Prof. Jerneja Penca: ‘Only recently biodiversity is recognised to play a hugely important role in climate adaptation and mitigation’

Jerneja PencaInterview with Jerneja Penca, Associate Professor at the Euro-Mediterranean University (EMUNI), Slovenia. She is the Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence on Sustainable Blue Economy awarded to EMUNI. She is Managing Editor of the International Journal of Euro Mediterranean Studies. And she is also a lead author on the IPBES Transformative change assessment. She researches governance aspects of socio ecological systems at the regional (EU, Mediterranean) and global levels, which has spanned over various regimes, including bio diversity, climate change, fisheries and plastics pollution.

What was your initial reaction to the Nature Restoration Law proposal?

Jerneja Penca: I was very pleased to see this proposal, on quite a few aspects, namely its ambition but foremost for the fact that environmental issues are given more of the attention they deserve.

One positive thing about this proposal is that it underlines the importance of healthy ecosystems and how much this underlies what we do, not only for agriculture, forestry, fisheries, but also any other economic sector. The proposal is welcome in that and it really mainstreams biodiversity. Before it was often presented as an issue of nature protection in protected areas conceived as something like a top up to general environmental policy. I think this law puts biodiversity issues and protection of ecosystems at the heart of any development and that is very positive.

At the same time, this proposal does come late and with quite a lot of uncertainties. The European recovery and resilience plans [post-COVID-19] provided a huge opportunity for needed reforms and investment and there was high momentum for climate and a green transition, where biodiversity was not given sufficient attention. Research shows that less than 0,1% of the funding from the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) went to biodiversity, when our funding is already at less than 20% of what is needed to halt the biodiversity loss. So the RRF funds would have been a great opportunity to close that gap.

The proposal acknowledges that a new approach is needed for nature restoration, given that previous EU targets on preventing biodiversity loss and restoring nature were unsuccessful. What can this tell us about EU governance on nature?

Jerneja Penca: From an environmental science perspective, the crisis has always been about inadequacy of our structures for long-term conservation of resources and the disconnect between humans and nature, the ignorance of the full cost of our activities. This was the one big crisis, which was framed as two crises, climate change and biodiversity. Over the past decades, there was a lot more political will and discussion to tackle the climate crisis, while biodiversity was more of a marginal issue. It would have been much smarter to be working on the two crises in common. I think it was a mistake to be reductionist in measuring CO2 emissions. Gradually we came to recognise climate change is not only about CO2 emissions, there are other potent greenhouse gases. And only recently biodiversity is recognised to play a hugely important role in climate adaptation and mitigation.

If we come back to the Recovery and Resilience Facility, it gave the framework for countries preparing their plans, but there was little interaction between tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis simultaneously. Tackling climate was a clear goal, and countries were required to indicate and measure how a certain reform contributes to climate neutrality. Biodiversity issues and nature restoration also require planning and investment, they do not come for free. It would have been wise to use these funds from the Recovery and Resilience Facility to support the green transition more holistically speaking.

Regarding the governance approach: In 2011, there was a voluntary target to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020. I think even at that point there was probably an 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.

It is significant to name something a priority and make it compulsory rather than voluntary. Of course, the regulation first has to go through the European Parliament and the Council, which might not be unproblematic on the side of the Council. Everyone needs to recognise the urgency of the issue, but Member States might be reluctant to commit even to the proposed feasible target and timeline.

Then, the law will have to be implemented, monitored and enforced. We know from other environmental legislation that enforcement is a weak point. There are also ways to go around setting concrete targets, find loopholes, declare an ecosystem to be of a good status when it is not. But at least the direction is now clear and there is hope that focus will be on creating strong political will to that end.

The proposal emphasises the economic value of nature, including for food systems and fisheries resources. However, marine restoration targets have been criticised as “unimplementable” due to the Common Fisheries Policy. Is sustainability in this area possible?

Jerneja Penca: It is commendable that both terrestrial and marine ecosystems are tackled in the same law. The concept of a blue economy emerged from the very fast development of marine economic sectors, like maritime transport, aquaculture, biotechnology, renewables. Blue economy drew attention to opportunities for economic growth at sea, but it is also very clear that these will have to take place within the boundaries of the environment. In 2021, there was a refocusing of terminology in the EU, of a sustainable blue economy rather than blue growth, which demonstrates an awareness that all economic activities have to take place in a sustainable manner. We thus need strong and clear environmental boundaries for the development at sea.

On the Common Fisheries Policy, despite the effort that went into it, there is a persistent lack of enforcement at the national fisheries authority level and it is precisely this lack of enforcement that also worries us for this particular law. Blue economy sectors are still developing, but they need to go hand in hand with all sustainability efforts, including tackling climate change and ensuring biodiverse and healthy ecosystems at seas.

You are a lead author on the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Transformative Change Assessment. What is transformative change and why is it significant for nature restoration?

Jerneja Penca: Transformative change has been defined by IPBES as a fundamental systems wide reorganisation across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values. This recognises a deep and profound change which is not just change in practices but also in the set up of our institutions. It is my belief that biodiversity conservation and restoration are key players in managing that transformative change, because they will be shifting paradigms and determining what are valuable societal and policy goals.

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. The IPBES assessment is bringing together different perspectives on transformative change and focusing on what should be done to re-orient our economies and societies away from short term extractions to more long term thinking, taking care of the fundamental platform that is the environment and ecosystems.

When talking about transformative change, it is incredibly important to look at grassroots initiatives, what they are doing, their practices and ways of thinking. This could be communal initiatives relating to energy saving, communal gardens, mobility transition. These are at the heart of new ways of organising our societies. But we also need to have expectations of states, governments, municipalities, and other public authorities.

Outlooks on environmental crises like the loss of biodiversity, as well as climate breakdown, are often bleak. Do you believe there can be a positive outlook for nature restoration?

Jerneja Penca: Indeed, it is easy to get caught up in the dire state of things, as trends are looking very negative. Even now if we change our habits, it will take time to see what impact this will have on ecosystems. The environmental crises is incredibly complex and this has come from decades of inaction.

There is perhaps a sign of hope in this law for trying to break the pattern of degrading trajectories. A key reason for why I feel optimistic is that this is a new cycle of biodiversity policy, starting with the COP15 [Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to take place in Montreal, in December 2022]. If the EU is showing this level of commitment in this preparatory phase, I hope this also inspires other global players in setting up a new policy cycle, not only more ambitious but a more honest one.

But we need to be careful that the strong rhetoric about the significance of environmental issues and the sustainability crisis does not exclude the public from decision making. There is a risk for top-down imposed measures. We want to avoid that scientifically supported targets become a pretext for exclusion of the public. In the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe there were strong messages from citizens wanting to have a more environmentally-oriented Europe. There is a need to respond to that but keep them closely involved. The EU could be a role model there.

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