WWF Report: Billions in EU Subsidies for Nature-Damaging Activities

Danube Delta also at risk.


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A new WWF report reveals that EU member states annually direct between tens of billion euros of European subsidies towards activities harmful to nature. While these damaging subsidies span all major sectors of the economy, the bulk of them originate from agriculture.

Between €34 billion and €48 billion of EU subsidies annually are being directed by Member States towards activities detrimental to biodiversity, the WWF report argues.

Amidst citizens grappling with the cost of living crisis, national governments are allocating taxpayers’ money, in the form of EU subsidies, to endeavors that adversely affect nature. This exacerbates biodiversity loss, heightening Europe’s susceptibility to droughts, floods, and heatwaves, consequently impacting the economy negatively. These subsidies, termed “biodiversity harmful subsidies” (BHS), directly or indirectly harm nature, impeding the EU’s progress towards its biodiversity objectives and undermining its conservation efforts.

“Most of the EU subsidies that harm biodiversity come from the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), and the way in which
Member States are using these funds. This is partially due to the sheer amount of EU funds oriented towards agricultural
production. But other funds, including for forestry, fisheries, transport and water infrastructure, also encourage nature-
harming activities, sometimes at significant scale. More research is needed to establish more accurate figures, as for some sectors up-to-date data is lacking,” WWF states.

“Not only are governments spending billions of taxpayers’ money to damage nature, but they are also undermining the EU’s efforts to protect and restore it, in line with its stated goals and international commitments. Redirecting these subsidies could easily cover the funding gap needed to reach the EU’s biodiversity targets,” says Ester Asin, director of WWF’s European Policy Office.

The case of Romania – harmful subsidies in the Danube Delta

The report exemplifies the results with the agricultural subsidies granted in the Danube Delta, which are harmful to both nature and the future of the communities living there. The damming of the Delta in the past, to make way for agricultural areas, is the starting point that led to today’s situation, where soil fertility has decreased, fish populations have declined, and traditional means of living have ended up being threatened.

“In the heart of Romania lies a natural treasure: the majestic Danube Delta. Recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1998, this immense wetland is a sanctuary for an array of bird and fish species, boasting a biodiversity unlike any other in Europe. The Delta also serves as a crucial lifeline, purifying water and sustaining local communities for generations.

Yet this haven is not immune to the ravages of time. During the communist era, vast agricultural projects reshaped the landscape, draining wetlands and converting them into farmland. This transformation was later consolidated through legislation forbidding the conversion of agricultural land into other uses, as well as by the subsidy system introduced along with Romania’s EU accession in 2007. Over the years, the Danube Delta suffered the loss of thousands of hectares to agriculture, leading to a cascade of environmental and socioeconomic consequences. Soil fertility dwindled, fish populations declined and traditional ways of life were threatened”, the report points out.

WWF argues that five agricultural areas are currently covering nearly 40,000 hectares of land in the delta. “Although managed by localcouncils, these lands are often leased to private companies for up to 30 years. These companies make huge profits, but little of this wealth reaches local communities. For example, in Carasuhat, the farming companies make over €1.8 million annually but the fees paid to the local council amounted to around €80,000.”

The WWF says that the damage of converting the delta to agriculture is also exacerbated by a careless allocation of European subsidies by the Romanian government. “One subsidy program, DR-115 , provides payments based on land area, which favours large farms and intensified agriculture, rather than promoting sustainability and conservation. Other subsidies favour expansion, with the Romanian government planning to give €4.5 million of EU subsidies to farmers for transforming 36,000 hectares of reeds into farmland in 2023. This is a disaster for local delta communities, who are strongly in favour (83% to 97% of respondents 7) of returning farmland to its natural state of wetland, according to surveys.”

The report warns over the risk of desertification in the Danube Delta in the years 2071-2100 compared to 1981-2010. “The current agricultural approach, which heavily relies on harmful subsidies, will worsen climate change, widen social gaps and fuel land takeovers. To protect this unique ecosystem and local communities, taxpayers’ money should not fund any more destructive initiatives.
Instead, it should support projects that restore wetlands and natural habitats, prioritise public benefits, and help local small-scale farms and traditional jobs unique to the Danube Delta.”

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