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Why Europe needs the Nature Restoration Law

Guy Pe’er is an ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ and senior author of a study (http://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.adk1658) that examined the chances of success of the Nature Restoration Law. Picture: Florian Hartig

Guy Pe’er is an ecologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ and senior author of a study (http://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.adk1658) that examined the chances of success of the Nature Restoration Law. Picture: Florian Hartig

The EU has passed the landmark nature restoration law (NRL) on 27 February 2024. Ecologist Guy Pe’er from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ explains why the NRL is so important and why it cannot work without financial support for farmers.

The Nature Restoration Law is a response to worrying findings by scientists and the European Environment Agency: Around 80 percent of the EU’s habitats are in poor ecological condition. As habitats deteriorate, species’ populations are declining. 38 percent of fish populations are in poor condition; one in ten bee and butterfly species is threatened with extinction; and farmland bird species have declined by 36 percent since 1990.

We have long known what measures can be taken, such as restoring rivers to their natural state, reducing pesticide use to protect pollinators, restoring fallow land, increasing green spaces in cities, rewetting moors and allowing natural forest recovery. Individual countries and communities are already pursuing very successful initiatives in this area. What has been lacking, however, is a common approach and full commitment by all Member States of the EU.

Now, for the first time, the NRL sets out clear guidelines - and a binding timetable: By 2030, 20 percent of the damaged regions must have measures in place to restore nature. By 2050, such measures should be in place for 90 percent of the affected ecosystems. Individual EU member states, on the other hand, have much flexibility as to how they implement these requirements.

The NRL is therefore a powerful tool for protecting Europe’s nature. For the first time, the law not only sets clear targets but also requires regular monitoring. In the future, for example, designated areas should be assessed to see whether the number of particularly endangered meadow butterflies is increasing. Meadow butterflies are very sensitive and are considered an early warning system for changes in the ecosystem. If measurements show their number is declining, local authorities can react in good time and take countermeasures.

The European Commission and the Environment Committee of the European Parliament have been wrangling over the content of the proposal for months and finally reached an agreement last November. The final hurdle was the vote in the EU Parliament which took place at the end of February.

The legislation was still in danger in view of political responses to farmer protests across Europe. Policymakers have been rapidly reducing environmental ambition over a very short period, placing exemptions, on set aside now for the third year in a row; and rejecting the Sustainable Use Regulation. These were followed by an unusual appeal, which was submitted for amendments of the NRL. Luckily the law has passed with a majority of 329 vs 275.

One source of pressure on the NRL related to agriculture and the fear that it poses restrictions on farmers. Intensive agriculture is indeed one of the main causes of biodiversity loss in Europe, and an important contributor to climate change and land degradation. This is why it may seem as if the NRL poses challenges for farmers, for example if they or their ancestors drained peatlands to use the land as farmland. We now know how important these areas are for biodiversity and climate protection, but also essential for water regulation and flood prevention. Therefore, their restoration should be promoted step by step, as envisaged in the NRL.

However, it is also clear that farmers must be compensated in cases where areas are restored to more natural conditions. Many environmental requirements can only be implemented by smaller farms if they receive financial support. Here, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds could be used for this purpose. Optimally, support should be prioritized for small farms and farmers seeking a transition to sustainable farming, while shifting away the current biased subsidy of large corporations or large landowners that threaten the existence of small and family farm(er)s. Climate-damaging subsidies could also be eliminated to provide additional financial support. The money saved could then be used to help farmers in a transition to more sustainable agriculture and towards becoming partners in restoring habitats.

Now that the NRL has been approved, it could offer a unique opportunity to mobilize efforts and budgets to nature restoration, and to people engaged in the transition. Yet implementation challenges are still ahead. For example, funding mechanisms remain for member states to resolve. Additionally, EU Member States can still have the option to halt NRL for one year on agricultural land under “exceptional circumstances” – which, with climate change, are bound to happen as we can see from the numerous crises in the past years - droughts, heat waves, floods, pest infestations etc.

The NRL’s measures, as seen by science, could actually help mitigate such environmental events. Restored landscape features, diversified farms and healthier soils can be more resilient to extreme events, retain more moisture and restore pollinator populations. So we should hope that member states recognize the opportunity of ambitious implementation plans as an insurance for production and food security, and an instrument to boost rural areas and develop green jobs.

The vote for the NRL can become a great opportunity for the EU to become a model for other regions of the world.

Editor’s Addition (March 04, 2024):

The legislative text adopted by the EU Parliament on February 27 can be read here: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2024-0089_DE.html

The law still has one hurdle to overcome, as it must be adopted by the European Council. The decision is scheduled for April 12.

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