The Nature Restoration Law – passed, just!
Recently environmental news across Europe has been flooded with updates from the highly contested Nature Restoration Law (NRL). And although many interesting yet infuriating talking points have been covered by mainstream news outlets, the first and most important point to make is that the NRL has passed.
Not quite… Those of us who have been following along may be finding it hard to celebrate this as a victory given the fact that the law which has now entered the final stages of tweaking and adjusting has already lost most of its ambition and ‘teeth’ due to the 140 amendments made during the plenary session.
But let’s backtrack a bit and get some perspective.
What is it?
The Nature Restoration Law is a Fundamental part of The European Commission’s European Green Deal first presented by the Commission in 2022 as part of the 2030 Biodiversity strategy. The legislation has been referred to as ‘the first continent-wide comprehensive law of its kind’ and aims to rehabilitate habitats and species.
Across the bloc 81% of habitats are ranked as having poor status, 60% of soils are degraded and the number of farmland birds in Europe has halved in just the last 40 years – which in evolutionary terms is the equivalent speed of a meteorite falling on us.
Targets of the NRL
The law sets out targets in seven specific topics such as farmlands, pollinators, free flowing rivers and marine ecosystems. These topics put together should cover at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 (an already ambitious target given the pace of change.)
Environmental groups were quick to praise the legally binding targets and the far reaching scope of the initial proposal.
However, this original text did not win the simple majority needed from the Members of Parliament sitting on the Environmental committee to pass the Commission’s proposal. This marks a first for European politics where the Commission displayed greater climate and environmental ambition than the directly elected Parliament.
The rejection efforts were led by the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) leaning on claims mainly from the farming, fishing and forestry sectors stating that the law was “ill-thought out, unrealistic and unimplementable” and bound to have “devastating consequences”.
With the upcoming (2024) European elections, the EPP spearheaded a challenge to the law to send it back to the Commission to be reconsidered perhaps until after next year’s elections. On wednesday July 12th the challenge was defeated by 324 votes to 312 votes when it went to plenary in the European Union in what was called one of the most tense sessions of the Parliament in recent years. In a nutshell this means that the bill lives to fight another day and was not killed this time round.
The leader of the EPP, Manfred Weber has been greatly criticised for spreading misinformation and playing dirty tactics. Leading scientists stepped up to make things clear stating that restoring nature is not bad for food security nor the economy. An open letter signed by 6000 scientists said that the opponents of the law “not only lack scientific evidence, but even contradict it”, stating that restoring nature would improve food security, help fishers and save money. Authors of the letter stated that they needed to step in to stop policy makers going against science, a tactic we are used to seeing from lobby organisations, not politicians.
A ‘bitter sweet’ victory
For now, this key law to protect nature has been saved but with its ambition deeply eroded. 140 amendments were passed fundamentally weakening the legislation. This hollowed out version of the law will be taken into the trilogue where the Parliament , the Council of the EU and the Commission continue to negotiate and apply final tweaks ahead of enactment. Here it may still cause a stir from conservative administrations anxious to protect their national agricultural interests.
One of the most significant amendments was the decision to delete Article 9 which proposed to restore agricultural ecosystems with a target of rewetting 30% of the EU’s drained peatlands by 2030. Peatlands cover just 3% of the world’s land area but store twice as much carbon as all the trees in the world combined. In Europe, over 50% of these peatlands are degraded.
Furthermore, the amendments have now limited the restoration of terrestrial habitats to Natura 2000 areas only and removed any time-bound targets. The obligation for EU countries to ensure terrestrial and marine ecosystems do not deteriorate was also taken out. Another blow includes the removal of targets for increasing green spaces and tree cover in cities.
Important citizen engagement
Over 1 million EU citizens mobilized to help protect this law by sending messages to their EU representatives demanding them to support the NRL. Members of the European Parliament (MEPS) are our directly elected representatives, meaning that we as European citizens have the ability to influence the direction of laws such as this one through voting every 5 years for progressive MEPs. Historically, the Parliament has always pushed for increased environmental and climate ambition at EU level and so this first marks a worrying change in direction for European Policy, raising the stakes even higher for next summer’s parliamentary elections.
The bigger picture
With June 2023 marking the hottest June on record for global average air and sea surface temperature resulting in devastating wildfires across southern europe it seems futile and worrying that Europe’s political direction is leaning more and more to the extreme right, using food security as an argument to weaken our ambition for protecting nature and biodiversity.
The failure to see the obvious link between food security and nature restoration points to extreme short sightedness and clear ill intentions from those opposing the law. The two are interdependent, protecting biodiversity protects food systems against the most severe impacts of climate change. Diversity on farms and in soils increases the soils ability to retain moisture, the dairy industry is already feeling the heat with cows suffering from extreme temperatures leading to lower yields, increasing the amount of protected oceans and land areas ensures that the carbon currently stored stays captured contributing to halting temperature increase. The reasons are glaring, many and indisputable.
However, despite the multiple amendments stripping the law of its original ambition, it does still represent a first of its kind – a legally binding law for nature restoration where Member States can be held directly accountable. It is essential that Member States do not race to the bottom of this law’s ambition and instead show leadership and initiative in raising the bar of what’s possible and increase national targets for nature restoration.
To quote Climate Action Network Europe, “this is only a starting point, time is of the essence”.