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Leonore Gewessler

Cajetan Perwein

„Biodiversity Is Our Life Insurance“

Austria has joined a coalition for global ambition of tackling the biodiversity crisis, but at home there are only a few signs of action. We talked to Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler about that.

By Chris Cummins

Globally 60% of all species have been lost since 1970 and yet each year we destroy more forests and dam more rivers. To call this a biodiversity crisis seems almost an understatement. This year a major United Nations meeting, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in 2021 will be held in China, aimed at trying to map a path to stopping this suicidal trend.

This month Austrian Environment Minister Leonore Gewessler announced Austria had joined the so called High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People aimed at putting 30% of the earth’s surface under effective protection by 2030. Other countries in the coalition include Costa Rica, France and the United Kingdom.

FM4: What will joining this coaliton of global ambition mean for Austria?

Leonore Gewessler: Biodiversity in Austria, in Europe, and globally, is our life insurance on the planet, and the more diverse our nature is, the more resilient is our planet to crisis. And so we really need urgent action in biodiversity because the scientific evidence is clear. One million species are endangered, 60% of species have been lost since 1970. So we really need urgent action.

The High Ambition Coalition is a group of countries that advocate for ambitious global goals in biodiversity on a global level; for something similar to the Paris Agreement but for biodiversity rather than the climate. We will negotiate this agreement in China in October this year. The 50 countries that joined the alliance will be the first ones to advocate for more action, to forge alliances, to push for global, ambitious and binding goals.

Biodiversität in der Natur

radio fm4 / Chris Cummins

Those are very fine words, but there’s not much wilderness left in Austria compared to other countries in this coalition. And even so, rivers such as the Ötztaler Ache are being dammed right now. The Forchetwald near Innsbruck is set to be chopped down. Is there not a discrepancy between what you’re saying about the need to protect biodiversity and what’s actually happening in Austria at the moment?

It’s quite obvious that also in Austria we have an urgent need for action. Half of all reptile species are endangered, just under half of all fish are severely endangered in Austria. Also birds, mammals. So we see the decline in biodiversity in Austria as well and we do have a need to be active here as well. That’s why we are currently working on a biodiversity strategy which will be finalised in middle of this year.

That will demonstrate that when we are in China negotiating for a global and ambitious agreement, we are also delivering on a national level. And of course, a strategy is one thing and then it needs to be implemented in all the different ways, with legal measure and support schemes that we can set up then in in after the strategy in order to make it the reality.

Let’s talk briefly about the money. In Austria, there are five million euros available for biodiversity this year through the so-called “biodiversity funds”. Who can access this money and what should they do with it?

So the Ministry for Climate Action has set up for the first time a biodiversity fund this year that covers all the biodiversity measures in addition to those biodiversity measures that are done, for example, in agricultural policy.

So what we are aiming at with this starting point of five million euro is to support especially organisations in civil society, but also scientific organisations that work on monitoring that work. And also on education in the field as a first step to shed light on the blind spots that we might still have in biodiversity. But also the fund should help to show us ways out of the crisis.

Biodiversität in der Natur

radio fm4 / Chris Cummins

And so this is the first year of the fund. We will hope to increase it step by step, because I think we share the concern also with scientists all over Austria who have called for this fund for a long time. Obviously we need to increase also in budget over time. But we’re working on this. It’s good to have a starting point this year.

You mentioned the increases in budget. The Austrian Biodiversity Council says one billion euros will be needed in Austria to meet its 2030 biodiversity goals. That’s more than a step up, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s more than a step up. But we also have to see that responsibility for biodiversity protection and nature protection in Austria is shared between the provinces and between different ministries. So if we’re talking about rivers or agricultural biodiversity, we have a partner in the Ministry for Agriculture. And then there’s regional work on biodiversity.

And so what we really need is is to bring all the actors together to work for the same goal – and that is part of the Biodiversity Strategy. And we also need to step up efforts because as you mentioned before, we also have work to do in Austria.

I did mention earlier there isn’t much wilderness left in Austria, but there was some encouraging news this spring. A part of the country called Dürrenstein has been expanded - indeed doubled in size. Can you just describe what you think that will mean?

It’s extremely important that in Austria and globally we protect those precious spots of real wilderness; in other words biodiversity that has been untouched largely by human influence for decades and centuries.

We have a few such precious spots left, but the ones we have left, we really need to protect. And so it was really, really encouraging and good news that we managed in a in an effort with the provinces that that are involved with other ministries to manage to enlarge the wilderness, give it to understand to now the wilderness get.

part of the new protected area

Matthias Schickhofer

part of the expanded Dürrenstein – Lassingtal wilderness area

Doubling the Dürrenstein protected area was really good news because it was also one of the last really primal forests in Austria in this region. And it’s really precious that we now have an agreement to protect.

You mentioned the forests. Can I just talk about those? Not long ago, 500 scientists or more wrote to the EU and to other world leaders criticising EU subsidies for biomass. That’s basically the burning of forest products to create fuel. They were urging for more plantation forests to be turned back to natural forests. Will that happen in Austria?

We have two levels of action here in terms of forest protection, we have the European level where we are just working on a new forest regulation that we have also just recently discussed in the Council of Environmental Ministers. And we also in our biodiversity strategy, we will obviously address forests because forests are extremely important in terms of climate resilience. Forests are also an important factor not only in human well-being, but also in terms of our ambitions to halt runaway climate change. So we really need to focus on this aspect. And so we that’s what we work on both on the European and the Austrian level.

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