Europe’s nature restoration journey can begin

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

This article is part of our special report Nature restoration.

Read this article in Italian and in Croatian.

For the past 30 years, EU nature laws have revolved around conservation but this is clearly not enough. Instead, restoring nature is the best way forward, one of the wisest investments available to society, and also crucial for food security, write  Frans Timmermans and Virginijus Sinkevičius.

Frans Timmermans is the executive vice president of the European Commission; Virginijus Sinkevičius is the Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, calls have gone up to halt the European Union’s flagship biodiversity and sustainability proposals. ‘Now is the time to produce more food, not less’.

Leaving aside the mistaken idea that sustainable production would mean lower yields and less food, these arguments completely overlook that the biggest threats to food security are climate change and biodiversity loss.

Russia’s deliberate targeting of grain stocks actually reminds us of the fragility of global food supply, and the need to increase Europe’s resilience. To ensure ongoing food security, we should therefore work to reduce pollution, develop healthy soils, and giving nature room to thrive.

Nature restoration is part and parcel of this approach.

But nature is in bad shape. Decades of human activity have strained the balance and put us on a negative trajectory of biodiversity loss. The past 30 years have seen these activities massively transform our landscapes. Agriculture and forestry practices have become more intensive, cities and infrastructure take ever more space, consistently pushing nature out.

We humans depend on nature – far more than we think. Trees literally clean polluted air and cool our cities. Ecosystems filter the water we drink. Wetlands are natural sponges that soak up excess rain to prevent floods. Trees and soils store huge amounts of carbon. And when we walk in woodlands, our immune system and general wellbeing get a boost.

Nature restores us. Now it’s time to return the favour.

For the past 30 years, EU nature laws have revolved around conservation. We set aside protected areas to manage in a sustainable manner. It brought us Natura 2000, the largest connected network of protected areas in the world, covering more than 18 percent of European land.

But those 30 years have also shown the limits of conservation. Nature continues to decline, inside and especially outside these protected areas. It’s time for a new approach. It’s time to make nature restoration legally binding.

All around the EU, there are great examples waiting to be repeated. Disused gravel pits in La Bassée, France, nursed back to health to provide biodiverse wetlands and upstream flood protection for Paris.

The Vindel river in Sweden, its free flow restored to improve water quality and provide spawning grounds for fish. And the Emscher landscape park in Germany, transformed from a highly polluted industrial landscape to a large park filled with woodland paths, footbridges, arboretums and gardens of discovery.

Restoring nature is one of the wisest investments available to society.

Farmers get better soil and steady pollination, communities get better flood protection, clean water and cooler cities, fishers get recovering fish stocks, and foresters get more resilient forests. Investing in restoration is the smart solution – every euro spent on nature restoration generates at least eight times its value in returns.

Restoration is also crucial for food security. Farmers are already experiencing the effects of nature loss, with some degree of soil degradation now affecting almost 75% of agricultural land. Erosion is causing losses of almost 3 million tonnes of wheat and 600 000 tonnes of maize every year.

And given that nearly 5 billion of the EU’s agricultural output is directly dependent on insect pollination, the decline of pollinator populations means ever greater financial risk for farmers growing pollinator-dependent crops.

Restoration can repair the damage and it can do so quickly. Flower strips, hedgerows and landscape features, especially when combined with a reduced use of chemical pesticides, have a rapid and positive impact on pollination. Stonewalls, grass margins and features to trap sediments within the borders of agricultural fields can counter soil erosion.

And, of course, nature restoration brings huge advantages for the climate. Nature is our best carbon removal ‘technology’. Nothing removes carbon more efficiently and cheaply from the atmosphere than forests, wetlands and seas.

So we should focus our efforts on ecosystems with the greatest potential for removing and storing carbon. We know how important nature-based solutions are. The task now is to put them into practice.

The longer we wait, the more problems we store up for the future.

The climate and biodiversity crises are threatening the very foundation of our life on Earth. This new law on nature restoration is a massive step forward in tackling biodiversity loss, repairing the damage of the past, and strengthening our nature for the future. Science tells us we need it, the public demands we do it: it’s time for us politicians to act.

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