Transport development and biodiversity conservation in Europe… an impossible equation?

On the one hand, there is this constant erosion of biodiversity. Of the 8 million animal (vertebrate and non-vertebrate) and plant species on the planet, Ipbes, the IPCC’s equivalent of biodiversity, face up to a million in 2019.

On the other hand, there is a growing demand for transport, which means that roads and railways could be twice as long in 2050 as in 2010. Thus, more than 25 million kilometers of roads and 335,000 kilometers of railways can be added to the scale. The world in the next thirty years, recalls the Infra Eco Network Europe (Iene).

Infrastructures will come to Eastern Europe and will be adapted to the West

This European network of scientists, engineers, operational actors, meeting this week in Cluj (Romania) for a biennial conference, is pushing for the creation of an environmentally sustainable pan-European transport infrastructure network. Because the issue is also European*. It is true that most of the expected infrastructure (85%) is in developing countries. “But Eastern Europe is also trying to expand its network, and the task in the West is to adapt it to this issue of biodiversity,” explains Yannick Autre, transport, energy and environment expert at the General Commission for Sustainable Development.

This is the whole aim of the bison project, for biodiversity and infrastructure synergies and opportunities for European transport networks. Starting in January 2021, this European program spread over thirty months aims to identify future research and innovation needs for better integration of biodiversity issues into transport infrastructure, before creating an actionable roadmap.

Impacts that are not limited to footprints

“The report should be delivered by June,” continues Yannick Offret, one of the main coordinators of the Bison project, who hopes to take advantage of this week’s meetings in Cluj to make progress. It’s bigger than it looks. Yannick Autret insists on the term “life cycles of infrastructures” to remind us that their impact on biodiversity is far from being limited to their construction, “as we all too often summarize”.

True, this step is very difficult. “This is already the destruction of habitats for the species that live there, begins Sylvie Vanpine, engineer-researcher in ecology at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (Inrae). There is also, potentially, species mortality if, for example, trees are cut down when they are nesting sites for birds, or even potential pollution associated with works, in particular water mains. »

Once out of the ground, these networks fragment territories, breaking the relationships and circulation previously established by fauna, Sylvie Vanpin continues. Added to this are collision deaths. “This applies to land animals, but also to birds and insects, which we are less aware of,” recalls the INRA researcher.

There are other, more insidious effects. “Starting with the amount of pollution that this infrastructure can cause,” continues Yannick Otret. Soil change, air pollution – fine particles also affect vegetation and fauna – light pollution…, he lists. Not to mention noise pollution. “The dispersion of traffic noise can alter the reproductive capacity of species or impair their ability to identify threats. »

Heterogeneity of practice in Europe

Some of these impacts are increasingly being factored into infrastructure projects, Sylvie Vanpin points out. This is particularly true in France of the issues of fragmentation and conflict with the establishment of the Green and Blue Lines and the definition of regional ecological succession pathways in the wake of the 2012 Grenelle de l’Environment. he.

In addition to underpasses, more and more ecological bridges are being added, these crossings for animals above highways. Digital tools—software like Graphab or GPS sensors attached to animals—are also being used to best pick the location of these wildlife crossings. »

These achievements should not hide “the great heterogeneity of practice and the consideration of biodiversity issues in the life cycle of infrastructure”, notes Yannick Otret. “Not only from one state to another, but even within countries, including France, where sometimes there is no political will to actively discuss this topic,” he continues. Too often we only talk about time savings or decompartmentalization of areas that these new roads provide. Without calculating the value of the biodiversity that already exists. »

The Bison project coordinator acknowledges that conceptualizing and quantifying these impacts is not always easy. Some remain unexploited or little known. Example with green edges of railways, roads and canals. “It starts from the very good principle of creating connections between biodiversity reservoirs,” explains Yannick Offret. But these corridors are also used by invasive species. We have seen this in France, with the Japanese knotweed, which thus grew along the roads when these verges were not sufficiently tilled. »

Start with the transport request question mark

Accordingly, with regard to the Bison project, “the idea is not so much to make a catalog of good practices as to inventory the science on the subject in order to create a common core of knowledge that can be reduced to the specifics of each one. Mode of transport, road, railway, river, energy, etc., explains Yannick Autre. The common theme is that we no longer think about the scale of the infrastructure, but of the territory.

This involves looking at the existing infrastructure in the region and the real benefits of adding new ones. That’s the question Swedish researcher Andreas Seiler asked to start with this Monday during a progress report on the bison project. “Sustainable transport policy should be aimed at reducing demand,” he argues. The general public, stakeholders and political leaders must be willing to change their attitudes and behaviour, and this is perhaps where the biggest obstacles lie. »

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