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Euroviews. The EU and national leaders must act urgently to protect Europe’s nature

A Great Blue Heron takes flight at the University of Ghent botanical garden in Ghent, 27 April 2024
A Great Blue Heron takes flight at the University of Ghent botanical garden in Ghent, 27 April 2024 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Tine Heyse, Deputy Mayor, City of Ghent
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

We know from experience that European rules lead to action. The Nature Restoration Law is legislation that benefits anyone and everyone living in Europe, Deputy Mayor of Ghent Tine Heyse writes.

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The Nature Restoration Law is of great importance to Ghent and Europe’s other major cities.

It is now sitting before the European Council after intense negotiations resulted in a version of the law on which all political parties and European institutions could reach a consensus. 

On Friday morning, ministers are still discussing whether to go ahead with the vote at the upcoming Environment Council, but the time for discussion is over. We have a text that was formally agreed upon by ministers and MEPs in November last year.

This continued delay threatens the health of our citizens, resilience of our cities, and the very future of democracy itself.

For the Council to fail at this juncture to legislate on such a pressing issue would be a deep disappointment for cities and a huge blow to the European democratic process.

Europe’s national leaders must gain the courage of our local leaders and follow through on the commitments that we have collectively made to nature. 

This is bigger than a 'nice extra'

In Ghent, nature restoration is not a "nice extra" — it is integral to adapting to the effects of climate change and ensuring the wellbeing of local people, as well as boosting the economy and agriculture. 

My city is increasingly seeing long spells of drought alternating with fiercely heavy rainfall that leads to flooding. For us, nature restoration is a way to ensure that we can retain excess water in times of plenty and keep the city cool when the sun takes over. 

We are working to turn the city into a giant sponge by unsealing the soil and planting trees — a movement catching on across European cities like Copenhagen, Hamburg and Groningen — taking up pavements in squares, parks, gardens and streets so that excess rainwater can soak into the city rather than creating floods. 

We know from experience that European rules lead to action. Without European regulations and directives, we would never have seen the current level of progress on clean air and fresh water around Europe. 
A boy practices his balance on a strap placed between two trees at a park in Ghent, June 2020
A boy practices his balance on a strap placed between two trees at a park in Ghent, June 2020AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Our five "green poles", each spanning at least 200 hectares, are being developed together with nature conservation groups, neighbouring municipalities, and the Flemish government to ensure that locals have areas to cool down, play, exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. They are connected with the city centre through waterways with broad green banks.

The Nature Restoration Law is an invaluable framework for supporting these local goals. Take, for example, the clear ambitions the law sets for minimum tree cover.  

Trees are essential for keeping our cities liveable in the future, as they provide cooling during heat waves, offer shade, and improve people's well-being. Protecting and planting trees in cities is a simple measure with significant impacts, which the Nature Restoration Law would boost all around Europe.

It is clear people are on board

We know from experience that European rules lead to action. Without European regulations and directives, we would never have seen the current level of progress on clean air and fresh water around Europe. 

Where the EU fails to legislate, as with the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy — still far from being met anywhere in Europe — national leaders are apt to defer action.

The Nature Restoration Law ... is a way to protect the increasingly fragile ecosystem upon which our survival depends. It is a way to enrich the places where we live. It is a way to bring communities, civil society and businesses together around common values. 
A neon sign reads 'Paradise' at an installation at the Ghent Floralies in Ghent, April 2022
A neon sign reads 'Paradise' at an installation at the Ghent Floralies in Ghent, April 2022AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Despite our high ambitions, local leaders often require the backing of European objectives to secure the resources necessary to achieve our shared goals. 

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It is clear that people are on board for urban greening. Our "facade gardens" initiative has had thousands of applications from people that see the value in beautifying our streets, providing cooling and supporting biodiversity. Green roofs are also increasingly popular with residents.

The threat posed by biodiversity loss is just as daunting as the related threat of climate change, as a biodiverse city is vital for liveable temperatures, food supply, clean water, and flood protection. That means that it is not enough to have green spaces — they must be managed in a "creature-friendly" manner.

No brakes — hit the gas instead

We are not alone in recognising the central role of nature and biodiversity in mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change and the importance of the Nature Restoration Law in restoring our ecosystems and achieving the EU climate objectives. 

As the Chair of the Eurocities Environment Forum, we are in touch with numerous large European cities that have precisely the same concerns and are working daily to protect and enhance nature locally. We need to see European regulations to back up our efforts.

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It is also vital in this context to draw attention to the false opposition that is being manufactured between the interests of urban and agricultural communities. Our sustainable food strategy, "Gent en Garde," is just one example of how cities’ climate and environment targets boost the prosperity of Belgium’s farmers. 

Through it, we support initiatives such as a short food supply chain platform that puts shops and restaurants directly in contact with producers from our region. This way, the market for these producers expands, and buyers get a closer relationship with the producers and the products. 

It includes many other actions that confront the supposed divide between city dwellers and food producers. At over 40 locations in Ghent, locals can pick fruit in public spaces, and we have given over 10 hectares of city-owned land for sustainable agriculture, fostering local food production that is both environmentally friendly and supportive of biodiversity.

The Nature Restoration Law is legislation that benefits anyone and everyone living in Europe.

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It is a way to protect the increasingly fragile ecosystem upon which our survival depends. It is a way to enrich the places where we live. It is a way to bring communities, civil society and businesses together around common values. 

As a city, the last thing we want is to hit a pause button for the Nature Restoration Law. On the contrary, we need the European Union to accelerate it.

Tine Heyse is Deputy Mayor for Environment, Climate and Housing of Ghent and Eurocities Environment Forum Chair.

At Euronews, we believe all views matter. Contact us at view@euronews.com to send pitches or submissions and be part of the conversation.

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