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Adaptation option

Improve the functional connectivity of ecological networks

Ecosystems and biodiversity have long been endangered by numerous factors, such as habitat modification due to changes in land use, habitat loss due to various human activities, habitat fragmentation for example due to traffic routes, etc. Climate change is an essential factor adding additional pressure on habitats and biodiversity. Every organism has certain demands in terms of climatic conditions. This is reflected in the global distribution of species. Rising temperatures and changing precipitation conditions as well as the increased occurrence of extreme events imply that organisms must either adapt or move to new habitats to service. The shift of the area boundaries is expected to change the number of species and the species composition in biocoenosis and biotopes.

Ecological connectivity is a determining factor for the survival and migration of species and adaptation potential of populations. Promoting ecological connectivity is an important option to enable dynamic adaptation processes in ecosystems, and thus to combat the decline in biodiversity and preserve ecosystem services, especially in view of changing climatic conditions. Moreover, healthy ecosystems provide numerous goods and services that are vital to human society. These services are particularly relevant for ecosystem-based approaches for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction, for example ensuring protection against floods, avalanches and other climate-related hazards, prevention of soil or coastal erosion and regulation of the (micro) climate (regulating services).

The conservation of biological diversity and the improvement of ecosystem services must go beyond the approach of static protected areas. An improvement of the ecological continuum is needed in order to mitigate the effect of change in land use and climate change. Indeed, the persistent loss of natural habitats leads to fragmentation and further to landscape "patchiness" and isolation with distinct habitat "islands". These habitat islands lose their ecological functionality, essential ecological processes can no longer take place and migration to other habitats is no longer possible.

EU Natura 2000, legally based on the Birds and Habitat Directives, support the creation of a network of nature conservation sites among all Member States. These protected and high nature value areas can provide an important initial basis in sustaining ecological functionality. In order to promote functional connectivity and an area-wide ecological network, ecological corridors between protected areas are also needed, even at the transnational and macro-regional levels. In this view, also generic habitat measures across the wider environment are necessary. These include sustainable land use policies and measures (e.g. preservation of landscape elements, ecological agriculture and ecological land management), funding mechanisms and planning regulation and policies.

The EU Strategy on Green Infrastructure pursues the aim of a strategically planned network of natural and semi-natural areas, supporting biodiversity conservation, improving environmental conditions and delivering essential ecosystem services. Green infrastructure include conservation sites, stepping stones and network elements, but also greenways, wildlife corridors and other green spaces and eco-technical structures that allow for mitigating the negative effects of fragmentation. This green infrastructure strategic planning approach can make an important contribution to improving functional connectivity of ecosystems and ecological networks.

A number of adaptation options are closely linked to green infrastructure planning and implementation. Ecological connectivity is essential to improve the adaptation capacity of plant and animal species, strengthening the resilience of ecosystems. At the same time, through the preservation of ecosystem services, an improved ecological and functional connectivity can contribute to other forms of adaptation which are also relevant for humans, e.g. through agroforestry, river and floodplain restoration or adaptive management of natural habitats. Both the impacts of the rapid changing climate on biodiversity and the meaning of ecosystem services for sustainable adaptation to climate change show how important it is to improve ecological networks as an adaptation measure.

Additional Details
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Adaptation Details



IPCC categories

Structural and physical: Ecosystem-based adaptation options

Stakeholder participation

Supporting ecological connectivity and implementing the green infrastructure approach into landscape development process should be based on the involvement of regional and local stakeholders, to increase acceptance and to adapt measures to local (social, political, economic and natural) conditions. Key stakeholders include landowners and representative of directly affected sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, spatial planning, tourism and nature conservation, as well as stakeholders from other sectors indirectly affected by habitat and natural resource management.

Success and Limiting Factors

Economic, social and political framework conditions play a major role in regional and spatial planning. This makes the promotion and consideration of dynamic nature conservation and planning approaches (such as green infrastructure) often complex and difficult. Land use conflicts between different sectors (such as agriculture, forestry, tourism, renewable energies, transport, industry, etc.) and nature conservation can act as locally relevant limiting factors. Furthermore, different land use management and planning approaches as well as the non-acceptance of the importance of ecological networks (beyond protected areas) can be relevant limiting factors.

On the other hand improved ecological connectivity provides a wide range of co-benefits, securing socially relevant ecosystem services at relatively low economic cost.

Costs and Benefits

Improving ecological connectivity implies the design and implementation of land use measures and green infrastructures, which are very local specific. It flows that costs depend significantly on the specific adopted measure and local conditions and that they are difficult to be generalised. An enhanced ecological connectivity provides a wide range of benefits, including those relevant for climate change (ecosystem-based) adaptation, resulting in many cases higher than costs. For example, flood protection by restoring floodplains and river habitats can be promoted to jointly improve adaptation to flooding and nature conservation, being in various cases cheaper than adopting technical solutions (such as dams), especially in the long-term. Moreover, these ecosystem-based green (and blue) infrastructure measures offer other co-benefits in addition to flood protection, such as a recreational function and water conservation for agriculture purposes.

At the EU level the approach aiming at improving ecological networks and functional connectivity of habitats is supported and even driven by an articulated set of policies and directives, mainly including:

  • The Birds and Habitat directives, which legally support the Natura 2000 network building a strong basis for improving ecological connectivity.
  • The Biodiversity Strategy, underlining the importance of ecological connectivity.
  • The Strategy on Green Infrastructure, supporting the adoption of panning approaches going beyond protected areas and aiming to improve ecological connectivity through green measures.

Implementation Time

The design and implementation of intervention aiming to improve ecological networks is a continuous work. Typically it takes 5-10 years, although the implementation time is highly influenced by the scale of application (local, sub-national, national, or event trans-national) and the specific characteristics of the considered area.

Life Time

Lifetime highly depends on land-use changes and change in policy addressing nature protection; thus an adaptive approach to improved ecological network is required.

Reference information

Published in Climate ADAPT Mar 24 2020   -   Last Modified in Climate ADAPT Aug 24 2020

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