Bring back nature: why we need a strong EU nature restoration law

The European Union is negotiating a new law to better protect and bring back nature. This law is long overdue. The abundance and diversity of wildlife in the EU is shrinking at an alarming rate. And this is despite the fact that our economy, and food production in particular, critically depend on them. Greens/EFA MEP Jutta Paulus explains how a strong EU nature restoration law can help protect and bring back nature.

In December, in Montréal (Canada), the EU signed up to an ambitious global deal on biodiversity. One of the global targets is to start or complete the restoration of at least 30 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2030. Now we need to get started and bring back nature as fast we can, for our own benefit and to fulfil our global commitments.

Why bring back nature?

Healthy ecosystems are just as important as a stable climate. They provide the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. And they help us absorb and store carbon. Importantly, they also cool the climate, and help us deal with natural disasters such as fires, floods and droughts.

The economist Partha Dasgupta says that nature is our most precious asset. By mismanaging that asset, we are putting our economies, livelihoods and well-being at risk.

The fact that nature is in poor health is largely the result of human actions. With industrial farming, forestry and fishing practices, we are destroying the very basis of our existence. The good news is that nature can bounce back if we change our ways and give it some space. We can counter human-made nature loss with human-made nature restoration!

What’s in the EU’s nature restoration plan? 

The EU wants to have nature restoration measures in place on at least 20 percent of the EU land and sea area by 2030. The same should happen on all areas in need of improvement by 2050.

The EU nature restoration law obliges EU governments to take better care of the EU’s network of priority habitats. We call these priority habitats “natural habitats of Community interest”. These habitats are already defined under existing EU nature laws (like the EU’s Habitats Directive). On land, they cover around 24 percent of the EU area. For these habitats, we have data and monitoring systems in place to tell us how they are doing.

But despite this, between 2013 and 2018, only about 15 percent of our important habitats had a “good conservation status”. Habitats classed as “good” occupy a stable geographic area and offer structures so that typical species can thrive in them.

Shrinking space for wildlife – what’s happening to their habitats?

The reason that wild plant and animal species go extinct is that we destroy their homes, also called “habitats”. The EU groups the most important habitats into nine categories and asks its member states to report on them every six years. The last reports cover the period 2013 to 2018 and show that 81 percent of habitats “have a poor or bad conservation status in Europe”. Dune habitats and bog, mire and fen habitats are worst off. Habitats that pollinators depend on (mostly grasslands) are also in bad condition. Where improvements have been observed, they are almost always linked to nature restoration measures. According to the European Environmental Agency, at least 11,000 km2 of habitats need to be (re-)created and added to the existing habitat area to ensure the long-term functioning of each habitat type. In addition, the vast majority of existing habitat areas need to be restored to good status. Forests and marine ecosystems require the largest restoration effort, considering the areas in need of re-establishment or improvement.

The proposed nature restoration law – what is it all about?

Under the draft nature restoration law, all EU countries will have to make efforts to return these habitats to “good condition”. Countries must meet specific targets set for 2030, 2040 and 2050 to improve and expand them over time.

One way of doing that is to set up and manage legally protected areas. The EU’s Natura 2000 network of protected areas presently covers more than 18 percent of EU land and 9 percent of EU waters. However, on land, the network covers only about a third of the EU’s critical wildlife habitats. EU countries also manage additional protected areas. This brings the areas covered to a total of 26 percent of EU land and 12 percent of EU waters. By 2030, this should be 30 percent for each.

How can we protect ecosystems, forests and agriculture?

EU governments must also allow more space for nature in areas that are not described under existing nature laws. We still need to develop ways to measure their condition. These areas span 76 percent of the EU’s terrestrial ecosystems, mostly forests and agricultural land, but also urban ecosystems.

For forests, governments will have to see to it that greater amounts of deadwood are available for wildlife species that depend on it. They will have to create the conditions for common forest birds to come back. We also need to reduce areas subject to clear-felling and replanting so that trees are of different ages.

In agricultural areas, governments will have to provide for more “high diversity landscape features”. These features include trees, hedges, flower strips, field margins, small ponds, dry stone walls and fallow (uncultivated) land. They will have to make sure that birds and butterflies return to our farmlands, and rewet drained peatlands.

Finally, EU countries will need to remove obstacles in rivers (so they can flow more freely). Let’s bring back pollinators and increase the area covered by urban green spaces such as parks, gardens and farms.

Why we ask for six improvements to the new nature restoration law

The EU nature restoration law could be a game changer for our nature. But we need to strengthen it to deliver on its promise. To make sure this law brings real change, we want to improve these things:

1. Rewet our bogs

Under the draft law, the EU would only restore drained peatlands that are under agricultural use. But we must re-wet drained peatlands regardless of today’s use, except for land used for housing.

Peatlands are home to rare wildlife species and are great carbon sinks – when they are healthy. Wet peatlands can also help to stabilise water flows, alleviating extreme weather events like floods. But in the EU, half of all peatlands have been drained and therefore turned into carbon emitters. We need to plug the ditches and raise the water levels in our peatlands. We can do this without necessarily taking them out of use. By 2030, 30 percent of EU peatlands should be re-wetted.

2. Free our rivers

For our rivers, the proposed law suggests removing river barriers. But it doesn’t say how many kilometres of rivers should be returned to a free-flowing state. European rivers are the most fragmented in the world. The law should oblige EU governments to make at least 15 percent of their countries’ rivers – a total of 178,000 km – flow freely again by 2030.

3. Bring back nature into farmland

The draft law aims to bring more biodiversity into agricultural areas but fails to specify how much and by when. This is too important to leave to the good will of governments and farmers.

Landscape elements such as  trees, flower strips, ponds and hedges are home to insects, birds and other animals. They provide food, shelter and breeding grounds. They safeguard or even increase farmland productivity by providing valuable environmental “services”. Pollination, pest control, soil and water protection are some of them. The law should require that at least 10 percent of each farm is supporting nature by 2030.

4. Restore our marine ecosystems

Marine ecosystems are in dire need of restoration. The most important way to return them to good health is to leave them alone. But when a government tries to put in place protected areas, another one often interferes to block or water down the decision. All too often, this means that countries put no real protections in place. To overcome this deadlock, the European Commission should be able to intervene so that governments wanting to protect marine wildlife habitats can go ahead and do so.

In addition, the coverage of the EU nature restoration law should be extended to include the habitats of fished species that are in a critical state. One example is the European eel, and species classified as endangered under the IUCN Red List

5. More green and blue spaces in cities

Urban areas cover more than a fifth of the EU’s land area, and most Europeans live there. The new law should oblige governments to increase green spaces in our towns and cities, and also blue spaces – meaning open streams, rivers, ponds and lakes. EU governments should provide for 10 percent of urban green and blue spaces by 2040, and at least 15 percent by 2050. Most of these areas we should legally protect.

6. Heal our forests

The vast majority of EU forests are in poor condition, and much of our forested land falls outside protected areas. We have to increase biodiversity and climate adaptability in both managed and unmanaged forests. To achieve this, the nature restoration law should help to reduce clear-felling and replanting to a minimum, and promote more natural forests with an uninterrupted tree canopy and trees of different ages. In addition to the proposed improvements, EU countries should be obliged to increase the genetic diversity of trees and abundance of forest species. They should also enhance forests’ ability to maintain a microclimate with lower temperatures compared to outside the forest, which can increase the functionality of forest ecosystems.

Restoring nature is an investment into our future

Money spent on nature is an investment, not a cost. According to the European Commission, every €1 invested in nature restoration adds between €8 to €38 in economic value – benefits that come from the many services healthy ecosystems provide, such as the pollination of agricultural crops.

Nature restoration has a particularly positive impact on those who directly depend on healthy ecosystems for their livelihood, such as farmers, foresters and fishers. Where we can protect marine habitats effectively, fish stocks recover quickly, to the benefit of fisheries and aquaculture. Healthy forests better withstand droughts and forest fires, and abundant pollinator populations are good for agriculture.

Bringing back nature cannot wait

Unfortunately, some EU politicians have chosen to ignore the warnings of scientists and to block or weaken the proposed law, saying all the while that they support nature. In light of the dramatic state of our ecosystems, and our dependence on them, paying lip service to nature is no longer an option. Inaction now could allow nature loss to spiral out of hand and jeopardise our ability to produce food and to fend off the worst impacts of climate change.

As the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament, we are working hard to achieve a strong law that returns wildlife to our farmland and forests, wetlands and rivers, seas and coastlines – for the benefit of people and nature.