Europe must act urgently to protect its natural ecosystems

Biodiversity is under threat. The EU Nature Restoration law is crucial to protecting it, says Faustine Bas-Defossez.
A European beech forest © European Wilderness Society
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In recent years, a focus on emissions reductions has dominated climate policy. While a reduction in the amount of planet-warming gases that we emit is urgently necessary, our focus on achieving this has often come at the expense of another critical area in the fight against climate change: nature protection.

Our water and food systems, but also our capacity to become resilient to climate change depend on nature’s health and protection, no matter the progress in technology. Nature is our life-support system – it provides the essentials we all rely on for our survival and well-being.

Yet nature is under severe strain. Studies point to declines in insect numbers of 70-80% over the past several decades in areas dominated by human activities and intensive agriculture. Europe has lost over half a billion birds in 40 years. According to WWF, there was an average 69% decline in wildlife populations around the world between 1970 and 2018. And the list goes on; with scientists now thinking that the huge losses in biodiversity we are currently witnessing could be the start of a new mass extinction.

Despite the incontrovertible scientific evidence on the urgent need to restore nature (and overwhelming public support for such action); the future of large-scale nature restoration in Europe is uncertain. Nowhere can this be seen clearer than in the fate of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law, a key element of the EU biodiversity strategy, which seeks to restore at least 20% of ecosystems, habitats and species across the EU’s land and sea by 2030 and which, when finally signed off, could help encourage the needed repairs to our life support system.

Opposition from member states

However, the law has so far encountered serious opposition. In March this year, it was blocked in the Council of the EU after Hungary withdrew its support. This was in spite of the fact that the law had already been adopted by the European Parliament a month earlier. Hungary’s push to overrule the Parliament’s decision, in the very last stages of the process and when a deal had been sealed, constitutes a threat to decision-making in the EU.

Hungary’s U-turn saw it join Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden in opposing the bill, while Austria, Belgium, Finland, and Poland said they intended to abstain in the vote. But evidence suggests the stance of these countries places them at odds with public opinion amongst their own citizens: According to a recent poll conducted in the Netherlands, Finland, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Sweden three out of four citizens are in favour of the nature law. 

While the EU’s legislative machinery has driven forward several key environmental initiatives under the European Green Deal, the Nature Restoration Law has been subjected to massive misinformation. For example, the conservative European People’s Party has led a powerful scaremongering campaign against the bill, which has seen some aspects of it watered down during the negotiation stage. For example, a so called “emergency brake” was added to the obligation to restore 50% of drained peatlands by 2050.

The economic benefit

Opponents of the Nature Restoration Law have so far failed to offer viable alternatives or constructive amendments to the bill, suggesting that their opposition may be ideological rather than rooted in practical concerns. This ideological opposition contrasts sharply with the broad support the law receives from EU citizens, NGOs, businesses, financial institutions, and scientists. It also contrasts with the Commission’s impact assessment of the law which highlights its benefits to society as a whole. This assessment estimated that for every €1 invested in nature restoration,€8 worth of benefit would be generated in return.

Most recently, private sector actors have mobilised to reiterate their support for the law. They have sought to remind decision-makers of the  strong business case for nature restoration in Europe, given that 3 million companies in the Euro area are highly dependent on at least one ecosystem service.

Europe has lost over half a billion birds in 40 years ©️ Arnau / Adobe Stock

The fate of the law remains uncertain as consultations continue. As the law has already passed the parliament, we do not need to wait for the new European Parliament to convene. Belgium, which currently holds the EU presidency, has indicated that it will reintroduce the legislation to the Council as soon as it has enough support for a qualified majority. A final vote to rubber-stamp the hard-won compromise could take place in June, just before Belgium hands over the presidency to Hungary. 

The stakes could not be higher. Failure to adopt the Nature Restoration Law would not only be a setback for the environment, but also for EU democracy and its global leadership on climate and biodiversity. As the COP 16 biodiversity summit in Colombia approaches, the EU risks arriving empty-handed, without the ambition and concrete commitments it has championed. 

Faustine Bas-Defossez is Director for Nature, Health and Environment at the European Environmental Bureau, a Europe-wide network of environmental citizens’ organisations.

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