EU adopts “Nature Restoration Law”

Natural river

This river in the Swiss Jura is still relatively natural, but this is not the case with most European rivers. © Markus Thoenen/ iStock

When biodiversity declines and habitats degrade, this not only harms nature, but ultimately also endangers human livelihoods. In order to protect Europe’s threatened habitats, the EU passed the “Nature Restoration Act” on June 17, 2024. According to this, 20 percent of European land and sea areas are to be renaturalized by 2030. The member states are now required to develop and implement concrete action plans.

When people are stressed, they suddenly look completely different. The same is true of ecosystems – this is why many lakes collapse in the summer, algae sprout and the fish and other animals living in them die prematurely. But while the lakes often recover the following year, other ecosystem damage is irreversible. This is particularly true of the man-made destruction of natural habitats – from deforestation to sealing large areas. But the remaining habitats are also degraded by climate change, human activities and pollution. According to Greenpeace, more than 80 percent of habitats in Europe alone are in poor condition and one in five species living there is threatened with extinction.

“Nature Restoration Act” adopted

To ensure that European habitats do not suffer further in the future, the environment ministers of the European Union passed the “Nature Restoration Act” on June 17, 2024. This law obliges all EU member states to return their national ecosystems to a near-natural state so that they can recover in the long term and sustainably. In this way, the EU hopes to stop and reverse the loss of its biodiversity. By 2030, at least 20 percent of the land and sea areas in the union are to be restored.

The EU Climate Council defines seven species and habitats that are worth protecting: pollinating insects, forests, agricultural land, cities, free-flowing rivers, maritime ecosystems and so-called “areas of particular need for protection” such as moors or dunes. For each of the areas, the environment ministers have set concrete and legally binding renaturation goals in the law – for example, a total of 25,000 kilometers of Europe’s free-flowing rivers are to be restored so that they are passable for fish. Ultimately, at least 90 percent of the weakening habitats are to be rebuilt by 2050.

Two years for concrete implementation measures

However, the EU has not specified any concrete measures for the member states. “While the objectives of the EU law are precisely defined and binding, the steps to achieve them must be decided and implemented in detail by the European countries,” explains Josef Settele from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ). The reason: the landscapes in Portugal differ massively from those of Croatia, for example. Accordingly, the countries’ ecosystems require different renaturation measures. Germany, France and the other member states now have two years to submit their national plan to the EU Commission. From this point on, they will regularly report to the EU Commission on their progress.

A long-term task for member states will also be to maintain the restored areas in the long term. This is not always an easy task. “One should take into account the influence of forces beyond one’s control, such as natural disasters, which could lead to a deterioration in the condition of ecosystems. Habitat changes caused by climate change could also occur,” warn the EU environment ministers in the regulation.

Agricultural cooperation is crucial

According to Guy Pe’er from the UFZ, cooperation between politics and agriculture is also crucial for the law’s success. “Intensive agriculture is still one of the main causes of the loss of biodiversity in Europe,” explains the researcher. In the current version, however, measures can be suspended if agriculture otherwise faces a loss of yield. According to Settele, this is due to the idea that only agricultural production with the help of fertilizers and pesticides is promising. “But the goals of agriculture and renaturation could be better linked so that both sides benefit,” comments Pe’er. For example, agriculture also benefits from healthy soils and growing bee populations.

The newly issued regulation is part of the EU’s Green New Deal and also aims to mitigate climate change. “This is a great success for nature conservation, as we are finally moving towards considering entire landscapes and are coming significantly closer to integrating land use, climate protection and the preservation of biodiversity. Now it is important to implement the new regulation quickly in Germany,” says Settele. But according to him and his colleagues, passing the law alone is not enough. Above all, the efforts of the EU states and cooperation with business and agriculture will determine the success of the renaturation measures in Europe.

Source: Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ); Law on the Restoration of Nature

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