Interview: César Luena on strengthening the Nature Restoration Law

It is “extremely important” that the EU’s Nature Restoration Law be negotiated during Spain’s EU presidency because “the Spanish government is the most fundamentally committed of any member state”, according to S&D lawmaker César Luena, who is shepherding the file through the European Parliament.

MEPs are due to agree on their negotiating position in a plenary session in July, paving the way for trilogue discussions to start by the summer and for the law to be “approved, if possible, before the end of the year”, he tells ENDS.

When Spain takes the helm of the EU Council in July, a fellow social democrat – environment minister Teresa Ribera – will sit on the other side of the negotiating table, raising the prospect that Council and Parliament will see eye-to-eye.

The draft report authored by Luena significantly increases the ambition of a number of the objectives set by the European Commission in its proposal published last year. The general restoration objective for 2030 is raised from 20% to 30% of the EU’s land and sea areas and the Commission’s 2050 targets are raised for terrestrial, coastal and freshwater ecosystems from 90% to 100% and for minimum urban tree cover from 10% to 15%.

According to Luena, his colleagues in Parliament’s social-democrat group are firmly backing the aim of increasing the ambition and speeding up the deadlines in the Commission’s proposal. “Currently, it is the most united group in relation to environmental policy and that has a notably positive impact as far as my work is concerned,” he says.

He describes the position of the EPP group, however, as “very dangerous”. “The EPP is habitually somewhat divided and that is true in this case as well, but the majority position is dangerous and I hope and I have requested that they think again and modify their approach,” he said.

Another member of Parliament’s environment committee consulted by ENDS confirmed that some EPP members “really want to block the legislation.” The EPP shadow is, however, open to negotiation and “the rapporteur is working strategically to have the EPP on board to get a majority in the plenary”, the committee member said. 

Luena is convinced that proper financing is key to the effective implementation of the legislation and is determined to achieve the inclusion of a dedicated nature restoration fund. “I am going to insist very strongly that there be specific financing,” he says. “When a policy is truly important it needs a budgetary package. I believe that the message we are sending as the European Union is that this issue is a priority and it needs dedicated financing for that reason.”

Another priority for Luena is to speed up the deadlines for the submission of national nature restoration plans, for their revision, for the publication of the first reports on implantation and for the commission’s progress assessments.

A further issue the rapporteur wishes to ensure “stays in the negotiation” is public participation and access to information. “Because this legislation is so important, the different sectors and citizens have to be involved. It’s crucial that this policy gets implemented by a regulation, which applies across Europe” and “which citizens feel is theirs”, he says.

Luena plays down the possibility that the legislation’s goal to improve biodiversity through the promotion of extensive farming would run up against the lobby power of Big Farmer.

“I am in direct negotiations with the AGRI committee and with others, and [have] maximum respect for the efforts which the agricultural sector is making to adapt to the new environmental policies and which it will have to go on making. I believe the sector knows what it has to do and will do it,” he states.

He also denies that a conflict exists between the objectives of nature restoration and other EU priority policies aimed at achieving greater self-sufficiency in food, energy and critical materials, which could put further pressure on ecosystems and biodiversity.  

“I think these concepts are not in conflict and are co-dependent with many other factors. A restored ecosystem is more productive as demonstrated by scientific evidence. Food security is a very broad concept but is influenced by many factors including rising prices, the geopolitical situation, the cost of inputs and climate change,” he says.

“Nor do I see any relation with the REPowerEU programme. It is not a choice between one thing or the other; they are complementary and that’s the philosophy which inspires my politics and my negotiating position in this process.”

Luena is not convinced by arguments from the Greens that the Commission’s proposals for returning agricultural peatlands to their wet state to promote biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be extended to cover peatlands under forestry. “We don’t have sufficient data about their condition” and “according to the data we have, it’s drained peatland under farming which produces the biggest emissions”, he says.

While insisting that it is too early to make any firm predictions, Luena thinks that, “as things stand now, there’s every possibility” of the ambitious objectives remaining in the final text.

“I can assure you, and it’s important that your readers should know, that I am very ambitious but also pragmatic. What does pragmatic mean? That the most important thing is to reach an agreement with pretty wide support among MEPs in July. The only thing which is sacred for me is that the regulation goes forward with significant support from Parliament so the Spanish presidency under Teresa Ribera can push it on and get it approved, if possible, before the end of the year,” he said.

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