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11th July, 2023. Dozens of farmers with tractors protest against the nature restoration law outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, July 11, 2023. Alamy Stock Photo
VOICES

Opinion We've just had the hottest week on record and we're cheering a gutted EU Nature bill?

Lorna Bogue says the Nature Restoration Law debacle in the EU this week should be viewed as the climate failure it is.

LAST UPDATE | 13 Jul 2023

FOR THE SECOND time this year, Sean Kelly MEP has gutted climate legislation in the European Parliament in the economic interest of the agri-food lobbyists surrounding his EPP group.

In Brussels in January he forced Ciarán Cuffe MEP, the Green senior parliamentary hurler, to accept demands effectively neutering the legislative effect of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.

Cuffe had to put a brave face on a pyrrhic victory when the vote came in March, with Kelly confidently stating his midnight agreement with Cuffe allowed another decade of inaction on much of Europe’s residential estate.

Déjà vu in Strasbourg this week, when Cuffe described through gritted teeth that “Everyone in Europe benefits” from a severely weakened Nature Restoration Law which gained a slender majority following a similar sellout to Kelly’s centre-right bloc. Fine Gael MEPs’ last-minute declaration of support conversely had a certain swagger, safe in the knowledge that the offending Article 9 of the Law compelling land to be rewetted was to be deleted by amendment.

What consensus?

There is a story we tell ourselves about European politics being based on ‘consensus’. The theory goes that democracy is about finding common ground between groups of MEPs. Rapporteurs like Cuffe are tasked with developing consensus from this starting point. The Nature Restoration Law and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive show this theory does not survive in practice.

Far from ‘consensus’, these are victories for the dominant force in the European political system – industrial lobbyists allergic to any climate action that hits their corporate clients’ pockets.

And they are defeats for those who stake their reputation on advancing climate action at the international level. Sometimes not everyone can be a winner. On questions of climate and the current political economy, there are choices to be made.

Farming lobby groups mounted a successful campaign of disinformation about the Nature Restoration Law striking fear into farmers with reclaimed peatland that they would be compelled to “restore” the land, meaning such lands would have to cease being productive and returned to “nature”. The Irish Farmers’ Association missed the point on the central premise of this argument in that the original version of the NRL was so weak that even the most ambitious of Ireland’s targets could be met by restoring lands already in public hands, notably those of Bord na Móna. But they were right about one thing, the NRL, coming as it did from the comparatively weak European Commission Directorate General for Environment, did not have any new funding attached to it for those affected.

swedish-climate-activist-greta-thunberg-right-and-other-activists-attend-a-demonstration-outside-the-european-parliament-tuesday-july-11-2023-in-strasbourg-eastern-france-protesters-and-legisla Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, right, and other activists attend a demonstration outside the European Parliament, Tuesday, July 11, 2023 ahead of the vote. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

That didn’t stop the IFA and their ecosystem of agents-provocateurs warning of catastrophe anyway, to the extent that Sinn Féin MEPs even saw value in engaging in this manufactured culture war over climate action. It’s all moot now, though. The version of the law that Parliament agreed upon doesn’t reference the rewetting of peatlands, a central issue to anything calling itself a Nature Restoration Law.

Inaction, in action

The official story following the vote in Strasbourg this week is that sense has prevailed, or indeed nature restoration has been “rescued”, in the words of Grace O’Sullivan MEP. The wearied progressive minority in a right-wing parliament held out and something between a totemic and symbolic piece of legislation has been passed to say climate action is winning.

This is a gross misrepresentation of the situation.

The palpable sense of histrionic catharsis emanating from such varied sources as Green Party hack Twitter accounts and other noted barometers of progressive opinion feels forced and emotional rather than strategic and rational. Surely they must know the farming lobby has won this round?

The problem with climate inaction is it is much more difficult to identify when those engaging in it pretend that climate action is happening when in reality it is not. In the wake of the hottest week since records began, the passing of a gutted nature restoration law feels very much like a scorched earth victory. The EPP, Renew and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael MEPs are allowed to wave the green flag and say that they have done something great for climate. Those such as the Green Party who told the electorate they would act as watchdog have instead proven themselves as observant as Ryan Tubridy looking at his own paychecks.

The whole episode should be taken as an example of how not to politicise climate action which is often presented to us as a moral imperative ‘beyond politics’ and a function of consensus. The relevant question is who can actually advance and politicise climate action? We already know from this episode and the collective failure that is our own Climate Act that the political system is incapable of advancing the change necessary in any way that does not manifest itself as a form of eco-austerity. A focus on technological solutions in the private sector has so far proved a damp squib.

In my view putting workers and carers in charge of climate action coordinated by trade unions in democratised workplaces would produce a transformed and decarbonised economy. On the narrower question of “nature restoration” itself, a clear alternative exists in member states surpassing the requirements of the law by themselves. That alternative is the Irish government and local authorities pressing ahead with funded schemes which incentivise rather than compel farmers and landowners to either sell or restore and maintain relevant land, particularly peatlands.

A strange argument for an urban socialist councillor, perhaps, but a more serious one than that presented in disharmonious unity by Seán Kelly and Ciarán Cuffe that a worthless piece of climate legislation is some kind of achievement. A viable politics of climate is one that produces agency among workers and carers rather than disciplining them for not ‘doing the right thing’. It is up to us to build that politics ourselves.

Lorna Bogue is a Cork City Councillor and the An Rabharta Glas – Green Left candidate for the South constituency.

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