Provisional legislation calls for governments to ensure increasing trends on the grassland butterfly index (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Nature Restoration Law: Deal on text seen as groundbreaking despite loopholes

The legislative text agreed late on Thursday sets a headline goal of launching restoration work on a fifth of both land and sea in Europe by 2030, and all degraded habitats by mid-century.

This should translate into restoring to a ‘good condition’ by 2030 at least 30% of the diverse targeted habitat types – terrestrial, coastal and freshwater ecosystems, including wetlands, grasslands, forests, rivers and lakes, as well as marine ecosystems, including seagrass and sponge and coral beds – covered by the regulation, rising to 60% in 2040 and 90% in 2050.

“The world's first law on nature restoration is as good as finalised,” said parliamentary shadow rapporteur Jutta Paulus, referring to the required endorsement of the legislative text by the EU’s legislative bodies, usually a formality after a ‘trilogue’ agreement. “The compromise on the Nature Restoration Law is a good basis for finally counteracting the extinction of species in Europe

The German Green lawmaker added that the deal, especially on restoring wetlands, would strengthen the EU’s hand in forthcoming COP28 climate talks. “Peatlands as natural allies against the climate crisis are to be re-wetted and protected,” she said. “Despite exceptions to the ban on degradation or the use of individual indicators, the overarching objectives and all ecosystems defined as worthy of protection remain part of the new law.”

The law requires that restoration measures begin on 30% of drained peatlands under agricultural use by 2030, with a quarter of that area to be re-wetted. This is in line with the European Commission’s original proposal, but the trilogue deal includes the provision that re-wetting will remain voluntary for farmers and private landowners. The requirement will extend to half of drained peatland by 2050, with a third to be re-wetted (against 70% and half, respectively, in the original proposal).

The provisional legislation calls for governments to ensure increasing trends in two of three further key indicators covering the agricultural sector: the grassland butterfly index (in line with a specific target to reverse pollinator decline by 2030), the share of agricultural land with high-diversity landscape features (HDLFs), and the stock of organic carbon in cropland mineral soil.

The impact on farmers and food production had been cited by the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) as the reason it demanded the withdrawal of the NRL proposal, which only narrowly survived a plenary vote. Last night’s talks yielded the addition of an ‘emergency brake’ whereby the EU executive can be called on to propose a temporary derogation from the farm-specific provisions.

The law should have a significant near-term impact on Europe’s natural waterways, requiring governments to identify man-made barriers to the connectivity of surface waters, and remove enough of them to ensure at least 25,000 kilometres of free-flowing rivers by 2030.

For forests, member states will be required to put biodiversity enhancing measures in place, and ensure ‘increasing trends’ for indicators such as standing and lying deadwood and the common forest bird index, which exemptions where a risk of forest fires is identified. The headline goal voiced by former Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, of planting three billion trees across Europe by 2030, also made it into the legislation.

Kelsey Perlman, a forest and climate campaigner at Fern, noted the agreed law would require governments to improve forests even outside protected areas, offering a “potential lifeline for improving biodiversity across Europe”.

“But the path to achieve this is unclear, with only vague assurances of how it will be funded,” Perlman added. Clear funding mechanisms must be in place if the EU is to move away from the destruction marring its landscapes for decades."

Overall, the reaction from environmental groups was one of relief that the law saw the light of day at all, with the provisions on peatland seen as particularly significant. However, with a poor track record of implementing the existing Nature Directives, several voiced concerns over its real world impact.

“We finally have a much-needed law that in theory, would force the EU to take concrete action to restore its ailing nature,” said Ioannis Agapakis, a lawyer with legal charity ClientEarth. “However, negotiators have hollowed out the law to the point that it risks being toothless in practice and prone to abuse.”

Moreover, although a trilogue agreement is usually seen as a done deal in EU policymaking circles, several commentators suggested approval by the European Parliament – which had been pushing for a much weaker text under pressure from the large EPP group – is not yet assured.

Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe was among groups that saw a vote in the parliament’s environment committee, slated for 29 November as a hurdle yet to be cleared. 

“We call on MEPs to vote for the approval of the agreement, so member states can immediately reverse the degradation trend in European ecosystems and jointly tackle the climate and biodiversity crises,” CAN Europe director Chiara Martinelli said.


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