LEAK: 70% of EU’s drained peatlands must be restored by 2050, says Commission

Many peatlands have been drained to increase the soil productivity for agriculture or forestry, releasing this carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Member states will have to restore at least 70% of drained peatlands under agricultural use by 2050, of which at least half is rewetted, according to a leak of the nature restoration regulation proposal seen by EURACTIV.

The proposal, which is due to be presented on 23 March, aims at halting biodiversity loss in Europe by enshrining ecosystem restoration targets into regulation while also strengthening the contribution of the land sector to the overall climate ambition for 2030.

A key part of this ambition is the restoration and rewetting of peatlands.

Containing up to one-third of the world’s terrestrial carbon, these peatlands are key strategic areas for climate change mitigation. They also offer a unique habitat for diverse species of flora and fauna which are specifically adapted to a specific acidic, low-oxygen environment, therefore increasing regional biodiversity.

However, many of these peatlands have been drained to increase the soil productivity for agriculture or forestry, releasing this carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

To address this, the proposal outlines a plan which progressively increases in ambition from now until 2050.

In the shorter term, the communication sets out that 30% of such areas, of which at least a quarter is rewetted, must be restored by 2030, rising to 50% with at least half rewetted by 2040.

The ultimate goal for 2050 is to see 70% of drained peatland agricultural areas restored, of which at least half is rewetted, by 2050.

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Productive use of peatlands

Extolling the benefits of restoring peatlands, the draft regulation states that their restoration, together with other habitats such as marshlands, forests and heathlands, could be worth €1,860 billion, compared to estimated costs of only €154 billion.

However the real amount could be even higher with the prospect of monetised benefits for carbon storage, it adds.

In order to reap its full benefits, restoring and rewetting of drained peatland under agricultural use should “extend beyond the areas required for the re-establishment of wetlands habitat type” that are already protected under the EU habitats directive.

Allaying potential fears of a loss of production, the proposal contends that restored and rewetted peatlands can continue to be used productively in alternative ways.

For example, it proposes that ‘paludiculture’, the practice of farming on wet peatlands, can include the cultivation of various types of reeds, certain forms of timber, grazing with water buffaloes, blueberry and cranberry cultivation, and sphagnum farming.

“Such practices should be based on the principles of sustainable management and aimed at enhancing biodiversity so that they can have a high value both financially and ecologically,” the draft states.

It adds that ‘paludiculture’ can also be beneficial to several species which are endangered in the EU and facilitate the connectivity of wetland areas and of populations of associated species populations in the EU.

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The birds and the bees

Other areas where the regulation has significant relevance for the agri-food sector includes pollinator protection and non-productive areas on farms.

Underlining that almost €5 billion of the bloc’s annual agricultural output is directly attributed to insect pollinators and affordable food, the draft stresses that pollinators, whose numbers have dramatically declined in recent decades, underpin the EU’s food security.

It, therefore, stresses the need for restoration measures to be put into place to enhance the biodiversity of agricultural ecosystems across the EU, including in the areas not currently covered by the EU habitats directive.

As there is currently no common method for assessing the condition of agricultural ecosystems, the draft sets out that it is “appropriate to set a general obligation to improve biodiversity in agricultural ecosystems” and measure the fulfilment of this obligation on the basis of existing indicators.

For example, it suggests that as farmland birds are well-known and widely recognised key indicators of the health of agricultural ecosystems, restoration targets for their recovery should be set.

The proposal also emphasises the need for high-diversity landscape features on agricultural land, including buffer strips, hedges and non-productive trees, to provide space for wild plants and animals, including pollinators, while also enhancing carbon sequestration.

Therefore, it proposes that a requirement to ensure improving trends for high-diversity landscape features on agricultural land should be set out which achieves the commitment to cover at least 10% of the agricultural area with high-diversity landscape features, as set out in the EU’s biodiversity strategy.

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[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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