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Making sense of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law

Environment / COMMENTARY
Filipe Ataíde Lampe , Jule Zeschky

Date: 14/07/2023
The European Parliament adopted the EU’s Nature Restoration Law by a razor-thin margin. What is in the proposed law, and what are the next steps before the EU can implement a law that restores and protects its natural ecosystems?

Europe’s natural ecosystems are broken and need to be restored urgently. Only 15% of European habitats are in “good” conditions, with peatlands, dunes and coastal habitats in a particularly worrying shape. The ongoing deterioration of our environment is caused by multiple often interconnected issues, ranging from the expansion of agricultural and urban areas, increasing pollution, invasive alien species, illegal hunting, water scarcity, to climate change. The consequences are devastating. While ecosystems and biodiversity continue to decline at an alarming rate, we need natural habitats more than ever to fight the planetary crises, as healthy ecosystems are key to the bigger picture, to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to increase our own well-being and health, and to avoid economic costs linked to the exploitation of nature.

First proposed in June 2022 by the European Commission as part of the European Green Deal and its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, the Nature Restoration Law aims to bring healthy ecosystems back to Europe. It has now been adopted by the European Parliament following a bumpy path. With a set of ambitious targets, it aims to fill gaps and synergise the efforts when it comes to (re-)establishing healthy, resilient and productive ecosystems in Europe. Covering terrestrial, coastal and freshwater ecosystems, the law aims to protect and restore habitats and species in the EU by setting out binding targets.

But why was the adoption of this file by the European Parliament so controversial? After the proposed law faced a lack of approval among the members of the Parliament’s Committees on Agriculture (AGRI) and Fisheries (PECH) earlier this year, the European People's Party (EPP) chief negotiator, Christine Schneider, labelled the law as “an attack on European agriculture, forestry and fisheries" as many farmers were opposed to the laws’ targets and their possible impact on the agricultural sector and food security. While EPP members and President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, did not mention the law explicitly, a Commission spokesperson underlined that the President "fully" supported it and closely followed its legislative talks. Following these first setbacks in the Parliament, the proposal also failed to reach a majority in the Committee on Environment (ENVI), with 44 against and 44 in favour. Finally, a majority was reached in the Parliament's plenary session on 12 July leading to a negotiation position that diffused the more progressive targets from the European Commissions’ first proposal.

The fact that the EPP was the most vocal group in blocking the proposal doesn't mean that other democratic parties stood firmly behind the supposedly consensual and desirable proposal. Members of both the liberal Renew and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group have flirted with criticism from EPP ranks as parts of their own rural and agriculture-affiliated constituency pressured them to block or water down the law. And even the EPP itself was split between critics and supporters of the law.

What is in the law?

If implemented, the law will likely be a game changer for the protection and rehabilitation of Europe’s nature. At least 20% of the EU’s land and maritime areas by 2030, and all ecosystems in poor to bad quality by 2050 will need to be restored and protected. In order to achieve this, the proposed law entails a number of concrete targets. While biodiversity loss should be stopped by extending natural habitats on a large scale and bringing back species, the law also emphasises the need to reverse the decline of pollinator populations or reviving river-flows. Furthermore, there are also concrete targets for forest, marine, urban and agricultural ecosystems.

When it comes to forests, the law would require member states to increase the biodiversity within forests and increase the trend for forest connectivity, the abundance of common forest birds, the share of forests with uneven age-structure and the stock of organic carbon as well as standing and lying deadwood.

For the restoration and protection of marine ecosystems, the law requires member states to restore specific ecosystems such as seagrass beds or sediment bottoms, also as a means to mitigate climate change or habitats of threatened marine species such as dolphins and porpoises, sharks and seabirds.

As for urban areas, the proposed law clearly acknowledges the importance of bringing back nature to cities. It aims to stop net losses of so-called green urban spaces until 2030 with the goal to increase 3% of these spaces by 2040 and 5% by 2050. Furthermore, green urban spaces should be included in existing and new infrastructure.

Finally, the law lays out specific targets for agricultural areas. These include, on the one side, goals to increase the population of grassland butterflies, farmland birds or the stock of organic carbon in cropland mineral soils. On the other side, the law also envisages increasing the share of agricultural land with high-diversity landscape features and restoring drained peatlands for agricultural use.

To implement these goals, member states will be obliged to formulate their own national plans, entailing concrete measures to ensure the protection and restoration of their natural ecosystems in line with the law’s goals for 2030 and 2050. In particular, the measures proposed for restoring nature in rural areas were debated largely and led to the Parliament’s legislators amending the law and leaving member states a door open to postponing restoration targets in case of exceptional socioeconomic consequences. Furthermore, the Parliament wants the law to require mandatory assessments of the impact of member states’ plans, notably on agriculture and forestry - another point gained for the parliamentarians who aimed to water down the ambitions in order to "defend" farmers' interests.

Finally, the law comes at a time when the international community has struck a groundbreaking agreement on biodiversity protection worldwide. At the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), the international community agreed to protect 30% of the world’s land, coastal areas and oceans. The momentum for the EU’s Nature Restoration Law couldn't be bigger if the EU is serious about biodiversity protection, inside and outside of Europe.

A look ahead: From trilogues to implementation

The proposal will now be sent back to the Parliament’s ENVI committee, which will kick-off the next and final stage of negotiations - trilogues - between the Council and the Parliament. In this phase, the European Commission has little or nothing to say when it comes to negotiating amendments unless it wishes to withdraw the whole proposal, which seems more than unlikely. As for the Council, it could likely use the trilogues to push for more environmentally ambitious commitments than what the Parliament’s amended and weakened position has called for.

As for the European Parliament’s biggest political group – the EPP  –  it will be important that it redefines its relationship to the European Green Deal and thus to one of its lead editors, Ursula von der Leyen, in the run-up to the 2024 European Parliament elections. Likewise, other parties that have also faced quiet backlashes and resistance against the law within their own seats will need to assess the role the European Green Deal, and its much-needed follow-up, will play in their campaign.

The degree to which EU legislators will be able to successfully adopt and implement the Nature Restoration Law without losing too much of its binding character will also determine the degree to which the EU is able to bring its European Green Deal into practice. Much has been said about the EU’s ambition to restore its nature and fight both the environmental and climate crises. It is now up to the EU’s decision-makers to legislate a law that brings back healthy ecosystems into our lives and benefits all Europeans in the long-run.

Filipe Ataíde Lampe is the Project Manager of the Connecting Europe project at the European Policy Centre.

Jule Zeschky is a Project Assistant in the Connecting Europe project at the European Policy Centre. 

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
Frederick Florin / AFP

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