EU lawmakers and member states have struck a deal on a landmark law to protect nature after watering down rules that critics argued would trouble farmers.
The nature restoration law, a hotly contested pillar of the European green deal, will force EU countries to restore at least 20% of the bloc’s land and seas by the end of the decade. It contains binding targets to restore at least 30% of degraded habitats by then, rising to 60% by 2040 and 90% by 2050.
“We are faced with an increasingly dramatic reality: the EU’s nature and biodiversity are in danger and need to be protected,” said the Spanish environment minister, Teresa Ribera.
Politicians have fiercely contested the provisions in the law amid a simmering backlash to green policies across the continent. Opposition from the European People’s party (EPP), the centre-right group to which European Commission president and green deal champion, Ursula von der Leyen, belongs, nearly threw out the bill entirely in a vote in July.
Environmental campaigners offered tepid support for the deal struck late on Thursday night between the European Council, which represents the member states, and the parliament.
“We are relieved to see that the negotiators have not completely failed European citizens,” said Sofie Ruysschaert, the nature restoration policy officer at BirdLife Europe.
The EPP, the biggest political group in the parliament, said it was pleased other groups had moved towards its position. It said “notable improvements” to the text include removing a requirement that would have ensured 10% of farmland had landscape elements such as hedgerows and flower strips, and adding a line stating that countries are not obliged to use money in the EU’s farming fund to protect nature.
The group also secured several carveouts for farmers, including an “emergency brake” to freeze environmental targets if food production is threatened.
“We welcome the fact that the final text on this law has little to do with the original proposal from the commission,” said Christine Schneider, a German MEP who negotiated for the group. “The commission’s proposal was ideologically driven, practically infeasible and a disaster for farmers, forest owners, fishermen and local and regional authorities, especially in densely populated areas.”
Nature is dying faster than ever before in recorded human history with devastating consequences for people and the planet, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) found in its review of the scientific research in 2019. In Europe, where more than 80% of habitats are in poor shape, the nature restoration law was proposed in a bid to reverse this trend and stop the planet heating.
The EU is also bound by global commitments. World leaders promised to protect 30% of the planet by 2030 at a biodiversity summit in Montreal last year. Today, just 17% of the world’s land and 10% of its seas are under protection.
Josef Settele, an entomologist with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and former IPBES co-chair, said negotiations over the law were an important step forward “but the restoration of ecosystems on 20% of the area still falls short of the 30% target agreed by the global community.”
He added that he saw “the sword of Damocles” in the provision giving farmers an emergency brake if food security is threatened. “This shows that it is still not common knowledge that nature restoration can improve food production in the context of a transformation of the agricultural system.”
Protecting nature is a cheap way of keeping people safe from violent weather and a key tool to cut planet-heating pollution. The European Commission estimates that every euro invested in restoring land would offer a return of between €8 (£7) and €38.
Katrin Böhning-Gaese, the director of the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Frankfurt, praised the result of the negotiations, known as trilogues, for including several sectors the parliament had previously voted to kill off.
“From a scientific and economic point of view, it is crystal clear that we need to protect and restore nature better if we want to live a good life on Earth today and in the future,” she said. “The voice of reason has now prevailed in the trilogue; we can look to the future with more optimism for nature and people.”
The nature restoration law was subject to a heated campaign that scientists criticised for spreading misinformation. Earlier this year, more than 6,000 scientists signed an open letter criticising opponents of the law for contradicting facts established by the research.
The law must now be adopted formally by the parliament and council before member states have to come up with national action plans to protect their habitats. The negotiators added a line tasking the commission with providing an overview of the money the EU can cough up and an analysis of any funding gaps one year after the law comes into force.
“Nature doesn’t read political texts, it will respond to what we do,” said Guy Pe’er, a biologist at the Helmholtz Centre for EnvironmentalResearch and lead author of the letter. “If we fail on nature, we fail our future.”