In the race to reach the new COP15 goals to heal damaged ecosystems, the European Union could have a head start if it passes an ambitious nature restoration law pending in the European Parliament. The new EU law would set specific timetables for repairing degraded rivers, wetlands, fields and forests across 1.6 million square miles stretching across the 27 member countries from Scandinavia to the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas.
If enacted, it would be the first big step toward achieving the global targets set at the U.N.’s biodiversity conference held in Montreal in December, which called for reweaving some of nature’s tattered fabric to staunch the loss of plant and animal species. With biologists warning that a mass extinction is probably already under way, a new agreement at the conference sets a global goal of protecting 30 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2030.
The COP15 meeting in Montreal followed just a few weeks after the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and the two sets of U.N. talks are closely linked, with overlapping and interdependent goals, including reaching global carbon neutrality and protecting 30 percent of the planet’s ecosystems by 2050. Global warming is one of the key threats to ecosystems and biodiversity, and at the same time, healthy natural ecosystems will be an important part of slowing the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases to stabilize the climate.
The proposed European Nature Restoration law could help Europe make progress on both tracks, said Jutta Paulus, a member of the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament who is leading the negotiations on the EU law, which would establish an enforceable framework for reaching the COP15 nature goals.
“My vision is a world where nature and the economy are no longer working in opposites,” she said. “They need to work together in a way that serves people and that doesn’t destroy the planet. And part of this is acknowledging the role of nature, of bringing nature also back to people’s lives.”
Big Picture Protection and Restoration In Europe
Ioannis Agapakis, an environmental attorney with the nonprofit organization ClientEarth, is watchdogging the EU proposal to try and make sure it is finalized as an enforceable mandate, rather than ending up as just another layer of environmental bureaucracy. He grew up on the rugged island of Crete, bonding with nature during camping trips with his parents.
“I remember being in these super-isolated and remote places with no development, no human alteration of nature,” he said. “And then you see areas being used as an illegal landfill, for instance, and you just are shocked.”
That led him to understand that unaltered parts of nature have at least as much value as the areas we use for agriculture, forestry and other types of development.
Many valuable natural areas in Europe already have some protection, but the new law is “creating obligations for member states to restore areas besides those that are already protected,” he said. The law also would include mandates for restoring altered ecosystems, including forests where wood is harvested and agricultural areas.
Agapakis said the proposed law could accelerate restoration of Europe’s rivers, in particular.
“I think out of all the ecosystem types, river ecosystems are in the most critical state,” he said. “Only a very small portion of the EU’s rivers are free-flowing right now, and existing laws don’t enshrine an obligation to remove those types of barriers that harm biodiversity.”
The new law would require a more holistic approach to restoration than has been typical in the past, he added.
“What the law does is go beyond this narrow focus on a certain list of areas and lead member states to decide what would make sense from an ecological point of view for you to restore,” he said.
Such an approach will also help Europe reach its goal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050, he said. Restoration isn’t just for the sake of restoring biodiversity, but also aimed at mitigating climate change. A big part of that should be by investing in restoring ecosystems that can help take carbon dioxide out the atmosphere, he added.
“Peatlands come to mind,” he said. “If you don’t restore peatlands, you cannot achieve climate neutrality, because it’s the most promising option. Similarly, if you don’t address kelp forests, and seagrass meadows, which are super promising when it comes to carbon storage and sequestration, you cannot really be speaking seriously about any type of agenda to tackle climate change.”
From Remote Wetlands to Urban Trees
The European Union’s current environmental laws don’t say how, when or who needs to restore natural areas, making it a mostly “aspirational framework,” said Adalbert Jahnz, an environmental expert with the EU Commision.
“The nature restoration law is really about addressing that gap,” he said. “It goes into depth by looking at specific objectives per ecosystem, looking at deadlines and a governance framework, to make sure that it actually happens.”
The law is underpinned by previous European Union mandates under the EU’s 2019 Green Deal, which, he said, “is really about changing the direction of our economy, toward a situation where we have an economy that gives back to nature more than it takes.”
Jahnz also emphasized wetlands restoration. Re-watering large swaths of wetlands could soak up an additional 7 percent of the EU’s CO2 emissions, and would also help adapt to extreme weather by holding water in the landscape to buffer against droughts and floods.
“We have a target for tree cover in urban areas,” he said. “You cool cities, and you will improve people’s health because it is known, the more green structures close to where you live, the healthier you are; mentally also, because it’s not only the clean air, it’s also a mental dimension of having more green in your environment.”
The law isn’t a done deal by any stretch, and he expects changes to come with the negotiations, he said.
“But we’ve done a hell of a lot of research to make sure that what we put on the table is solid, and we know there is a very good level of support from the public,” he said.
Paulus said she expects a draft report on the law to be presented to parliament in January, with committee votes in May and a final vote from the European Parliament vote in June.
She credited civil activism, especially youth climate activists, for generating momentum supporting the law as part of the broader push for a green European agenda, which accelerated in 2019 after a European election that brought a surge of Greens to the EU parliament in what was billed as a climate election. Ursula von der Leyen, who took over the EU Commission presidency the same year, provided key support, she added.
She was influenced by massive wave of Friday’s For Future demonstrations that year, “Which did have a big impact on the European vote,” Paulus said. “Before the German Greens had sent 11 people to the European Parliament, now it is 21.”
The law had already been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, when the European Commission finally announced it just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which could still affect its passage, she said.
Adversaries, Allies and Advantages
“The farm lobby is already on the barricades saying this will kill European farmers,” Paulus said. Lobbyists for industrial agriculture used the war as a reason to attack the nature restoration law by spurring unfounded fears about food shortages, she added.
Farmers, whose practices are a significant driver of biodiversity loss, are often alienated by restoration efforts led by people from cities, but they should be allies, she said.
“I think our mistake was to say, what the farm is doing is not good,” she said. “The better way to communicate is to say the way farmers are forced to operate today is not good for farmers and not good for nature. But accusing farmers of killing biodiversity puts them in a corner, and we realized that too late,” she added.
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“I think it’s a pity because farmers should be interested in having insects pollinating their crops in soils that are fertile, in having sufficient water to grow whatever they want to grow,” she said.
Paulus sees the agricultural lobby, including companies that make fertilizers and pesticides from fossil fuels, as the biggest threat to the law.
“Big seed producers, pesticide producers, fertilizer producers, they are very good at communicating. So they will say to farmers, ‘Hey, you are doing poorly. It’s because of all those environmentalists pressuring the legislators, and they are the ones that are giving you a hard time,’” she said. “Which is of course bullshit. If I may say so.”
The EU is increasingly talking about climate, agriculture and biodiversity together, because they are “mutually reinforcing,” said Jahnz, the environmental expert with the EU Commission. The climate effects on biodiversity are obvious, he added, “with massive wildfires and droughts, and floods that destroy ecosystems or make them even more vulnerable.”
That includes secondary effects, such as when a drought leads to an urgent need to produce more food somewhere else, potentially resulting in more ecosystem disruption from intensive farming. And droughts also spur more artificial irrigation that takes water from other ecosystems, he added.
“Conversely, the loss of biodiversity has an impact on climate,” he said, such as through the increased carbon that is sequestered in a forest with a healthy diversity of plant and animal species. Climate solutions that involve restoring nature are usually very cost effective, he added. “We estimated that about 30 percent of climate mitigation targets can be met with different nature-based solutions.”
But currently, what could be cascades of benefits are more often vicious cycles, with the warming climate and deteriorated nature degrading one another as stressed landscapes sequester less carbon and severe weather pushes its impacts into once unaffected areas.
“These are the kind of spirals that need to be broken,” he said. “And the way to break them is by restoring ecosystems, so that they are resilient, so that they do not get destroyed so easily by climate impacts.”