The European Union’s Nature Restoration Law – which is intended to restore ecosystems and make the environment more resilient to climate change – is in peril after a vote on June 27th in the European Parliament’s environment committee was evenly split. It will go to a vote of all 705 MEPs in the parliament’s next plenary session on July 11th.
It is common, if shamefully neglected, knowledge that the European Union and the Irish Government have failed miserably to engage effectively with the public, especially farmers, about nature conservation strategies.
Agricultural and environmental policies have been infuriatingly contradictory. Brussels and Dublin have pushed farmers to intensify production, while haphazardly penalising them for the ecological damage which intensification inflicts.
That is one context in which the fierce controversy around the Nature Restoration Law must be understood. The law offers the last best hope for reversing the collapse of Europe’s natural systems. Too much rests on its approval to allow the failures of the past to shape the future. But if we don’t change this context, the law will fail, even if enacted.
It is equally important to understand another context – the rapidly accelerating decline of Europe’s ecosystems – which caused the new law to be framed as active restoration, rather than passive protection. Eighty-five per cent of EU habitats, especially farmed landscapes, are in bad or poor condition. Most are getting worse. Animal and plant populations, including agriculturally vital insect pollinators, are vanishing. The Habitats and Birds Directives, based on protection, have failed. But does this matter, except to birdwatchers and botanists? Well, surveys suggest that most people do value nature. The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss called, overwhelmingly, for “decisive and urgent action to address biodiversity loss and restoration”.
Catastrophic news of floods, fires and extinctions has mobilised public opinion. There is now wider understanding that our economies, societies and wellbeing depend entirely on the services that healthy ecosystems supply, from clean water to fertile soil, from pollination to stable climates.
Restoration is a relatively new conservation strategy, arising precisely because we have lost so many healthy ecosystems that we now need to actively help them recover. Restoration, based on sound science, is a rare hopeful message in grim times.
So it is unfortunate that the Nature Restoration Law has been so targeted by scaremongering. It scraped by the EU environment committee, even in diluted form, and faces powerful parliamentary opposition.
The European People’s Party has been accused of running such a flagrant disinformation campaign that some members, including Fine Gael, have distanced themselves. Some MEPs from Fianna Fáil’s Renew grouping also voted against the law, though no Irish MEPs from those parties were on the committee.
Misleading phrases abound. Restoring biodiversity is not ‘abandoning land’, it is enabling our environment to continue providing us with essential services, including carbon sequestration, not to mention beautiful landscapes. Nor is rewetting about ‘flooding farms’. Wetlands, properly restored, act as sponges, slowing rainwater run-off. Degraded land accelerates flooding. Contrary to EPP claims, each country is free to meet targets in its own ways, and the law imposes no changes on any individual landowner.
Attacks on provisions the law does not contain make a mockery of claims by these parties, and by agribusiness vested interests, to be treating the biodiversity and climate crises seriously. It’s a classic approach of “Lord make me ready, but not yet – not while there are short-term profits to be made”.
We simply can’t delay any longer. Big farming lobbies are campaigning against the real interests of farming families. Agriculture is already becoming difficult in parts of Europe – ask any north Dublin fruit or vegetable producer. Unless we take boldly radical steps to restore landscapes, farming will become simply impossible. The Nature Restoration Law does not undermine food security. It is its guarantee.
But these lobbies will continue to garner popular support, and populist votes, until the EU, and national governments, fully recognise that there is a social as well as an environmental context to the law. Nature must be restored in Europe if we are to survive and thrive – and farmers must be fully rewarded for participating in this restoration. The farmer-led Burren Programme, based on measurable outcomes rather than prohibitions, offers a proven model for doing just this.
Paddy Woodworth is the author of Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century