ecosystems well, as is the case for Austria, Luxemburg or Latvia, among others. Other countries have significant gaps between the ecosystem coverage and its share of protection. For example, while Ireland is mostly covered by grasslands and forbs, mosses or lichens (50 %), these are only poorly covered by protected area (below 15 %). Contrastingly, over 50 % of the Irish mires are covered. These figures may often reflect the national protection priorities, where most vulnerable ecosystems are purposefully targeted.
Overseas countries & territories
Around the world, the Europe (EEA38) includes 22 overseas entities: 9 Outermost Regions (ORs) and 13 Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs). Present in every ocean and various biogeographical regions, they are home to a unique diversity of species and ecosystems of global significance, which are highly vulnerable to human impacts and increasingly the impacts of climate change. Europe overseas contain more endemic animal and plant species than are found on the whole of continental Europe, with New Caledonia alone having about as many endemic species as the European continent, and French Guiana including an area of Amazon rainforest the size of Portugal. Europe overseas also host more than 20 % of the world's coral reefs and lagoons (IUCN, 2020).
Overseas entities are often small and very distant from the European continent, but together entail a high proportion of European biodiversity
OCTs range from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, Southern Atlantic, Caribbean, the Arctic and Antarctic. These islands are small in either size or population and have constitutional relationships with the respective country. As they do not belong to EU territory, these Overseas Countries and Territories are not considered in the official European statistics on protected areas and are not governed by the EU environmental rules. However, they include considerable protected area coverage, mainly regarding Greenland with the largest terrestrial protected area in the world: the North-East Greenland National Park with a coverage of over 970 000 km2 as well as several large marine protected areas, such as New Caledonia’s Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail at nearly 1.3 million km2 or the 670 000 km2 Réserve Naturelle Nationale des Terres Australes Française.
Land (% cov)
Marine (% cov)
Nine regions of the EU are further classified as ORs: five French overseas departments, the French overseas communities of Saint-Martin, the Spanish Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands and the Portuguese autonomous regions of the Azores and Madeira.
Most of the outermost regions have a terrestrial protected area coverage of around 50 %
In contrast to the Overseas Countries and Territories, these regions form part of the EU territory and its legal obligations. Most of these regions have a terrestrial protected area coverage of around 50 %. Full marine protection is achieved in Mayotte, Saint Martín, Martinique and Guadeloupe, together covering an area of over 200 000 km2. Other countries, such as Réunion, the Azores and French Guiana, show considerable potential for additional marine protected area designations.
Efforts by the EU to foster protection in these regions is reinforced with its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 indicating specific actions. Existing EU programmes include the voluntary scheme of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Territories of European overseas (BEST) coordinated by IUCN and partners. Since its establishment in 2010, BEST aims to support the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable use of ecosystem services through the funding of small-scale and medium-scale field actions.
Drivers for protected areas growth
Drivers and reasons of protected area designations can be manifold. Nonetheless, the recent growth of protected areas in Europe can very frequently be attributed i) to the implementation of the EU Nature Directives and the objectives of the Natura 2000 and ii) to the Aichi Target 11 of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. The growth characteristics of the European protected areas, for example, show that the accession to the EU had a significant influence on the respective protected area coverage. Generally, the positive effect of the Natura 2000 network are noticeable throughout all statistics in this report, as for example with regard to the degree of connectivity (see Connectivity) and the implementation of systematic management (see Management). So despite ongoing shortcomings, the Natura 2000 network has already contributed protecting a considerable share of European ecosystems and its species.