HomeNatural environmentWhy should the UK care about EU nature restoration law?

Why should the UK care about EU nature restoration law?

This post is by Michael Nicholson, head of UK environmental policy, and David Baldock, senior fellow, at IEEP UK.

EU environmental campaigners are worried. Ambitious environmental proposals by the European Commission are under attack by those who argue now is not the time to make bolder environmental regulations. Especially not regulations affecting farmers and the food system.

Ignoring evidence about environmental health underpinning economic growth, they cite the war in Ukraine, the cost of living, difficulties for farmers and uncertainty over the Taiwan Strait in relation to securing rare earths and other metal supplies. Resistance to the green agenda is not new but on this occasion, there has been an unusually sharp and intense escalation. One major political grouping, the centre right European People’s Party, (EPP), has gone to exceptional lengths and recently deployed a level of determination in whipping its MEPs rarely seen on an environmental issue. Overt political divisions are now prominent.

Nature legislation is in the eye of a political storm
As Ariel Brunner has highlighted, the commission’s proposed Nature Restoration Law (NRL) has been in the eye of the storm in recent weeks. This far reaching initiative is designed to implement the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, which is at the heart of the European Green Deal and promises made last year in Montreal at COP15 which set a headline target to reduce, halt and reverse biodiversity loss. The proposed NRL sets a requirement for EU member states to put in place restoration measures covering at least 20 per cent of EU sea and land areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050.

This is certainly needed. As in the UK, nature is in decline and recent policies to address it have had limited impact.

Over the past two weeks, parliamentarians in the Environment Committee, led by the EPP, have attempted, and come very close, to voting for the NRL proposal to be thrown out or substantially watered down in two successive high drama meetings. The proposal was weakened through the first meeting by watering down the overall objective of the NRL, reducing the target figure for restoration of land and sea areas to ten per cent and removing the 2050 target altogether. However, the second meeting ended in a tied vote, meaning the committee failed to agree an opinion at all.  Normally this opinion would have been the starting point for the decisive vote in the parliament’s plenary sitting which is now due around 12 July. If the NRL does get through the plenary stage it is likely to be amended considerably. There is no knowing what the end result will be.

Meanwhile, national governments also have been divided, though they have reached a common position in favour of the text, amended to include exemptions. Sweden, currently in the presidency role, negotiated this deal then voted against it.

Indeed, the dividing line is not just between the usual suspects. Support for the proposal is not only from the environmental community, several large companies, like Nestlé, IKEA, Iberdrola, Suez and Danone, have co-signed a statement calling for the urgent adoption of “an ambitious and legally binding” NRL.

More and more areas are being targeted
Nature protection is not the only area where there has been strong push back, especially from the highly organised EPP. For example, the commission’s proposed revision to industrial emissions legislation has also been targeted; specifically, the proposal to widen the scope of specified polluting activities under the directive, to include intensive cattle farms for the first time and a greater number of pig and poultry farms. The original proposal started at a modest level, bringing farms with 150 or more “livestock units” (translate as cows) within scope. However, the Environment Committee recently voted to reduce the number of farms in scope by half, while the council’s preference is to reduce it further still.

These are not isolated incidents. While much of the Green Deal package is passing stage by stage into law there is strong push back on other fronts too, including a proposal to cut pesticide use by half.

It would be an enormous set back if the NRL was rejected or neutered in the face of parliamentary opposition. However, the commission, led by President Ursula von der Leyen, herself a leading member of the EPP, is generally sticking to its guns in maintaining the vision and accompanying policies of the Green Deal. For example, there is an interesting trend to introduce new proposals, including the NRL, in the form of regulations rather than directives. Regulations are binding pieces of EU law which must be applied in their entirety, whereas directives set the goals to be achieved but, to varying degrees, they leave member states to deliver on them how they see fit. A new Batteries Regulation to tackle shortages and derisk supply disruptions of rare earths and precious metals is an important piece of legislation near the end of its legislative process. There is also a proposal to ‘upgrade’ packaging and packaging waste legislation from a directive to a regulation to tackle circular economy challenges.

Many other elements of the European Green Deal are largely intact and travelling through the legislative machine, involving the commission, council and parliament. This covers everything from energy efficiency legislation, climate legislation (including measures on a carbon border adjustment mechanism, a social climate fund and emissions from maritime and aviation) to tightening up air quality and urban wastewater legislation.

Ursula von der Leyen has staked her leadership on it
The most significant challenge for Ursula von der Leyen, who has staked her leadership on the European Green Deal, is the battle to get a batch of important laws through in what is now a short period of time. European elections, due in mid-2024, mean that the legislative window is closing fast and a number of these dossiers are several stages away from being adopted as law. And some significant proposals have yet to appear.

The EU’s commitment to environmental ambition matters for the UK because it remains the most prominent benchmark from which to judge UK performance. It directly affects UK companies selling into the EU market and high ambition keeps the pressure on governments and parliaments at Westminster, Holyrood, Stormont and the Senedd not to settle for sub-par environmental policy, even if the UK government is reticent about acknowledging this.

Alignment with the EU is the preferred approach in Scotland and, in a limited number of environmental areas, a requirement in Northern Ireland. In principle, there is much the EU and the UK can learn from each other in how to address the urgent environmental challenges we face and also in how to navigate possible reactions to proposals.

Tony Juniper, Natural England’s chair warned in early June that England will miss its biodiversity targets without urgent action to regenerate nature and, as IEEP UK’s research demonstrated last year, even the ambition of England’s biodiversity targets masks major weaknesses compared with the EU’s original NRL proposal. Whatever the outcome of the NRL battle, the value of co-operation and mutual learning will not diminish.

There is also a warning in all of this to the UK. Politicisation of such a core part of the environmental agenda, to the degree seen recently in the EU, alongside the smoke of culture wars, now familiar in the US, risks creating barriers that can be hard to overcome.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.