The Irish Times view on the EU nature restoration law: a plan worth supporting

Contrary to claims by the European People’s Party, this is about land enhancement, not land abandonment

The recent Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity report demonstrates strong public support for bold, transformative policies to tackle the environmental crisis.

This makes the fierce hostility of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), and from some – not all – farming, fishing and forestry lobbies to the EU Nature Restoration Law sadly irresponsible. An already diluted version barely squeaked through the European Parliament’s environment committee last Thursday, and its future is now uncertain.

Yet the law is urgently needed. Most EU habitats are in poor or bad condition, and getting worse. Restoring them is no luxury, but imperative for survival. Our economies cannot function without the ecosystem services nature provides, including climate regulation, air, soil and water purification, and pollination.

Hitherto, EU environmental legislation has been weakly enforced, poorly communicated to stakeholders, and ineffective. The nature restoration law goes some way to addressing these defects. Contrary to EPP claims, it is about land enhancement, not land abandonment. This has win-win aspects attractive to all sectors: rewetting peatlands, for example, restores biodiversity, boosting adjacent agriculture through pollinator recovery. It sequesters carbon, mitigating climate change. Attractive landscapes bring tourists, and benefit communities’ physical and mental health.

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Even small park restoration projects can help cool our heating cities. Return on investment in restoration in some ecosystems – sand dunes and coastal wetlands – can be as high as 10:1. Major corporations, including some agri-business companies, have strongly supported the law.

But the Russian war on Ukraine has created fears about food security, exploited by interests vested in the EU’s deeply flawed agricultural model. The recent triumph of the Farmer-Citizen Movement in Dutch provincial elections triggered panic in centre-right parties facing EU parliament elections next year.

It is welcome that Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has expressed his dismay at the EPP strategy, despite Fine Gael’s membership of the group. But Fine Gael members, including the Taoiseach, continue to criticise the law.

There is a steep uphill battle to convince many farmers that over-intensified agriculture is pushing the natural systems they depend on perilously close to collapse. And it is sadly true that most EU agri-environmental schemes to date have rewarded farmers far too little, and benefitted nature even less. But science-based nature restoration, guided by social equity, including farm payments commensurate with outcomes, is no threat to agriculture and rural communities. Indeed, it is the only strategy that can underpin their future.