The European Union’s flagship law to restore nature is in dire straits.
While the bloc’s Green Deal has seen its fair share of controversy, since last year carbon price drama to Germany’s combustion engine uprising of 2035 phase out – The growing backlash against the European Commission’s Nature Restoration Law is without parallel.
The conservative bloc in the European Parliament wants the law dead. Two committees rejected the proposal outright. Farmers staged a protest in Brussels on Thursday. And criticism has started to pile up from EU leaders as well.
The Commission is in panic mode. Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, aware of the risk to his project, spent three hours last week pleading with lawmakers to back the bill, which faces a deciding vote in the Environment Committee this month.
That is why a key pillar of EU climate legislation is crumbling.
What is this law and why is it important?
Nature is in bad shape all over the block, with more than 80 percent of EU habitats in poor condition.
Healthy ecosystems make an essential contribution ensure food production, protect against extreme weather events and reduce emissions. That’s why reversing nature degradation, such as deforestation, desertification or water pollution, is an important part of fighting climate change and biodiversity loss.
THE Nature Restoration Act, unveiled last year, is the Commission’s grand plan to repair damaged natural areas of the block. The proposal calls for at least 20% of the EU’s degraded land and seas to be restored by 2030 and all areas in need of restoration by 2050.
The regulation also sets EU-wide targets to rehabilitate some ecosystems, including rewetting 30% of dried-up peatlands by 2030, restoring 25,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers, tackling the decline of pollinators and increasing of green spaces in cities.
The Commission says it is impossible to achieve the EU’s legally binding climate neutrality target by 2050, which relies in part on storing CO2 in soils, forests and other natural carbon sinks, without these measures. The regulation also aims to enshrine in EU law the engagements the blockade created at last year’s COP15 biodiversity summit, which calls for the restoration of 30% of the world’s degraded areas by 2030.
Where does the backlash come from?
The law faces fierce criticism from mainly conservative politicians and lobby groups representing the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sectors.
Much of the pushback centers on the claim that the new rules are asking too much of European farmers at a time when they are already struggling with rising costs and the aftermath of the war in Ukraine. Overloading them would endanger EU food security, critics say.
Leading the backlash is the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which has called multiple times for rejection of the law.
With the support of right-wing European conservatives and reformists, the far-right Identity and Democracy and part of the centrist Renew Europe groups, the EPP managed to build an anti-law majority in the agriculture and fisheries parliamentary committees, which rejected the Commission proposal last week.
On Wednesday, the EPP walked out of the final negotiating session on the controversial dossier of the Environment Committee, which has overall responsibility for the dossier. Group Chairman Manfred Weber She said the « proposal was negative in the first place and our concerns remain unanswered ».
On Thursday, farmers staged a protest against the law in front of the European Parliament. A counter-protest by green groups took place across the square.
Lut D’Hondt, a farmer from Flanders, said “expectations are very high with this nature restoration law” and they are “outpacing” the new ecological requirements in EU agricultural policy. « We are worried. »
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo wants to « push the pause button » on the legislation. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar She said some of the goals « go too far…particularly when it comes to taking away unused agricultural land for food production ».
Similar concerns were expressed by the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Romania and Poland, among others.
It’s all true?
A lot of disinformation has crept into the debate.
The EPP campaign has included misleading claims, such as claiming the law will destroy villages, limit development of renewable energy and decrease food production to the point of causing « global famine ».
But restoring the land doesn’t mean that economic activity can’t take place there; it is not the same thing as establishing a nature reserve.
An EPP press officer admitted last month that the group could not list « any particular village » threatened by the law.
Nor are restoration and renewables necessarily in conflict. Offshore wind projects can create artificial reefs, while solar farms on old industrial sites can help restore biodiversity. Industry lobbies such as WindEurope support the law.
A key argument from critics is the impact of nature restoration on long-term food security, even though scientists say climate change and biodiversity loss are the biggest threats to agricultural production in the long run, and agricultural activity can take place on restored land.
EPP too States the law will remove 10% of agricultural land from production. This statement refers to the legislation’s aim to increase the share of vegetation on agricultural land – such as hedgerows, ponds or ditches, which support biodiversity – to cover 10% of EU agricultural land by 2030, compared to current 7%. But these areas are not necessarily wasteland, for example they include orchards.
The EPP did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Who is fighting for the law?
The Commission, as well as Green groups, scientists and leftist politicians are struggling to keep the legislation alive.
Scientists and green NGOs sent letters to policy makers, urging EU institutions to support ambitious rules. Some companies in the agri-food, textile and renewables sectors have also issued similar ones calls.
In Parliament, the Greens, the Left and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) are supporting the Commission’s approach and even want to raise some targets. The Renew group is divided for the moment.
On Wednesday, leftist and liberal lawmakers led the environment committee’s work on the dossier reached up a draft agreement after the EPP strike. The flimsy compromise must now survive a vote in committee.
The Commission is desperate to defend its proposal.
“Sometimes I hear that these proposals are against farmers. I’m not,” Timmermans said last week the agriculture and environment parliamentary committees.
The Green Deal, he said, is « not à la carte » and needs healthy ecosystems to function. “We cannot achieve climate neutrality or secure food production, farmers’ livelihoods and a thriving bioeconomy unless we restore our nature.”
It’s not over yet.
EU countries could reach a common position at the next meeting of environment ministers on 20 June. They have called for more flexibility and while they acknowledge that recovery measures are needed, several countries stress that implementation will be « extremely challenging ».
Meanwhile, a vote in Parliament’s main environment committee is scheduled for 15 June, followed by a vote in plenary on 10 July.
César Luena, the Spanish S&D MP who leads the parliament’s work on the legislation, remains « optimistic » that he will find majority support for the proposal.
Timmermans last week said he was willing to discuss « every single line » of the legislation with lawmakers, but ruled out a reformulation of the law: « The Commission will not present another proposal. Let it be crystal clear. There is simply no time.
This article has been updated.