In June this year the European Commission released a proposal for a milestone: an EU Nature Restoration Law. It comes at a crucial moment in the crisis the natural world is facing. Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans described it as “threatening the very foundation of our life on Earth“.
Marking 30 years since the EU last legislated on nature loss, the proposed regulation acknowledges the failure of Member States to meet previous EU and international targets on halting biodiversity loss and restoring ecosystems.
The foundation of life
Human activities are exerting unsustainable pressure on nature across the world, through the intensification of land and resource use, urbanisation, the erosion of habitats, climate change, pollution, and the spread of invasive species.
A 2019 global assessment from IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) estimated that around 1 million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction. In Europe, a 2020 report on the state of nature in the EU reported that 39% of bird species, 63% of other species and 81% of habitats have a poor or bad conservation status.
The destruction of nature has grave consequences for the health and well-being of humans, societies and economies. The complex web of life that biodiversity encompasses, and its communities and their interactions, provide ecosystem services essential for human survival.
Ecosystem services include assuring the quality of air, soil and water, pollinating crops, and preventing soil erosion. Billions of people globally rely on wild species directly on a daily basis, for energy, food, materials, medicine and income.
A “pioneering” proposal
The Commission’s “pioneering” proposal recognises that the current approach to nature restoration is not working, attributing previous failures to weak commitment and political priority, alongside a lack of deadlines.
Reflecting this admission, the proposed regulation puts forward legally-binding and enforceable targets that include nature restoration for 20% of EU land and sea by 2030 and for all ecosystems needing restoration by 2050. Specific targets are also made for agricultural, forest, marine and urban ecosystems, biodiverse habitats, pollinators, and river connectivity.
The proposal represents a new approach, explains Professor Jerneja Penca, professor on governance aspects of socio-ecological systems at the Euro-Mediterranean University: “There was a voluntary target to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020 and I think even at that point there was awareness this was not going to be accomplished, because so many other voluntary targets are not taken seriously by EU Member States. That is part of why the EU prepared the European Climate Law and this regulation [on nature restoration] mimics the approach the Commission adopted for accomplishing climate neutrality, setting binding targets and concrete, tangible steps”. – Read Jerneja Penca’s interview
As a regulation, instead of previous EU legislation on nature conservation that took the form of directives (the Birds and Habitats Directives), the law would not require national transposition and would be immediately enforceable across the Union.
Member States will have to submit plans to the Commission, within two years of the Regulation coming into force, on how they will meet the targets, and conduct regular monitoring and reporting.
Intertwined crises of climate and nature
Chief among the motivations behind the proposal is tackling the climate crisis, and for good reason: the two crises are inextricably intertwined, sharing many driving factors and interactions.
Unprecedented climate change is pushing the limits of nature’s ability to adapt and survive, disrupting ecological relationships evolved over millennia. If species cannot keep pace, extinction will follow.
Global warming is driving ocean acidification and deoxygenation, while more frequent and severe extreme weather events inflict further devastation on nature. Nature, in turn, loses its ability to buffer the causes and effects of climate change.
Against a bleak outlook for both nature and climate, the good news is that intertwined crises also open common opportunities for their solution, with the Commission aiming to wield nature restoration to also meet its goals on climate adaptation and mitigation.
For example, restoring habitats like forests and wetlands restore their function as carbon sinks, while restoring reefs protects against storm surges.
Such actions often entail additional benefits, making them all more appealing and cost-effective, explains Professor Thomas Elmqvist, professor in natural resource management at the Stockholm Resilience Centre:”Instead of investing in very expensive, heavily technological and engineering solutions, you could get similar effects by using natural mediation but at a lower cost. You would also have additional effects: if you invest in a green space for reducing ambient temperature, you will also have some effect on reducing flood risk, and some effect on the mental and physical health of people actively using that area… in using nature, we are presented with relatively inexpensive ways of achieving goals”. – Read Thomas Elmqvist’s interview
Ecosystems and food systems
The need for resilient food systems in the face of climatic and geopolitical disruption is also a major motivation behind the proposal.
Agriculture is reliant on nature, but the intensification of farming has been disastrous for agricultural ecosystems, due to unsustainable land and resource use, pollution and pesticides.
Farmland species show higher rates of decline than species in other habitats and so binding targets are proposed to replenish populations of pollinating insects and farmland birds, revive agricultural peatlands and enhance agricultural biodiversity.
Coexisting with nature
The relationship between nature and urban spaces is growing ever more important: more than 40% of the world’s protected areas will be within 50 km of a city by 2030, predicts the UN project “Biodiversity and Cities Outlook“, led by Professor Elmqvist.
“It is really important for local governments to address this, that cities and municipalities around the world will have to learn to coexist with nature, to avoid it being degraded. Local governments must be proactive and they have a responsibility for that 40% of the world’s most precious areas.”
Urban ecosystems are assigned their own targets in the proposal, which include no net loss of urban green space, increasing urban tree cover and integrating green space into buildings and infrastructure.
Nature restoration also offers opportunities to rethink societies and economies to better care for the environment, Professor Penca points out.
“If we start valuing nature in the way it contributes to our lives, we will also be making things differently and valuing our economic systems in a different way, re-establishing the connection between humans and nature. We will have to start investing in nature and find ways of integrating this into how we measure success.”
Leading the way?
Ahead of hashing out global targets at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference COP15, to be held in Montreal in December 2022, the Commission is aspiring to place the EU as a biodiversity frontrunner and inspire international commitments on averting, in the words of Timmermans, the “looming ecocide”.
European environmental NGOs have welcomed the proposal as a milestone opportunity, but warn that rapid adoption and proper enforcement will be crucial, while also calling for even stronger targets.
Already twice delayed in its announcement, the proposed law is now going through the EU decision-making procedure and has been referred to the European Parliament’s ENVI Committee and the Council’s working party on the environment.
• EPRS briefing on EU nature restoration regulation
• Prof. Jerneja Penca: ‘Only recently biodiversity is recognised to play a hugely important role in climate adaptation and mitigation’
• Prof. Thomas Elmqvist: ‘The awareness now of the climate crisis will also increase people’s interest in taking more care of nature’