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A forest in Estonia Alamy Stock Photo

Explainer: What is the Nature Restoration Law and why was it controversial?

Habitats and ecosystems will be revitalised and protected under the law, which was originally proposed two years ago.

EU COUNTRIES HAVE voted to green-light the Nature Restoration Law, a piece of legislation that will set targets for restoring degraded land to help the environment and climate.

Habitats and ecosystems will be revitalised and protected under the law, which was originally proposed two years ago.

Most of the legislation that passes through the EU rarely becomes a topic of public conversation but the Nature Restoration Law emerged as a topic of debate in many member states, including Ireland.

So what is it, how did we get here, and why was it controversial?

The Nature Restoration Law

Currently, more than 80% of assessed European habitats are considered to be in poor condition.

Under the Nature Restoration Law, EU member states will need to restore at least 30% of habitats in poor condition by 2030, 60% by 2040, and 90% by 2050.

That spans across lots of different ecosystems in both urban and rural areas. “The regulation covers a range of terrestrial, coastal and freshwater, forest, agricultural and urban ecosystems, including wetlands, grasslands, forests, rivers and lakes, as well as marine ecosystems, including seagrass and sponge and coral beds,” says the EU Council

“Member states will put measures aiming to enhance two out of these three indicators: grassland butterflies’ population, stock of organic carbon in cropland mineral soils and share of agricultural land with high-diversity landscape features.

“Increasing forest birds’ population and making sure there is no net loss on urban green spaces and tree canopy cover until end of 2030 are also key measures of this new law.

“Member states will put in place measures aiming to restore drained peatlands and help plant at least three billion additional trees by 2030 at the EU level. In order to turn at least 25,000 km of rivers into free-flowing rivers by 2030, member states will take measures to remove man-made barriers to the connectivity of surface waters.”

Once an area is brought into good condition, countries must ensure it does not significantly deteriorate again.

Each member state will be required to adopt a national restoration plan that sets out how it intends to contribute to meeting the targets.

Restoring nature can help to protect against the impacts of climate change, which is a rapidly escalating threat to humanity.

Restoring river flood plains, for instance, can reduce exposure to flooding, while planting trees in urban areas can help cities to cope with higher temperatures. Peatlands store nearly 30% of global soil carbon and restoring drained peatlands could save up to 25% of Europe’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. 

The law will also look at urban ecosystems, which make up 22% of the EU’s land area. It aims to increase green spaces in cities, towns and suburbs with targets that ensure there is no net loss of green space by 2030 and an increase in the amount of tree cover in cities.

How did we get here?

The European Commission first proposed the Nature Restoration Law in June 2022.

Before it went to the full Parliament, it was discussed in detail by a smaller portion of MEPs at a committee stage.

During that stage, there were divisions among MEPs on the proposal, with the European People’s Party (the political grouping that Fine Gael is affiliated with in Europe) notably backing away from it.

After months of talks, the Parliament’s environment committee (ENVI) of 88 MEPs was split down the middle on the law – 44 in favour and 44 against.

The proposal required a majority to receive the committee’s approval. Failing to reach that threshold, the committee’s formal recommendation to the Parliament was to reject the proposed law, though MEPs were free to choose how they wished to vote on the matter.

A full plenary session of the Parliament was held in July 2023, where 336 MEPs voted in favour of the NRL, including all of Ireland’s 13 MEPs (even those in Fine Gael/the EPP). However, that approval only came after a number of amendments were passed that were seen by environmentalists as having watered down some of the original ambition of the proposal.

Negotiations took place between the Parliament and the Council, which represents the governments of member states, to arrive at a compromised version of the text that was put before a plenary session of MEPs again in February of this year.

It passed the Parliament again with 324 MEPs in favour, including 11 of Ireland’s 13 (this time, Sinn Féin’s Chris MacManus and Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan voted against it).

The law then needed the approval of a Council meeting of environment ministers, which was held up by pushback from countries like Hungary, Poland and Italy.

However, a majority of countries at the meeting this morning voted in its favour, giving it the green light it needed.

Why was it controversial?

The law faced strong opposition from some politicians and lobbyists who didn’t want to see the proposals come to fruition.

Much of the opposition centred around agriculture and concerns from farmers about whether or to what extent the law could impact their productivity or necessitate previously-drained farmland to be rewetted. 

Within the EU, the EPP was behind much of the political fire, pulling out from talks or withdrawing support at key moments during the legislative fire. The grouping sowed some disinformation about the law – like when it posted on social media that the law would turn an entire city in Finland into a forest and wrote: “Don’t kick Santa out of his house.”

Over the last year, farming lobby groups staged protests in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, including Ireland, against a range of climate policies like the Nature Restoration Law they argued could hurt their business. 

What exactly does it mean for agricultural land?

EU member states will be requested to take measures to:

  • restore 30% of drained peatlands under agricultural use by 2030 and by 50% by 2050 (but a lower percentage can apply for countries that are “heavily affected”)
  • enhance carbon stock in mineral soils
  • increase high-diversity landscape features like hedgerows, flower strips, fallow land, ponds and fruit trees.

There is a provision in the legislation that means measures for agricultural ecosystems an be temporarily suspended under “exceptional circumstances”.

Proponents of the law have emphasised that if climate change is left unchecked and habitats continue to be degraded, farmers will be some of the worst-hit workers.

After the Council meeting approved the law this morning, Ireland’s Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said that restoration of nature “has the potential to strengthen Europe and to provide additional income streams for farmers, foresters, fishers and other landowners”.

“Tens of thousands of farmers across the country are already taking part in schemes, projects and programmes to restore nature,” he said.

“Farmers are the frontline heroes in climate action. We want to work collaboratively, to restore nature and to ensure that farmers and rural communities are well rewarded and can thrive. This is what the NRL is all about.”

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