Bringing nature back to life

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

It is time for political leaders to demonstrate their courage and resolve: this COP15 meeting must be the "Paris moment" for nature, argues Bas Eickhout MEP [Philippe BUISSIN / EP]

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that biodiversity needs a Paris Agreement and COP15 in autumn this year is the world’s chance to achieve that, writes Bas Eickhout.

Bas Eickhout is the Vice-President of the Green/ European Free Alliance and sits on the environment committee and the delegation for relations with China.

This autumn, world leaders and top scientists will be heading to the UN Biodiversity summit in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. The summit, also known as COP15, is the epicentre of global biodiversity governance.

Originally scheduled for October 2020, the meeting was postponed due to the pandemic, a crisis highlighting the disruptive entanglement of humans and nature.

It is time for political leaders to demonstrate their courage and resolve: this COP15 meeting must be the “Paris moment” for nature. Although biodiversity and nature loss has not yet achieved the level of political response that led to the Paris Agreement, species loss is increasingly recognised as a global challenge just as significant as, and highly related to, climate breakdown.

How can we make full use of this moment and conclude a binding nature agreement in China?

Pivotal in Paris was Europe’s demonstration of the ability to change. We showed the world the positive impact of climate policy, and that large-scale deployment of renewables was possible.

With mature economies pioneering low-carbon policies, Europe was able to show leadership at a critical moment. Europe can show global leadership again in Kunming: but we must clearly demonstrate that we are serious and willing to change our own land use, production and consumption in order to improve biodiversity. It’s time to act.

Europe does not go to Kunming empty-handed. Nature protection has been on the European policy agenda for more than thirty years. We have longstanding experience with key European policy instruments, notably, the ‘Nature’ directives, the Natura 2000 network, and the LIFE programme, Europe’s funding instrument for nature, environment and climate.

According to this study, these instruments succeeded in slowing biodiversity loss, and even improved biodiversity locally. But it was not enough to halt or reverse the overall decline in biodiversity.

We must therefore go further. At the political level, we see this hope rising: the Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 is the most ambitious the world has ever seen and is very much the centrepiece of the European Green Deal.

This year, the first legally binding targets for nature restoration are proposed, and plans are underway to build out the existing Natura 2000 network to complete the Trans European Nature Network, crucial for the survival of Europe’s native wildlife.

However, high-level political ambition is not enough – this signal must be matched by the willingness and capacity of people to deliver on the ground, and make this a reality in their daily lives, their businesses and institutions, neighbourhoods and localities.

This is where Europe’s early adoption of environmental policies and funding instruments really pays off – it has nurtured a vital generation of changemakers and brought very different stakeholders together in order to realise large-scale nature restoration projects that meet our collective needs.

In my own home country, the Netherlands, nearly 60% of the Dutch territory has an agricultural function. We were early adopters of intensive agriculture, bringing massive gains in food production volumes, but at a terrible price for nature.

In fact, we destroyed so much of our nature that it was not enough to protect what was left – we had to start to go about restoring what had been lost.

In the Netherlands, this nature restoration work started in earnest in the 1990s with the key involvement of civil society organisations such as Natuurmonumenten and supported by the LIFE programme.

Once it was recognised that restoring floodplains could help us better manage our water levels (a major issue in our country and culture), the involvement of the Dutch water authorities and boards significantly accelerated progress on nature restoration sites.

We need this integrated approach now in agriculture. It’s time for the agricultural industry and farmers to become more involved in rebalancing the relationship between the twin necessities of nature and food production. And for government to help rapidly accelerate this transition.

On Monday 10 May, I will host a webinar on how we can bring nature back, with a panel of senior Commission officials, experienced stakeholders and practitioners from my own country. I invite you to join us there, so we can share the lessons of the past years with a view to how best to work together to deliver on the challenges ahead.

There are difficult political and societal choices to be made on how we manage our land. Not everything is possible: this is a lesson we know well in the Netherlands. Our nature restoration work to date has involved balancing different needs and interests to achieve a common goal.

Biodiversity continues to decline in Europe, albeit more slowly than in the rest of the world. If we want to make progress worldwide, we as the EU will have to show the world how we can change. In our Dutch tradition, the ‘polder model’ emphasises working together as the only way to achieve win-win outcomes: valuing collective needs above individual gains.

There are many competing demands on our land: compromise is necessary. We can bring to Kunming a story of hope founded on hard-won experience. Nature is our foundational capital, and we – politicians, industries, civil society organisations, governance institutions, farmers, citizens and all – must work together to preserve and restore it. We cannot live without it.

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