Norway is a remarkably varied country, stretching from the temperate south to high mountains and Arctic islands, with a long and highly indented coastline dotted with islands and skerries. Although population density is low, many species and habitat types are under threat in Norway.
Rich biodiversity in a cold climate
Norway cannot compete with areas as rich as tropical rain forests for sheer numbers of species. However, the rugged topography and geological diversity, combined with the many ways people have used and formed Norwegian landscapes through history, make for a highly varied natural environment.
Geological forces have left their mark on the Norwegian landscape. Ice ages, glacial rebound and erosion have created jagged mountains, gentle U-shaped valleys, canyons, deep fjords, moraines and lakes. The warm water carried northwards by the Gulf Stream gives Norway a much milder climate than would otherwise be expected so far north.
The result is a remarkably wide range of landscapes, ecosystems and habitats in a limited area, and some of Europe's most spectacular mountain and coastal scenery.
Mountain and forest cover much of the country
About one third of mainland Norway is forest-covered, and about 60 % of the species so far recorded in Norway are associated with forests. Many other species are dependent on special conditions that are only to be found in cultural landscapes or in wetlands such as peat bogs. Through history, people have made use of most of mainland Norway for farming, hunting and other activities that still set their mark on the vegetation and species diversity today.
Roughly half of mainland Norway consists of mountains, where plants and animals are adapted to life in a cold and harsh environment. Other species and ecosystems are found in freshwater and marine environments, and in Norway's Arctic areas north of the mainland.
Vital for people's livelihoods and well-being
The natural environment and biodiversity are intrinsically valuable. In addition, they are of practical value to people, supplying us with vital goods such as food, clothing, building materials, medicines and fuel. Healthy ecosystems also provide ecosystem services by removing pollutants from air and water and storing the greenhouse gas CO2. Pollination services are vital for food production. Other services include natural protection against storm and flood damage. Well-functioning ecosystems thus play an important role both in mitigating climate change and in adaptation, by protecting us against the impacts of climate change.
It is also recognised that people need opportunities for recreation and relaxation outdoors, and a lack of access to the natural environment can actually have a negative impact on people's health.
Despite the fact that life on earth could not exist without healthy ecosystems, it is very difficult to put a monetary value on most ecosystem services. As a result, vital functions of the natural environment are liable to be overlooked or ignored when people make decisions that may have a profound effect on biodiversity and landscapes.
Probably 55 000 species in Norway
In 2011, all the available information on species in Norway was reviewed. At that stage, about 41 000 species had been recorded in Norway. Since then, more species have been discovered through a project called the Norwegian taxonomy initiative, and the total number of species recorded in Norway has risen to about 44 000. The real number, including those that have not yet been identified, is probably around 55 000.
There are still many organisms we know little about. In many cases, we lack information about the distribution of species and their function in the ecosystems where they live.
Complex ecological interactions
Species cannot be considered separately from the habitats where they live. If habitats are destroyed, species will be lost – and on the other hand, habitats change if species become extinct or their distribution shifts. Such changes reflect the complex and intricate ecological interactions in ecosystems. There are still major gaps in our knowledge about ecosystems, and we cannot be sure of the consequences of change. When one species disappears from an area, others may follow, or the whole ecological balance may be disrupted.
Land-use change the most important driver of biodiversity loss
In Norway, land-use change resulting in habitat alteration and degradation is considered to be the most important cause of the loss of biodiversity. Other important drivers of biodiversity loss are pollution, over-exploitation, invasive alien species and climate change.
Land use and land-use change alters habitats in many ways, for example through deforestation, drainage, overgrowing of open areas, farming and the construction of buildings and infrastructure, including dams. Different forms of land-use change are considered to be the most important threat to 87 % of the species classified as threatened in Norway.
Climate change a growing threat
Climate change is putting pressure on Norwegian ecosystems, and its impacts are becoming apparent in a number of ways. These impacts are expected to become more severe as the climate changes further. Animals and plants that live in high mountain and Arctic areas are particularly vulnerable. The 2010 Red List for Species describes climate change as the most important factor for threatened and near-threatened species in Svalbard.
A growing population using more resources
People have harvested from nature and exploited natural resources for centuries, and species have become extinct throughout history. However, we are now using resources far more intensively, and the rate of extinction is far higher. Population growth, rising consumption and our use of technology are putting more and more pressure on the environment. If we put short-term economic interests first, we often overexploit natural resources.
Some areas and habitat types need active management to maintain ecosystems and sustain species diversity. This is particularly true of traditional agricultural landscapes, which are liable to become overgrown with scrub and trees if they are not managed. Species that prefer open landscapes are then likely to disappear. Some species that thrive in these areas, such as bees and bumble bees, also play an important role in natural ecosystems.
National law and international agreements
In Norway, the Nature Diversity Act is the most important piece of environmental legislation. It covers the conservation of biological, landscape and geological diversity. It applies to all sectors that are responsible for managing biodiversity and the environment, or that take decisions that may have an impact on biodiversity. This means that even if activities are mainly governed by other legislation, decisions must also be based on the principles of the Nature Diversity Act.
The Act includes provisions on species management, protected areas, alien organisms, selected habitat types, and priority species and their habitats.
Other Norwegian legislation, such as the Wildlife Act and the Salmonids and Freshwater Fish Act, is also designed to safeguard biodiversity.
People live in the most productive areas
The parts of Norway that originally supported the highest biodiversity are also the most densely populated areas. The local authorities play a very important part in deciding which areas are to be used for which purposes. The Planning and Building Act is therefore another vital instrument for biodiversity conservation in Norway.
Ways of avoiding further losses of biodiversity include restricting the development of areas of natural habitat, ensuring that land use patterns are sustainable, and making better and more efficient use of existing infrastructure and built-up areas.
Norway has ratified a number of environmental agreements that set out obligations for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the agreement with the most wide-ranging scope and objectives.
This is a global agreement to promote the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. It entered into force in 1993, and nearly all the world's countries are parties to it (195 countries and the EU). They have undertaken to develop national strategies and action plans to implement the convention at national level, and are required to submit regular reports on what they are doing.
Like all other parties to the Convention, Norway is required to:
- establish protected areas;
- take steps to eradicate, contain and control invasive alien species;
- safeguard threatened species;
- promote cooperation with other countries on biodiversity conservation.
In Norway, the Ministry of Climate and Environment is responsible for following up the convention, and is assisted in an advisory capacity by the Norwegian Environment Agency. The Agency has a special responsibility for Norway's work within the Convention's Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA).