This post is by Ariel Brunner, regional director of BirdLife Europe and Central Asia.
The European Green Deal has been the central strategy of the EU since the instalment of Ursula Von der Leyen’s European Commission. It is an unprecedented attempt to reshape the EU economy around the fight against climate change, the conservation of biodiversity and the transition to a circular economy. When it comes to biodiversity and land use, its centrepiece is the Nature Restoration Regulation.
The law includes impact targets for the first time
This new comprehensive legislation, proposed by the European Commission in 2022, after long internal fights and delays justified by the pandemic, is a potential game changer. For the first time ever, it would introduce quantified and time-bound legally binding biodiversity targets. The legislation does not target citizens directly. Rather, it obliges national governments to hit certain targets by certain dates, leaving them free to choose how and where to take action.
The new law builds on existing EU nature legislation: the Birds and Habitats Directives. It requires governments to progressively restore a percentage of the habitats protected under existing EU law and the habitats of protected species. Restoration is defined as effective action capable of putting habitats on track to achieving favourable conservation status, a concept already defined in existing law. This means that the new law puts extra teeth into current legislation without the need for further decades of development of definitions and methodologies.
The proposed law also addresses a host of specific problems, setting targets for restoring free flowing rivers, rewetting peatlands, increasing tree canopy within urban centres etc. It includes specific provisions for key sectors like forestry (mandating an increase in dead wood levels) and farming (asking for policies to increase the coverage of landscape elements such as hedgerows and flower strips). Finally, the law includes impact targets, like the obligation to reverse the decline of farmland birds and pollinators. This approach, common in EU pollution control legislation, has hardly ever been applied to biodiversity.
Disinformation could derail it
While far from perfect, the new law would change the game for efforts to stem the collapse of European ecosystems. Its impact would be felt way beyond EU borders. Obviously, European biodiversity does not stop at borders. Species migrate between the EU and the UK. UK populations are part of wider meta-populations. Marine habitats are arbitrarily split by borders.
But the Nature Restoration Law has an important role at a much larger scale. The Montreal-Kunming CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) agreement hangs on emerging economies and poorer nations believing it is a collective effort to save humanity, rather than a plot by the rich world to slow down their economic development, a position aggressively peddled by many destructive lobbies. The EU adopting legally binding targets to bring back nature would be a blow to such a toxic narrative and give a major lift to efforts to convince countries like Brazil, Indonesia and the Congo to keep large tracts of their land under natural habitats (which are also vital carbon stocks).
The promise of the restoration law is directly proportional to the backlash it is facing. The dominant farm unions, the Nordic clear-cut forestry lobby and the industrial fishing sector have declared total war. Their fight was picked up by Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party, the centre right group in the European Parliament, as an opportunity to wage a culture war while also undermining his own party’s Ursula Von der Leyen, who took the job he believed was his.
What has ensued is a Trumpian campaign that goes beyond anything Brussels has seen so far, very reminiscent of the Brexit referendum campaign. With messages that ancient villages would be destroyed to make space for wetlands. Food shortages or even starvation would be triggered by the loss of farmland to nature. Farmers would be driven out by oppressive red tape. The European Commission had not carried out an impact assessment (spoiler: it did, the assessment can easily be downloaded from the web).
Thousands of scientists have reacted to the disinformation campaign, pointing to the massive evidence that nature restoration is crucial for food security and for the survival of rural communities. The campaign by environmental NGOs in favour of the law has drawn unprecedented support from across society, including some less than obvious allies. Support for the nature restoration law has come from organic farmers, low impact fishers, big business, the wind and solar power sectors, the electricity and power distribution sector, extractive companies, mayors, and the European hunters’ federation among others. Over 900 000 citizens have written to their elected officials and signed petitions asking for the law to be approved. Even the European Central Bank has pointed out the importance of nature for the stability of Europe’s economy.
Despite this unprecedented mobilisation, the fight is tough and far from over. As I write, the law still hangs in the balance. It remained relatively unscathed following the European Council vote, where 20 out of 27 ministers voted in favour. However, it only achieved a slim margin of one per cent above the required “qualified majority” representing 65 per cent of the EU population. In the first vote within the leading committee of the European Parliament, there was a tie of 44 in favour and 44 against. The final decision will be determined in a plenary session scheduled for July.
From the fate of Europe’s turtle doves, to its Land Use, Land use Change and Forestry targets, from the resilience of cities to heatwaves and that of farmers to droughts and floods, the future of Europe hangs on decisions that will be taken this summer in Brussels. The stakes are high and the game is on.
EU citizens can take action here to defend the law.