EU Nature Restoration Law to Provide Clarity and Consistency

SUMMARY: The Nature Restoration Law is being debated in both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, with an expected adoption by end 2023. It will complement and enhance synergies of existing nature-related legislation. Legally binding, quantifiable targets underpins the law’s ambition for nature restoration.

Transforming Global Ambition into Policy

By the time the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was approved at the end of December’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), a proposal for the Nature Restoration Law was already adopted by the European Commission and beginning to bubble up to the floor of the Environment Council for discussion. Although the negotiation and establishment of the GBF itself was successful, there was still uncertainty about how each country could contribute. With the obligation to achieve 23 outlined targets by 2030 looming, signatories face the pressure of molding and implementing their national policies quickly. 

The Nature Restoration Law is the EU’s attempt to address this seemingly insurmountable challenge. It is a crucial piece of the biodiversity strategy for 2030, and what the EU brought to the table during COP15. The new law will attempt to become more than the sum of its parts by mending the gaps between existing legislation and going beyond what they call for. It is structured similarly to the historic framework, establishing targets that will “contribute to the continuous, long-term and sustained recovery of biodiverse and resilient nature across the EU’s land and sea areas through the restoration of ecosystems” and ensuring that the “restoration measures together shall cover, by 2030, at least 20% of the Union’s land and sea areas and, by 2050, all ecosystems in need of restoration.”

The plan is not only to build upon their existing nature legislation, but also to increase ambition to protect a greater extent of area through legally binding targets. Some of the existing nature-related legislation are directives, like The Birds Directive. It establishes a result that all EU countries must reach – in this case, protecting all of the 500 wild bird species found in the EU — but allows them to decide how they want to approach the issue. Other directives include the Habitats Directive, Water Framework Directive, and Marine Strategy Framework Directive. Insufficient coordination between the directives in addition to the absence of deadlines and specific measures hinder their progress.

The new law will attempt to become more than the sum of its parts by mending the gaps between existing legislation and going beyond what they call for.

Although these directives have the right intention, the path is opaque and lacks general guidance. Member states may struggle to find clarity on how to make an effective strategy, or may pursue it with low ambition. What distinguishes the Nature Restoration Law from prior legislation is that it is a regulation, so it will immediately be a binding legal act that will begin on a set date for every member state. It will be more prescriptive in how member states need to reach the goal. Urgent action is needed as 81% of protected habitats across Europe are in poor condition, pollinating species are in steep decline, and ecosystem services that are valuable to the economy are under threat.

The regulation’s areas of focus include:

  1. Restoration of terrestrial, coastal, and freshwater ecosystems
  2. Restoration of marine ecosystems
  3. Restoration of urban ecosystems
  4. Restoration of the natural connectivity of rivers and natural functions of the related floodplains
  5. Restoration of pollinator populations
  6. Restoration of agricultural ecosystems
  7. Restoration of forest ecosystems

Each focus area for restoration is broken down into different targets – many of which are quantifiable and have specific timeframes. For instance, each member state must have a minimum of 10% urban tree canopy cover in all cities, towns, and suburbs by 2050. For agricultural ecosystems, it calls for restoration of 30% of drained peatlands by 2030 with at least a quarter should be rewetted. It increases to 50% of areas and half rewetted by 2040 and 70% by 2050.

Varying Perspectives

In general, there is support for the proposal from the Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety and Environment Council. Discontent appeared to stem from two points: flexibility and financing. Although it provides more detailed directions for restoration efforts than previous legislation, the law still allows for a tremendous amount of flexibility at the national level. All EU states will be mandated to develop national restoration plans within two years once the measure is adopted. Once plans are designed, the Commission will make an assessment and offer recommendations. This feedback is purely a formality as member states will not have to change them. At the end of 2035, implementation will be reviewed by the Commission to confirm that the intended impacts are produced and submit a report to the Parliament and the Council. 

There are concerns that member states have too much freedom to carry out their own plans. However, there were legitimate arguments that members with certain habitats will not be able to meet the two-year deadline because of the time-consuming process of assessing habitat states, mapping, verifying information, and allocating human and financial resources for projects. 

By the very nature of the EU, there is no choice but to incorporate flexibility into this law; the EU coordinates activities of 27 countries with vastly different political and economic landscapes. For instance, Nordic and Baltic countries have a large forestry sector, and the EU would need to legally protect all remaining primary and old-growth forests on its territory under the current draft. Not only would these countries need to invest to attain, protect, and manage land, but it would need also to allocate resources to restructure and replace activities that would be strained by the designation. Many workers depend on forestry for their incomes, meaning that these protections, while beneficial for the environment, would have the potential to interfere with livelihoods and erase local economic production.  

This brings us to the question of funding. The amount quoted for this law is around €100 billion for biodiversity spending including nature restoration between 2021 to 2027, yet a dedicated funding instrument has yet to be offered. The economic argument is clear enough: every euro spent on restoration contributes 8 to 38 euros in economic value due to ecosystem services they support. Emphasizing the return on investment for nature restoration has been a key tool used to persuade members that this is the best course of action. Resolving complications about the feasibility and finances for this proposal is fundamental to its advancement through the legislative process.

Moving Forward

What comes next? There are three main actors involved in the standard legislative procedure: the European Parliament, the Council of the EU, and the European Commission, which represent citizens, governments, and the EU’s overall interests, respectively. The Commission begins the process by preparing an impact assessment to evaluate different policy options and receives feedback from NGOs, industry, experts groups, and more. Once approved, the Commission can finalize a proposal for a new law. Next, the Parliament and the Council will each adopt, amend, or reject the law. If they can reach consensus, the law will be formally adopted. The Council is in the midst of the evaluation stage; its next discussion of the law is in March. The Parliament is expected to vote in June. A final agreement made between the two bodies is likely to be made by the end of 2023. 

A turbulent road lies ahead for this piece of legislation that is so vital to protecting and restoring nature across the EU. It has the potential to inspire to give the rest of the world a glimpse of what a comprehensive nature restoration law looks like.