Delayed by several months but eagerly awaited by NGOs and climate activists, the European Commission should later this month finally unveil its plan to restore some of the EU's most degraded ecosystems — a key factor in the fight against climate change.
"The continent is so degraded we have deteriorated nature so much that there is a need to start restoring it," Sergiy Moroz, Policy Manager for Biodiversity and Water at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an umbrella organisation for environmental NGOs, stressed to Euronews.
About 80% of protected habitats and two-thirds of species in the EU have a poor or bad conservation status, according to **the European Environment Agency.**Yet nature is the best ally in the fight against global warming and climate change as different ecosystems, from peatlands to forests as well as rivers and oceans, have varying carbon-storing abilities.
"There is a very, very big benefit in terms of carbon sequestration in these because they are very often carbon- rich areas. So if we don't destroy them like peatlands, they will continue storing and if we restore them, we will allow them to store their carbon again," Moroz emphasised.
Establishing legally-binding targets to restore these natural ecosystems would help the bloc reach its target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050, activists say, but they are facing detractors who are lobbying that with a war on its doorstep and a food crisis on the horizon, the EU should postpone its regulation even further.
What is nature restoration?
Restoring nature basically means removing the different pressures put on specific ecosystems. This could be putting a stop to logging in forests so they're allowed to reach old-growth status, blocking drainage to restore peatlands and wetlands, removing dams from rivers to enable fish stocks and other flora and fauna to return, or banning fishing for areas at sea.
Up to now, the EU had not legislated on the specific issue, calling on member states to voluntarily set targets but this has largely failed.
"Our current efforts to protect nature in the EU are not sufficient. We are not succeeding in halting this loss," Sabien Leemans, senior biodiversity policy officer at WWF EU, told Euronews.
Peatlands and freshwater ecosystems have been particularly impacted. Around half of peatlands in the EU are degraded, some so drastically that they have been lost. In Germany, for instance, only 5% of near-natural peatlands remain.
Voluntary vs legally-binding targets
What experts want from the Commission are legally-binding targets for nature restoration to be carried out in at least 15% of EU land area, 15% of sea area as well as 15% of river length by 2030.
"This is important because what we really have now is this window of opportunity — this decade — both for tackling nature loss and for tackling climate change. We need to do the bulk of the restoration actions by 2030 and not postpone too much to 2040 or 2050," Leemans said.
"There is big potential, and it could really be a game-changer," she argued.
Member states, NGOs stress, should have leeway when it comes to which areas they want to focus on as long as it covers 15% of their territory, although the Commission should have oversight to ensure compliance. The key is that measures need to be implemented fast.
"As long as you put the right measures in place, then we think that should be enough that your obligation has been fulfilled," Moroz emphasised. "Some of these ecosystems will need some time to recover, others will recover exceptionally fast. We know that when you remove the barriers in a river, it takes a year for life to come back."
But studies have shown that in rewetted wetlands, carbon storage two decades after restoration remains lower than in pristine wetlands. Some restored saltmarshes will need more than a century to reach the carbon accumulation rates of their natural counterparts.
The Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament is also calling for this 15% target, with a rise to 30% target by 2040.
As for the legally-binding part, it's fairly explanatory. "We, NGOs, should be able to bring member states, for example, to court where the target has not been met," Moroz argued.
Agriculture and forestry pushing back
Not everybody is enthused, however. Restoring nature might mean putting a stop to human, and economic, activity in some areas including agriculture, logging and fishing.
"There is a lot of pushback from certain groups that are trying to misuse the war in Ukraine and food security arguments to push back against this and Farm to Fork commitments — that aim to make our agriculture more resilient and taking more into account biodiversity — saying the Nature Restoration (Regulation) should be postponed because this is not a priority anymore," Leemans said.
"What we have been seeing is that both the agricultural sector, but also the forest sector, have been actively lobbying against legally binding nature restoration targets, saying voluntary targets would be sufficient," she said.
Experts have put forward plenty of other benefits to boost their argument. Sure, restoring degraded terrestrial natural habitats in the EU could remove about 300 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year — "more or less the greenhouse gas emissions from Benelux counties," Leemans pointed out — but it could have plenty of health and economic benefits as well.
Better quality nature that can trap and store more carbon could lead to better air quality which would likely translate to fewer people suffering from respiratory diseases and deaths.
WWF also estimates that ecosystem services delivered by biodiversity – from crop pollination and water purification to flood protection and carbon sequestration – are worth an estimated $125-140 trillion (€102-115 trillion) per year.
More concretely, the NGO said that about 4.4 million jobs in the EU are currently directly dependent on the maintenance of healthy ecosystems with a significant share linked to Natura 2000 sites — a network of nature protection areas in the EU.
"Closing the funding gap that’s needed for the effective management of the network could generate 500,000 additional jobs," it said.
For Moroz, Brussels committing to legally binding 15% targets would have an added benefit.
"It definitely will give the EU the credibility to drive more ambitious global agreement" including its plan to ban imports of food and agriculture commodities linked to deforestation.