New EU regulation: Is Europe going wild again?

New EU regulation: Is Europe going wild again?

Could the “Nature Restoration Act” really help European ecosystems return to their original state? © Leonsbox/ iStock

Much of Europe's nature is tamed, crossed by fields, railway lines and motorways. But a new EU regulation is now intended to ensure that Europe becomes wilder again and at least some ecosystems that have been modified by humans return to their original state. If the EU Parliament approves the regulation at the beginning of 2024, then it would have a good chance of meeting its goals, as researchers have now determined. However, as is often the case, what is crucial for the success of the law is a committed approach to its implementation in the member states.

European nature is weakening. Human influences such as agriculture, the draining of moors and the straightening of rivers have now resulted in 80 percent of the local habitats and 70 percent of the soil being in poor condition. In addition, ten percent of all bee and butterfly species are threatened with extinction. But now a new EU regulation, the so-called “Nature Restoration Act”, is intended to help bring back Europe’s lost nature. If the European Parliament votes in favor of the law at the beginning of 2024, it will officially come into force after a long bureaucratic process.

That's what it says

The “Nature Restoration Law” (NRL) would oblige EU member states to renaturalize at least 20 percent of their land and sea areas by 2030, i.e. to reverse harmful human influences there. In concrete terms, this means, for example, rewetting drained moors, creating more green spaces in cities and removing barriers that currently prevent European rivers from flowing freely, including dams and weirs. In total, around 25,000 kilometers of free-flowing water will be created in the European Union by 2030.

Furthermore, the NRL envisages reducing or even completely eliminating harmful pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture. In this way, the populations of important pollinators such as bees should recover in the long term. Other measures such as the increasing connectivity of habitats and a target of dead wood in natural forests are intended to stimulate biological diversity in other animal and plant species. As EU member states gradually increase their restoration efforts, all ecosystems that require such restoration should have been made wild again by 2050.

That's what it does

While all of this sounds like a good thing on paper, can the proposed NRL actually achieve what it sets out to do? Researchers led by Daniel Hering from the University of Duisburg-Essen have now examined this in detail. To do this, they first analyzed the previous successes of other European environmental directives and then, based on this, assessed the NRL's prospects of success. Among other things, they found that previous regulations often failed due to formal aspects - such as vague wording of the legal text or hurdles in implementation in the individual member states.

But the current regulation could be different: “By constructing the NRL, the EU Commission avoids several pitfalls that often hinder the implementation of European policies and regulations,” explains Hering. “The regulation defines clear goals and timelines and sets out the implementation steps. In addition, like a directive, it does not have to be formally implemented into national law, which saves time.” So the legal text itself gets a thumbs up from research. But when it comes to implementation in the individual member states, the prospects could be significantly worse. “While the goals 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, and most of them are voluntary,” explains Hering’s colleague Josef Settele from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ).

In addition, the renaturation measures should also take place on areas that already belong to private individuals such as farmers or foresters. Not only is money needed to implement the measures, but also a lot of persuasion on site. But perhaps the interests of conservationists and business people can even be easily combined. “The goals of agriculture and restoration could be linked so that both sides can benefit. Agriculture benefits directly from healthy soils and recovering pollinator populations as well as from an improved landscape water balance,” explains senior author Guy Pe'er from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research.

Source: University of Duisburg-Essen; Specialist article: Science, doi: 10.1126/science.adk1658

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