We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

Abbeyleix Bog, a bog in Co Laois recovering from degradation

Green MEPs 'very' concerned by opposition to plan for restoring nature and rewetting Irish bogs

Two Green MEPs from Ireland and Germany gave an in-depth interview to The Journal on the proposed Nature Restoration Law.

“UNPRECEDENTED” OPPOSITION TO a proposed European law seeking to protect and restore nature is “very concerning”, Green MEPs have said.

In December, countries from around the world came to a landmark agreement on nature at the COP15 for biodiversity, promising to protect 30% of the planet and 30% of degraded ecosystems by 2030.

The European Union came to the negotiation table in Montreal with an important piece of proposed legislation in its back pocket: a Nature Restoration Law that would be the first law of its kind to enshrine targets across the bloc for restoring ecosystems, habitats and species on land and at sea.

However, pushback against the law is threatening whether it will pass through the EU Parliament, which it is feared could have significant consequences for nature, farmers who rely on the land, and the EU’s credibility in international negotiations.

In an interview with The Journal, Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan and German MEP Jutta Paulus, both Greens, outlined how restoring ecosystems will help both nature and humans – and what is at stake if that does not occur.

‘You cannot run an economy if you don’t have clean air to breathe’

The Nature Restoration Law isn’t just about nature – “it is about us”, said Paulus, the lead negotiator on the proposed legislation for the Greens-European Free Alliance political grouping.

“It is about people as a civilisation. You cannot build an economy if you don’t have clean water. You cannot run an economy if you don’t have clean air to breathe. You cannot grow food if your soils get degraded and are no longer fertile,” she said.

“All of these ecosystem services are the basis of our civilisation. This is why it is so important to now to work to restore them.”

The law is concerned with all types of ecosystems – grasslands and forests, rivers and lakes, peatlands and agricultural land, and towns and cities too.

It would, for the first time, set legally-binding restoration targets for ecosystems that must cover at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea area by 2030 and all ecosystems that are in need of restoration by 2050.

Much of the public attention given to the law so far has centred around its aims for restoring peatlands, which have been seriously degraded – only 10% of Europe’s peatlands are currently considered to be in good condition.

Paulus described peatlands – which provide a home for many types of insects and birds and trap carbon in the ground instead of it being released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas – as humans’ “ally” in fighting the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. 

“10% of species globally are dependent on healthy wetlands and peatlands. 60% of birds use wetlands and peatlands either as breeding sites or as resting sites when they go migrating,” she said.

“They need to take breaks and for that they need wetlands and peatlands because they can find food there and also shelter. They will be protected from predators like foxes for example – foxes don’t like to swim.

30842903-f55d-44e3-9f29-2f42278e717f MEP Grace O'Sullivan, Minister Pippa Hackett, MEP Jutta Paulus and team members of the Abbeyleix Bog project in Co Laois

“Peatlands are also our most important store of organic carbon. Peatlands cover 3%, of the land area of the globe but they store twice as much carbon as all forests combined.

“When you drain peatland and the air comes in contact with the peat, the microbes start eating up that organic matter. If you have one hectare of drained peatland in agricultural use, it emits up to 40 tonnes of CO2 per year, whereas a natural peatland accumulates four to eight tonnes of CO2 per year. It’s a huge difference.”


However, the prospect of ‘rewetting’ peatlands has caused immense concern for farmers who work on land that was previously drained.

In Ireland, the Irish Farmers Association has campaigned against the law, with IFA President Tim Cullinan suggesting it would have a “negative effect on the rural economy and the future of Irish farming”.

It’s also caused a rupture within the European Parliament, particularly coming from the European People’s Party, which is the political grouping that Fine Gael MEPs sit in.

EPP/Fine Gael MEP Colm Markey has stated that he would not support the law in its current form.

“The current legislation pits food production against the environment. It puts them on the opposite end of the same spectrum. We need to enable biodiversity to flourish in an active productive model,” Markey said.

“If we don’t do this, it quite simply won’t work. We need to stop legislating, stop lecturing and stop pontificating. We need to empower, enable and work with. That’s how we get real change in agriculture.”

However, in the same debate, EU Commissioner for Financial Stability Mairead McGuiness – also a member of Fine Gael, and formerly an agricultural journalist before entering politics – defended the law, saying that it will “help” rather than “harm” farmers. 

“Without the actions set out in our proposal for nature restoration and the sustainable use of pesticides, farmers’ livelihoods and, indeed, food security will be put at risk. Again, this is what the science is telling us,” the Commissioner said.

“These proposals are about ensuring that there is a future for our farms, our farmers and those who work in the food supply chain. Our proposals aim to help farmers, not harm them.”

The issue has also been raised in the Oireachtas this week, with Rural TDs criticising the legislation and calling for a debate in the Dáil.

Fine Gael Senator Sean Kyne said: “It is a concern. We have gone full circle here. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were grants to drain land, clear scrub and improve. We have now gone full circle and it is difficult.”

“Rewetting is particularly concerning because, if one landowner were to close off drains for rewetting, it would have a knock-on effect on waters upstream. This cannot be done piecemeal. It has to be done as part of a plan. There needs to be an initial focus on State-owned land,” Kyne said.

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher has also spoken out against he law, saying that rewetting land that was drained for agriculture would “imperil farms and livelihoods and further drive up the cost of land”.

The EPP is the largest political grouping in the parliament with 175 seats, and its opposition to the law is creating significant concern for proponents.

“We are very concerned because EPP has announced that they want to kill the law,” Paulus said, describing a potential block as “unprecedented”.

“It’s of course very important to compensate the land owners, because they cannot just say ‘let’s forget about our income and we will just rewet our peatland and stop farming’ – that’s not the solution, of course,” she said.

“But it is very short-sighted to say, ‘well, we best do nothing’.

If we do nothing, our ecosystems keep on degrading, and in 10 or 15 years time, the farmers won’t have any income at all because the soil will be so degraded.

“I think what the EPP is doing by, let’s say, deepening the ditch and saying ‘them’ against ‘us’, that doesn’t help. That doesn’t help in the crisis we’re in.”

Paulus said that “even going beyond this important legislation, what we are seeing is that on the European level, EPP is moving further towards the far right”.

“Looking away, neglecting the problem, doesn’t make the problem go away. Certainly not.”

On the international stage, failing to make progress on protecting and restoring natural ecosystems risks hurting the EU’s credibility in future negotiations.

To get the biodiversity agreement over the line at COP15 in December, it was “vital that we could show we are already negotiating a law to put this into European law”, Paulus said.

Given that Europe has destroyed large swathes of nature over the course of centuries, while other continents still have some “vast stretches of wilderness”, Paulus outlined that the “global south especially said, ‘well, you cannot come to us and say, hey, you have to protect and restore and not do anything at home’. But we could say, well, we are doing something, look, we are bringing forward legislation.”

“Therefore, I think on the international level, it would be a fatal signal if this law were stopped because then we would not be a reliable negotiation partner anymore. And of course, Brazil or India or China would say why should we do something? If Europe just scrapped it, why should we do something?”

Irish biodiversity

Journal Media’s investigative platform Noteworthy reported earlier this year that Ireland is faring terribly at managing protected nature sites.

Over half of Ireland’s native plants have declined since the 1950s.

A recent Citizens’ Assembly on biodiversity loss made 159 recommendations to the State on protecting biodiversity and calling for constitutional changes to ensure people have a right to a clean, healthy and safe environment and to embed protections for nature into the constitution. 

Irish MEP Grace O’Sullivan described the result of the assembly as “very positive”.

“When the facts were laid bare, those citizens realised that we have to take targeted measures within certain timelines,” O’Sullivan said. “The UN has already said this has to be the decade where we make these changes, and the recommendations there would definitely fold in very nicely with the [EU] legislation.”

653Citzens Assembly Trip Members of the Citizens' Assembly visiting Turvey Nature Reserve in June 2022 Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

O’Sullivan said that beyond rewetting agricultural land, a focus in Ireland should be on restoring land under public ownership, such as through Bord na Móna and Coillte.

The MEP pointed to Abbeyleix Bog in Co Laois as an example of a successful restoration project, describing its benefits for carbon sequestration and biodiversity but also for the health and wellbeing of the local community.

She said that an impact assessment of the legislation has already taken place but that she would also support further in-depth assessment of the local impacts in Ireland to “support farmers to understand how they can benefit”.

“We are in a fight against time. That’s very, very clear. We know that many farmers are already working to enhance nature and restore degraded habitats on their own farmland,” O’Sullivan said.

“We need it at scale now and that’s why for me, the public land owned by Bord na Mona and Coillte, everything should be done to make sure that those ecosystems and habitats are working really effectively in order to give us those ecosystem services, those benefits.

“That is the low-hanging fruit. Then, the farmer lands after that, that’s where we need to ensure that farmers feel that they’re listened to and that and that their contribution can be rewarded.”

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel