European Green Deal: How to restore Europe’s nature and fight climate change

European Green Deal: How to restore Europe’s nature and fight climate change
Wetlands in the Netherlands, credit: Unsplash/Elly Kelders

The European Commission adopted last week proposals to restore damaged ecosystems, bring nature back across Europe, from agricultural land and seas, to forests and urban environments, and to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030.

To achieve these objectives, the Commission is proposing a Nature Restoration Law, the first-ever legislation on EU level that explicitly targets the restoration of Europe’s nature and prescribes legally binding targets for nature restoration in different ecosystems that will apply to every Member State, complementing existing laws.

To help deliver on the targets while keeping flexibility for national circumstances, the law will require Member States to develop National Restoration Plansin close cooperation with scientists, interested stakeholders and the public. These plans will serve as the main tool for nature restoration and should be prepared by the Member States within two years after the new law has entered into force.

“All member states will have work to do, some more, others less, depending on the degradation of their nature and their geographical location,” a senior Commission official explained at a technical briefing. The aim is to cover at least 20% of the EU's land and sea areas by 2030 with nature restoration measures, and eventually extend these to all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050.

Because of the subsidiarity principle in the EU, which safeguards the ability of the Member States to take their own decisions, the Commission will not formally approve the national plans. The Commission promises to monitor them carefully and might request Member States to revise them if they do not meet the targets. Infringement procedures are also possible.

Degradation at alarming rate

According to the Commission, biodiversity loss and the degradation of ecosystems continue at an alarming rate, across the broad range of ecosystem types in the EU. In the EU, 80% of habitats are in poor condition, with peatlands, grasslands and dune habitats worst.

The good news according to the Commission is that nature restoration is already happening although the works has to be scaled-up to ensure the sustained long-term recovery of biodiversity. The Commission has published a brochure on restoration, including examples of existing projects in Member States.

The Commission initiative has also an international dimension. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world and Europe have a brief, rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future, as the rise in weather and climate extremes has led to some irreversible impacts as natural and human systems are pushed beyond their ability to adapt.

Biodiversity loss is also ranked as the third most pressing global risk by severity, right after climate action failure and extreme weather, according to the 2022 World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The proposal for a Nature Restoration Law is described by the Commission as a key step in avoiding ecosystem collapse and preventing the worst impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss. The law covers wetlands, rivers, forests, grasslands, marine ecosystems, urban environments and the species they host.

The new rules on chemical pesticides is expected to reduce the environmental footprint of the EU's food system, protect the health and well-being of citizens and agricultural workers, and help mitigate the economic losses that we are already incurring due to declining soil health and pesticide-induced pollinator loss. 

The law aims at scaling up existing experiences of nature restoration measures such as rewilding, returning trees, greening cities and infrastructure, or removing pollution to allow nature to recover. However, the Commission cautions that nature restoration does not equal nature protection and does not automatically lead to more protected areas.

A special problem are drained peatlands under intensive agricultural use. They cover only 3% of EU’s agricultural lands but are responsible for 25% of the green-house gas emissions from EU’s agriculture.

Substantial EU funding to restoration

Ecosystems with the greatest potential for removing and storing carbon and preventing or reducing the impact of natural disasters such as floods will be the top priorities. The new law builds on existing legislation, but covers all ecosystems rather than being limited to the Habitats Directive and Natura 2000 protected areas. Existing legislation has also been proven to be insufficient.

Restoration of nature will benefit from substantial EU funding under the current budget period (2021- 2027). Around €100 billion will be available for biodiversity spending, including restoration. Of that, an estimated sum of €6 – 8 billion per year will be spent on restoration.

From a cost-benefit viewpoint, the Commission estimates that investment into nature restoration adds €8 to €38 in economic value for every €1 spent, thanks to the ecosystem services that support food security, ecosystem and climate resilience and mitigation, and human health and well-being as well as cultural and recreational value.

The proposals will now be discussed by the European Parliament and the Council. Following adoption, the impact on the ground will be gradual: nature restoration measures are to be in place by 2030, including specific targets for urban space, free-flowing rivers, and pollination. The pesticides targets should also be reached by 2030. In doing this, the EU institutions can count on public support for nature restoration, according to a Eurobarometer survey on biodiversity,

The Nature Restoration Law is fueled by the Conference on the Future of Europe, a Commission official told The Brussels Times, and will be one of the first concrete steps in the Commission’s commitment to deliver on the Conference’s proposals on climate change and the environment.

“We welcome the fact that the Commission is setting stricter requirements for existing nature conservation areas and proposing clear, verifiable guidelines for nature restoration measures, including binding targets and restoration plans for Member States,” commented MEP Jutta PaulusGreens/EFA, shadow rapporteur in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee.

However, according to the MEP, the targets for peatlands were watered down at the last minute under pressure from the agricultural industry. “These habitats are important for biodiversity and help with climate adaptation. We will fight for large-scale restoration of wetlands, as this is essential for reaching our climate targets."

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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