Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 1°C

FactCheck: Will the EU Nature Restoration Law turn Lapland’s capital into a forest?

“Don’t kick Santa out of his house,” a tweet by the European People’s Party begins.

CLAIMS BY THE European People’s Party (EPP) that a proposed Nature Restoration Law would turn a small city in Finland into a forest have been criticised as being nonsense by the Irish Wildlife Trust, among others.

Last month, the EU’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee considering the proposed Nature Restoration Law reached an even split, with 44 MEPs voting in favour and 44 voting against it.

The European Parliament, the major EU law-making body, is expected to debate and vote on the proposed law next week.

Despite controversy, often over the issue of rewetting bogs, there has been broad support for the Nature Restoration Law among Irish TDs, who this week voted overwhelmingly in favour of developing and supporting such regulations.

The EPP describes itself as a centre-right group as well as being the largest grouping in the European Parliament. Fine Gael is part of the EPP and its MEPs sit within this grouping.

“Don’t kick Santa out of his house,” a tweet by the EPP begins.

“The #NatureRestoration Law has good intentions but bad design.

“For example, it would turn the entire city of Rovaniemi into a forest and other nature areas.

“Withdraw the #NatureRestoration bill!”

Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland, Finland’s most northern province, and, according to the city’s own marketing, the “official hometown of Santa Claus”.

The Journal was unable to verify or debunk any claims about the location of Santa’s hometown.

A follow-up tweet appears to explain how the EPP imagines the law might work.

An image shows a large box, with the words, “Total land area of Rovaniemi 7,581 km2”.

A colour code at the bottom left-hand corner explains that the green area of that box, which makes up the vast bulk of it, represents “forest and semi-natural areas, wetlands”, while three other colors represent “agricultural areas”, “other artificial surfaces”, and then the smallest portion, in blue “urban fabric (residential areas)”.

A dashed red area is also marked, overlapping these non-forested areas. “An increase of a 5% requirement for additional green spaces by the nature restoration law,” the tweet reads.

In other words: Rovaniemi is already more than 95% forest. If the EU requires that it turns an additional 5% of the area into green spaces, there won’t be anything other than forest left.

However, is that what the proposed law actually says?

The Nature Restoration Law

The proposed regulation on nature restoration is available on the website of the European Commission, and while one clause does bear resemblance to the claim made in the tweet, there are significant differences.

Article 6 of the regulations deal with the “restoration of urban ecosystems”.

Part 2 of this begins: “Member States shall ensure that there is an increase in the total national area of urban green space in cities and in towns and suburbs of at least 3% of the total area of cities and of towns and suburbs in 2021, by 2040, and at least 5% by 2050.“

Would such a law require the demolition of Rovaniemi?

Total area

The tweet by the EPP implies that the city of Rovaniemi must increase its urban green space to make up an additional 5% of the area. However, this is not what the regulation stipulates.

Rather, it says Finland as a whole must ensure that an additional area equal to 5% of the total area of its cities, towns and suburbs must become urban green space by 2050.

It does not stipulate that these developments must be distributed evenly, so long as the combined sum of new green urban areas equal 5% of the combined area of cities, towns and suburbs by 2050.

It could be the case that all of that new urban green space is established in Helsinki, so long as it adds up to a space equal to 5% of Finland’s overall urban area.

However, this is technical point. Other issues cast doubt on the EPP’s claim.

Urban areas

Rovaniemi is the name of both a municipality (slightly smaller in area than the Island of Ireland), as well as a city (with a population a bit bigger than Drogheda), though both the municipality and the city within it are managed as a single entity.

In the EPP’s illustration, the entire municipality is represented, including its sprawling forests, as well as the city itself, which takes up less than 1% of the total area.

While there is the potential for confusion when referring to the city or the municipality (something that also occurs in Ireland regarding towns in counties of the same name) the proposed regulations refer to “urban green space in cities and in towns and suburbs” that counted toward a country’s obligations.

In a normal interpretation, this means the city of Rovaniemi obliges Finland to make an urban green area 5% the size of that small sliver of blue on the EPP’s illustration, not 5% of the size of the entire municipality.

In Irish terms, it would be like if the government pledges to ensure at least 5% of Tipperary Town is made into green areas, and someone were to argue that this means that all the buildings in the town must be torn down, because 5% of County Tipperary is really quite a large area.

Legal interpretations

However, it is regularly the case in legal documents that otherwise familiar terms do not carry their normal meanings, and the definitions in the proposed Nature Restoration Law shows that this appears to be the case with terms such as “urban green space areas” and “towns and suburbs.”

Rather than being areas with a certain population density, “towns and suburbs” instead appears to refer to administrative units where “less than 50 % of the population lives in an urban centre, but at least 50 % of the population lives in an urban cluster”

This is sometimes referred to as the DEGURBA (Degree of urbanisation) classification.

In other words, the wilderness of Rovaniemi is in some sense considered a “town or suburb”, not just in spite of almost no one living there, but directly because so few people live there.

Counterintuitively, if the forested area was more heavily populated, it could be considered a rural area.

This also has an odd effect on how Irish areas counted. Donegal, Westport, Letterkenny, Carrick-on-shannon, Kilkenny, and Tuam are grouped in with rural areas as a DEGURBA category 1, according to 2022 data submitted by the state.

Meanwhile, the administrative areas of Athenry-Oranmore and Connemara South are marked as category 3, the same as urban areas in central Dublin or Cork.

Meanwhile “urban green space” simply means all green areas, including forests, as found within “cities or towns and suburbs”, even if they are not in what would normally be considered an urban area.

However, given these odd definitions, would the EPP’s tweet be correct?

The legislation says: “Member States shall ensure that there is an increase in the total national area of urban green space in cities and in towns and suburbs of at least 3 % of the total area of cities and of towns and suburbs in 2021, by 2040, and at least 5 % by 2050.”

This could be interpreted to mean that an area 5% the size of the heavily-forested municipality of Rovaniemi will have to be turned into green space.

However, another, craftier solution also presents itself.

Rovaniemi could simply expand its borders to include more sparsely populated areas within its administrative area. For example, it could expand to include parts or perhaps even all of Kittilä, a huge municipality with a density of less than 0.8 people per square kilometre.

So long as a substantial proportion of the population in this theoretical enlarged Rovaniemi are in an “urban cluster” (which should be achievable, given that the city population of Rovaniemi is many times the combined rural population of both Rovaniemi and Kittilä), that newly claimed forest would technically be considered a “town or suburb”, and therefore be an “urban green space”.

It is not evident from the proposed law that there is any way to prevent such schemes where countries simply shift administrative boundaries to create more “urban green space” under a technicality.

However, rather than setting impossible targets on urban areas as the EPP implies, this describes a situation where targets are easily achievable though sly administrative maneuvers.

An impact assessment report shows that Ireland already has about 10% of its “Cities, Towns and suburbs” as green areas, despite being rated the lowest for this in the EU.

 A 2022 survey by the Central Statistics Office found 79% of participants asked if there are enough green spaces and biodiversity in urban areas answered ‘no’. A further 11% did not state an opinion.


False. There is nothing in the proposed Nature Restoration Law that will require entire cities to be turned into forests.

This piece was amended on 18 July, 2023 to add a section clarifying the legal status of spaces such as ‘urban green areas’ and ‘towns and suburbs’.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.