On November 9, the European Council approved the Nature Restoration Law, a regulation for the restoration of ecosystems. A much-hoped-for victory that leaves a bitter taste: the adopted regulation emerges from more than a year of negotiations that have significantly weakened it in substance. The risk is that the objectives lose their concreteness in implementation.
Crediti foto Boris Smokrovic su Unsplash
On November 9, the European Council, the body defining the EU's policy directions, approved the Nature Restoration Law, one of the four main pillars of the European biodiversity strategy for 2030. A great achievement, yet leaving a bit of bitterness, considering the approved regulation was significantly weakened compared to the original. The approval came after a very troubled process. The first draft, presented in June 2022, received over two thousand amendments, proposed by the European People's Party (EPP), supported by other conservative parties like Identity and Democracy (ID), and European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR). On July 12, after two tied votes, the European Parliament narrowly approved the draft law: 336 votes in favor, against 300 opposed and 13 abstentions. November 9 marked the end of negotiations between member states, with the approval at the European Council touted as a "revolutionary victory" by some MEPs, but upon closer inspection, it's a meager victory. Indeed, negotiations significantly diluted the original draft's provisions to the extent that the European right considers itself satisfied with the results achieved.
The Nature Restoration Law was initiated with the goal of mandating environmental restoration, starting from the bitter fact that 81% of European habitats are compromised or degraded. This is despite Europe having a virtuous environmental strategy: in 1992, the Natura 2000 Network was established, an ecological network spread across the Union's territory, aimed at protecting habitats and species of community interest and creating an ecological corridor linking natural spaces. Natura 2000 Network was established and operates through the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive. The network consists of a set of protected areas under the two Directives, which today number 27,000. However, focusing solely on protected areas is insufficient to safeguard biodiversity and ensure the functioning and resilience of habitats. The ambitious goal of the Nature Restoration Law is the gradual restoration of degraded habitats, the recovery of river connectivity, increasing carbon stocks, and, above all, a shift in agricultural area management. This was precisely the sore point of strong political opposition, which politicized the Nature Restoration Law, portraying the proposals for more sustainable and biodiversity-friendly agriculture as a severe threat to food production that would skyrocket prices and disrupt established supply chains. Indeed, the original draft aimed to increase biodiversity through a change in agricultural land management, aiming for landscape diversification (i.e., reducing monocultures and increasing hedges, woods, water ponds) in at least 10% of cultivated areas. The law approved by the European Council eliminates this threshold, thereby significantly weakening the measure's effectiveness. Many measures proposed as mandatory have also become optional, such as the restoration of wetlands, and numerous exemptions have been introduced, including the possibility to bypass environmental objectives if food productivity is threatened. It remains to be seen what criteria governments will adopt to establish these threats. Finally, the approved law removes the indication for Member States to use part of the CAP funds to support measures for more sustainable agriculture.
Looking ahead, the next steps are the formal adoption of the new regulation by the European Parliament and the Council. Once this is done, the regulation will enter into force 20 days after its publication in the EU Official Journal. At this point, the ball will pass to the member states, which will have to develop national restoration plans. These plans must be developed through participatory processes involving local communities and civil society, in synergy with strategies for climate change mitigation, adaptation to climate change, and disaster prevention, as well as with agriculture and forestry. These national restoration plans must be submitted by the States within two years of the regulation coming into force and must contain a timetable for their implementation. The law indeed maintains the original goal of restoring at least 20% of terrestrial and marine habitats by 2030. However, the flexibility in the obligations to be respected by member states obtained in the various negotiations leaves strong doubts about the practical effectiveness of these good intentions, considering that the right-wing parties are gaining power and have a vision contrary to environmental policies.
Amidst all this, misinformation on the subject is rampant, with very scant media coverage of the "revolutionary result," and political instrumentalization continues to transform the protection of biodiversity, ecosystems, and the fight against climate change into a threat to the economy. A dangerous defense of the status quo. The business as usual approach is only reducing environmental resilience and undermining the ecosystem services necessary for our survival. Consider that 80% of crops depend on the presence of pollinators to be productive, and precisely because of the business as usual production defended by the EPP, a third of species are in decline and one in ten is critically endangered. The approval of the Nature Restoration Law is certainly welcome, but it's a half-victory, likely beautiful on paper but lacking in practicality.
There's much work to be done for a cultural change that puts the health of the planet first, guaranteeing a future for new generations. Continuing as we have always done won't take us far; investing to prevent disasters by ensuring ecosystem functionality might be inconvenient, but it is far-sighted and prevents significant expenses for repairing damages, which we are already experiencing in Italy with the changing climate.