This article is part of our special report Nature restoration.
After several delays and decades of failed promises to halt biodiversity loss in Europe, the EU is planning to propose legally binding nature restoration targets this summer.
The planned nature restoration law marks the first big piece of biodiversity legislation since the birds and habitats directive was tabled three decades ago.
It will aim at returning nature to all areas of Europe – including cities, farmland and marine environments – as well as restoring rivers and planting trees.
Although the EU has succeeded in slowing down biodiversity loss over the last three decades, it has consistently missed its pledges to reverse the decline of nature on its territory. In 2021, only 15% of habitats had a good conservation status and 81% had poor or bad conservation status, according to the European Environmental Agency (EEA).
Restoring nature will be essential if Europe wants to meet its climate goals. Healthy ecosystems help mitigate warming, prevent natural disasters and contribute to food security. They are also vital to Europe’s economy.
“A healthier relationship with nature means a healthier economy,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the EU’s annual Green Week event.
“Land degradation puts at risk roughly half of the world’s annual economic output, but there are solutions, and we know that they can pay off. The UN calculates that every euro spent in land restoration brings an economic return of seven to 30 euros,” she continued, adding that the law would be proposed “in the next weeks”.
Binding nature restoration targets
In May 2020, the European Commission published its 2030 biodiversity strategy which committed to legally protecting at least 30% of land and 30% of sea in the EU. The nature restoration law will aim to make this a reality, ensuring all ecosystems are in a good condition by 2050, with measurable results by 2030.
Originally planned for publication in 2021, it will ensure the sustainable use of ecosystems and improved knowledge and monitoring, with a particular focus on areas with high carbon storage potential and necessary to reduce the impact of disasters.
It will also address the fact that existing environmental legislation has not always been implemented well. According to the biodiversity strategy, the law “will request and support Member States to raise the level of implementation of existing legislation within clear deadlines”.
“It will in particular request Member States to ensure no deterioration in conservation trends and status of all protected habitats and species by 2030,” it adds.
The European Commission is still drafting the law, which will likely take for the form of a regulation directly applicable at national level. According to a leaked draft seen by EURACTIV in March, “the proposal establishes a number of ecosystem-specific binding restoration targets and obligations across a broad range of ecosystems”.
“Together, these measures together should cover at least 20% of the Union’s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050,” it continued.
This would build on existing environmental legislation and could mean targets for wetlands, peatlands, free-flowing rivers, marine areas and other ecosystems not currently covered by EU laws, like pollinators and soils, according to the Commission’s cost-benefit analysis.
For instance, the leak included targets for restoring drained peatland under agricultural use, with 30% of these areas restored by 2030 of which at least a quarter is rewetted, 50% by 2040 (of which half is rewetted), and 70% by 2050 (of which half is rewetted).
The targets in the law must go beyond existing legislation, go beyond existing protected areas and ensure tangible results by 2030, according to Laura Hildt from the European Environmental Bureau (EEA), a non-profit group. That means ensuring significant change, like rewetting peatlands rather than just reducing pesticide use, she told EURACTIV.
Meanwhile, the farming sector has called for achievable and realistic restoration targets to accomplish the “extraordinary work necessary”.
“It is clear that the targets being set right now will be delayed due to a variety of reasons: financing, planning, implementation, etc. It is important to be ambitious, but it is likewise essential not to be fantasists in expecting results for arbitrary deadlines such as 2030,” a COPA-COGECA spokesperson told EURACTIV.
Tackling the drivers of biodiversity loss
While the nature restoration law will be essential and ground-breaking, Europe faces a “phenomenal” challenge to fundamentally reverse the negative trend where only one in seven ecosystems in Europe is in good status, said the EEA’s executive director Hans Bruyninckx.
According to the European Environment Agency, intensive agricultural production, construction, quarrying, overexploitation, invasive alien species, pollution and climate change are the main drivers of biodiversity loss.
This means that the EU needs to go beyond restoring biodiversity on 30% of EU territory and changing the systems driving biodiversity loss, said Bruyninckx.
Europe needs to tackle these drivers and decouple its economic growth from resource use, said Janez Potočnik, the EU’s former Environment Commissioner who is now co-chair of the UNEP International Resource Panel.
“If we don’t remove them, then restoration will not help us a lot because [we will just need] more and more restoration,” he added.
But Hildt warned against putting all the burden on the nature restoration law.
“We definitely need to tackle the root causes,” she told EURACTIV. “But the nature restoration law can’t be the one magic wand that does everything and, if it were to try to do that, it would probably fail and there would be a big risk of it being watered down in the Council.”
Bringing farmers on board
Agroecology – a set of ecological principles applied to agricultural practices – could be one way to restore nature on farmland and create a more sustainable food system.
“The EU can support farmers by engaging them in this transition and also redesigning the farming system to be more diversified, include more natural or semi-natural landscape features, and adopt practices such as crop rotation and crop-livestock integration,” Elena Ambuhl from Agroecology Europe told EURACTIV.
But she warned against what she called a “false argument” from the industrial agriculture sector around food shortages as a result of the war in Ukraine. Since the outbreak of war, concerns have been raised about food sovereignty in Europe and food security in poorer countries, particularly in Africa.
“We must be able to cultivate all available land in 2022 to compensate for the block of Ukrainian and Russian production. Everything must be done to prevent disruptions in supply chain, which can lead to shortages in certain parts of the world,” COPA-COGECA wrote on Twitter.
However, Potočnik warned against calls to intensify food production and use nature areas to grow food for livestock. Instead, the EU needs to move towards more sustainable production and consumption, he said.
There are already schemes that help farmers use their land sustainably, including one in Ireland where farmers receive funding, based on the results of a sustainability scorecard.
If Europe gets the policy right, then farmers will help the effort, said Gary Goggins, the public awareness manager at the scheme.
Restoration efforts are likely to cost around €7 billion annually, but a spokesperson for COPA-COGECA warned that the financing available from the Common Agricultural Policy and the seven-year budget are not sufficient and more concrete financial planning is needed from the European Commission.
The farmers organisation also warns against overstepping in the law, saying that all measures must be voluntary, and with the full acknowledgement and understanding of the land owner.
It also criticised the idea of using delegated acts to increase control over EU countries’ governance of native habitats. Left unchecked, this could move away from the true purpose of the law to restore nature, the organisation warns.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]