A new EU Action Plan seeks to clarify responsibilities between the EU and member states on bringing plant and animal extinction to a halt by 2010. But environmentalists say the measures are weak and may just come too late.

Four biodiversity action plans have already been adopted in 2001 under a wider EU biodiversity strategy agreed earlier in 1998.

The four action plans relate to:

1) conservation of natural resources,

2) agriculture,

3) fisheries, and

4) economic and development cooperation outside Europe.

The four action plans resulted from a renewed push in favour of nature conservation measures by the then 15 EU member states. At the Gothenburg summit in 2001, they agreed to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by 2010 and to restore habitats and natural ecosystems. In 2002, they joined some 130 world leaders in agreeing to "significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss globally by 2010".

Today, nature and biodiversity are one of the four priorities of the Sixth Environmental Action Programme covering the period 2002-2012.

The EU Commission on Monday (22 May) unveiled a new Action Plan on biodiversity, the fifth of its kind since a 2001 summit of European heads of states agreed to halt biodiversity loss in the EU by the end of the decade. Unlike previous ones, the new action plan does not come up with ambitious new laws on protecting migrating wild birds and natural habitats. More modestly, it tries to clear up responsibilities when it comes to implementing whatever legislation already exists.

In the Commission's own words, such a clarification of responsibilities would suggest "a departure from the past". "We know what needs to be done", said Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas as he outlined the new plan to the press on 22 May. The new policy document, he added, "will help us pull all the actors and resources together so that we meet our commitments". At the starting point is recognition that existing policies have not delivered the desired results. In the EU, the Commission points out, the policy framework is already largely in place. Natura 2000, an EU-wide network of protected areas, now covers some 18% of the territory of the EU-15 and is being extended to the EU-10 and seas.

The Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policies have recently been reformed to take better account of wildlife, plants and forests. Funding has been poured into biodiversity research. Yet, the Commission says, "some two-thirds of ecosystem services worldwide are in decline. In the EU, this decline is expressed in collapsing fish stocks, widespread damage to soils, costly flood damages, and disappearing wildlife".

To try to remedy this, the Action Plan identifies four priority areas: Biodiversity in the EU: greater commitment from member states to propose, designate, protect and effectively manage sites protected under the Natura 2000 network. Key actions suggested include optimising the use of available measures under the reformed Common agriculture and fisheries policy and improving planning at national, regional and local levels.