EU Nature Restoration Law: Countdown for more nature conservation in Europe

Until the very end, it was unclear whether the European Commission would present the EU Nature Restoration Law on 22 June or postpone it again due to pressure from agricultural lobbies and individual EU Commissioners. The restoration law is a central part of the European Green Deal and the first real European nature conservation law in more than twenty years. With the specious argument of an alleged food shortage, there are efforts not only to weaken nature conservation standards, but also to put the entire species conservation part of the Green Deal on ice. Yet we know not only from research, but also from the Ukraine war: hunger is not the result of a lack of food, but of incorrect distribution. Moreover, we know that healthy ecosystems are a prerequisite for long-term food security. 

It is good that EU Environment Commissioner Sinkevicius has not buckled, and I look forward to his proposal for the EU Nature Restoration Law. Of course, I’ll keep you posted and watch closely tomorrow to see if the EU renaturation law becomes the milestone our nature so desperately needs!

What is the EU Nature Restoration Law?

The EU Nature Restoration Law is the first real European nature conservation law in more than twenty years. It is the successor to the EU Habitats Directive and the EU Birds Directive and is intended to complement them. Unfortunately, the EU Member States are still lagging behind with the implementation of the existing EU nature conservation law. Several infringement proceedings have been pending against Germany for years. On the basis of the Habitats and Birds Directives, Member States designate protected areas according to scientific criteria, the “Natura 2000” sites. The mere designation of areas is of course not enough for effective nature conservation.  There is a lack of effective management plans to achieve the conservation objective for threatened species and habitats in Natura 2000 protected areas. The EU Restoration Law should not only improve existing EU nature conservation law, but include additional, binding measures to restore habitats that have already been destroyed.

As defined by the Society for Ecological Restoration, restoration is a solution-oriented approach that involves communities, scientists, policy makers and land users to repair ecological damage and restore a healthier relationship between people and the rest of nature. Restoration protects biodiversity, improves human health and well-being, and maintains water and food security. 

Around 20 percent of European water bodies are impaired by barriers. Dams, weirs and locks are the most important barriers to good ecological status. About one million barriers are located in European rivers; at least 10 percent have no current use anymore. Removing these superfluous barriers can make an important contribution to more species and nature conservation. Flood protection also benefits, because with nature-based flood prevention, every euro invested saves around five euros in potential flood damage. Other important measures for effective renaturation are the rewetting of wetlands such as peatlands and floodplains, the restoration of seagrass meadows and species-rich forests, or the conversion of heavily fertilised meadows or farmland into biodiversity-rich grassland.

Why are existing EU environmental laws not simply improved?

Valuable groundwork has been done through the designation of Natura 2000 sites. 

More than one fifth of Europe’s land area and six percent of Europe’s seas make the Natura 2000 network one of the largest interconnected networks of protected areas in the world. However, the last twenty years have shown that EU member states are lagging behind in implementing existing laws and are already failing to comply with old protection requirements. According to the European Environment Agency, the targets of the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 have been missed and the conservation status of European species and ecosystems has deteriorated between 2013 and 2018. 

The World Biodiversity Council ranks Europe as the region with the least intact biodiversity after India. This also has consequences for us humans, because without healthy ecosystems we have neither drinkable water, nor clean air, fertile soils, fish-rich oceans, pollinated fruit trees, bio-based active ingredients and much more. The threat of zoonotic diseases such as Covid19 also becomes even more likely in the future due to the pressure on wilderness areas.

What needs to be included in the EU Nature Restoration Law?

The measures and targets in the EU Nature Restoration Law must reflect the urgency and severity of species extinction. This means that they must be binding and ambitious in any case. Voluntary measures did not bring us much further. A majority of the European Parliament demands that each EU member state put at least 30 percent of its land and sea areas under protection by 2030. The EU Commission will presumably follow this target, but it is only the absolute minimum. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and leading scientists, 30-50 per cent of the world’s land needs to be protected to ensure a climate-resilient future. 

The Nature Restoration Law must go beyond existing measures. EU member states must not be rewarded for their past inertia by being able to simply credit measures not yet implemented under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives. Protected areas must not only be extended, but they must include all habitat types, each with specific objectives. There must be no sleight of hand such as crediting the promotion of nature conservation measures abroad. 

Instead of only setting the year 2030 as a target, it is important to define clear intermediate steps and targets to ensure the success of renaturation measures and to prevent further delays.

For me, the following points are central: 

  • By 2030 at the latest, 30 per cent of wetlands must be rewetted, regardless of whether they have been drained for agriculture, forestry or peat extraction. 
  • Wild pollinators must be protected and their populations better monitored. 
  • Renaturalise our water bodies to create at least 25,000 km of free-flowing rivers and streams.

Here you can find my letter to the President von der Leyen, in which I urge her to publish the Nature Restoration Law as soon as possible.