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What impact will the EU nature restoration law have on Ireland?

Far-reaching consequences for land use, especially farming, and also marine development. But uncertainty and rural anger remain

Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg (right) speaks at a demonstration in favor of the nature restoration law in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg last July. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Europe’s controversial nature restoration law (NRL) requires member states to restore 20 per cent of their land and seas by 2030 – and all ecosystems by 2050. It has far-reaching consequences for land use, especially farming, but also marine development.

Its effective deployment is critical to restoring vast tracts of Ireland’s wetlands and to putting a floor on biodiversity loss. Accelerating species decline is all too often leading to extinction of plant life, wildbirds and mammals, not to mention pollinators and degradation of soils due to intensive agriculture.

After much disagreement and delay exacerbated by misinformation in advance of the European elections, the NRL was signed off by environment ministers who were at pains to point out its “flexibilities”, ie voluntary aspects.

Farmers coalesced with far-right groupings in condemning the NRL, which was adopted last year but fell into limbo, as some member states lost their nerve – chiefly because of claims it was mandatory and would impose additional costs on food production. But there is a bigger picture beyond those concerns. When in a healthy condition, peatlands store carbon, wetlands hold flood water, and dune systems serve as protective barriers against flooding and coastal erosion.

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Considering the interlinked climate and biodiversity crises, it is vital that these habitats are restored to full health to provide “nature-based solutions”. In Ireland, 85 per cent of internationally important and protected habitats are in poor condition. As they degrade, they become uninhabitable and their ecosystem services (direct and indirect contributions to human wellbeing) are greatly diminished.

There were indications that another go at getting the NRL across the line would be attempted but there was surprise a vote came so soon. This was helped by significant work by Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan and Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan in building a sufficiently strong consensus in advance of the meeting.

Ireland and other member states have to draft national restoration plans and detail how they plan to reach proposed targets.

There remains huge uncertainty about how this law is going to be interpreted at member state level and anger in rural communities. In the Irish context no national impact assessment has been carried out, while the IFA says there is no indication of how it will impact on food production and food security. A properly-funded, EU-wide, voluntary scheme should have been pursued, it believes.

For the NRL to be effective, the Government will need genuine consultation with all stakeholders, particularly farmers, backed by new supports at farm level and collaboration to help nudge existing restoration measures much closer to the level urgently required.