Nature is the missed opportunity of the EU’s recovery plans

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

Agroforestry creates an average of 56 jobs per €1 million invested compared to 45 jobs for electric vehicles in five EU countries, but nature’s role is lacking in recovery plans [S. Hermann & F. Richter / Pixabay]

Post-COVID recovery plans are the perfect moment to reset Europe’s economy and become more sustainable, but current plans show that Europe is failing to embrace a systematic change in how it views nature, writes Sandrine Dixson-Decleve and Simon Zadek.

Sandrine Dixson-Decleve is Co-President of the Club of Rome. Simon Zadek is Chair of the Finance For Biodiversity initiative. 

“The opportunity of the century” is how President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen has described the EU Recovery Plans this week – in terms of rebuilding our economies in a way that protects the environment and the climate, and creates sustainable jobs. These plans are a defining moment for reset, and they should completely overhaul Europe’s economic systems and set the region onto a new pathway that delivers the ambitions of the European Green Deal.

In reviewing the plans, which were due for final submission to the European Commission on 30 April, it is clear that the story emerging so far is one of some progress to support the green transition, yet a complete failure to apply a smart or systemic approach to addressing Europe’s environmental sustainability challenges.

The devil will be in the detail of the numerous climate measures included in the plans, yet the role of nature in the green transition is glaringly absent – whether it’s in tackling climate change and the dramatic loss of biodiversity in Europe or strengthening Europe’s long-term growth potential.

The National Resilience and Recovery Plans (NRRPs) are the vehicles that EU Member States are using to access money from the €670 billion Resilience and Recovery Facility (RRF) – the centrepiece of the Next Generation EU recovery instrument. In emerging analysis that will be released in full by Vivid Economics at the end of May, findings show that for every single euro being invested through the NRRPs, less than 2 cents benefit nature – a massive missed opportunity for jobs, economic stimulus, emission reductions and biodiversity gains.

Why? It may not be well known, but direct investments in agroforestry, reforestation, wetland restoration and urban greening deliver impressive economic yields and employment gains, and in some cases even outperform traditional and other low-carbon investments.

For example, the emerging Vivid analysis of five countries – France, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and Poland – shows that agroforestry creates an average of 56 jobs per €1 million invested compared to 45 jobs for electric vehicles and 31 jobs for road-building. In terms of economic return, every €1 of spending on agroforestry produces on average €3 of gross-valued added (GVA) to the economy compared with €1.8 for electric vehicles and €1.2 for upgrading roads.

There is a clear opportunity to improve the performance of the Member State plans – and indeed all future EU spending – to invest in more nature-specific interventions, which would not only deliver a job-rich recovery with strong economic multipliers, but also reduce emissions and strengthen resilience and biodiversity.

The scientific understanding of nature’s role in restoring balance to the climate has deepened in the last few years and is now well-established – nature can deliver a third of the climate solution by 2030.

So too has our understanding of the full range of benefits that nature-based solutions deliver for people: alongside jobs, the benefits include filtering water, reducing air pollution, regulating local climate and providing resilience to extreme weather events. There doesn’t have to be a trade-off between choosing to spend on climate, biodiversity and economic well-being; they go hand-in-hand and reinforce each other.

It is important to remember that when EU leaders agreed to the recovery facility, as COVID-19 was decimating economies, they embedded green principles at the outset. The aim was to advance the green transition, and mainstream climate action and environmental sustainability, while ensuring that all measures ‘do no significant harm’ (DNSH).

If applied rigorously, the DNSH principle should ensure that all spending under these plans is compatible with a nature-positive recovery – in other words, that no recovery measure should put undue pressure on ecosystems. And it is very clear that Member States need to do much more to meet these goals – on both climate and nature.

As governments struggle with the historic challenges posed by COVID-19, there are measures that can be taken that provide a ‘triple win’ – for jobs, climate and nature. What is needed is a comprehensive and transparent assessment of the NRRPs by the European Commission that takes a smart and systemic approach to environmental sustainability – placing both climate and nature at the heart of the EU’s review process.

There is much work to be done to help decision-makers understand the significant benefits and opportunities that both climate-positive and nature-based solutions can offer as part of their recovery plans.

Our hope is that the emerging analysis from Vivid Economics and many other initiatives, such as the Green Recovery Tracker, Bankwatch, EuroNatur, IISD, ZOE-Institute and New Economics Foundation, and Finance for Biodiversity to name a few, will contribute to this process of increasing knowledge and transparency in these areas – and will provide Member States with the tools they need to further increase ambition for future spending on both climate and nature.

The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is not simply a question of putting the ‘old’ economy back on its feet but building forward better – solidly embedding nature in the economic rebuild to deliver a truly green and just transition and ensuring Europe becomes more resilient over the long-term.

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