EU effort to bring in an ambitious plan to restore natural systems has taken a battering in Cyprus and elsewhere in the bloc

Nature restoration makes total good sense. We should get started on it right now and we should aim to ‘bring nature back’ on a grand scale.

Restoring natural systems to good health is probably the best single tool we have for tackling the twin – and growing – threats of climate change and biodiversity loss. The science clearly backs nature restoration as a ‘win-win’ for society. Research shows restoration can have game-changing benefits not just for planetary health, but also for farming, forestry and fisheries, while helping to generate more jobs in these vital sectors.

So why, as you read this, does the EU effort to bring in a new and suitably ambitious Nature Restoration Law hang by a thread?

The draft EU Nature Restoration law has taken a battering in Euro parliament committees. MEPs of the European Peoples Party (EPP) group have taken the lead in efforts to undermine this new legislation, claiming, among other things, that it poses “a threat to food security and jobs”.

This position simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the actual evidence supports the exact opposite (which suggests ‘total codswallop’ would be a more apt descriptor for the EPP argument). ‘Fake facts’ and scaremongering have been part-and-parcel of the EPP campaign. “It does not make sense to tear down villages built 100 years ago to create wetlands,” read a recent EPP post. As if. Despite this, the centre-right group’s ‘mythology of lies’ has grabbed headlines and threatens to derail our biggest chance of correcting the wrongs of climate and nature abuse.

Prospects for the new nature law do not look much better as it goes before the European Council this week. A number of national leaders are taking a very skeptical stand, fearing conservative reaction to “another environmental regulation”. In the green corner, standing up to be counted in defence for the nature law, are some MEPs, environmental NGOs such as BirdLife, many in both the business and farming sector, and many in the scientific community. The odds, however, do not look good.

The Brussels lobbying power of ‘big’ farming, forestry and fisheries is gargantuan compared to that of the environmental lobby. These interest groups benefit hugely from ‘business as usual’ and fight very hard to maintain this, whatever the long-term cost to environment and society (a cost they routinely work to underplay, much like the tobacco industry worked for decades to deny the health risks of smoking). These are the ugly realities of EU politics.

There is another key factor at play here. We live in an age where opinion based on not-very-much-at-all, often carries the same weight as scientific evidence. It seems to matter very little how ill-founded an opinion might be and whether or not it is backed up by the facts. If the opinion-holder has a big enough ‘stand from which to shout’, it carries real weight, and can drown out the actual factual evidence. This is a dangerous path to be going down, and this Restoration Law is another example of a debate where an evidence-based dialogue is desperately important.

beekeeper displays honeycombs at a farm on the outskirts of sanaa

It is the loss of pollinators and other biodiversity-based ecosystem services that are the biggest threats to farm yields.The upshot of all this is a very real prospect that we end up with the EPP and their ilk throwing out the new law, or with a regulation so ‘hollowed out’ in EU Parliament and Council, that it has no real restoration impact on the ground.

There was a narrow escape last week, when, in a tight vote, the parliament’s environment committee knocked back an EPP-led effort to throw out the draft law. With the EU parliament plenary vote on this set for July, unless MEPs wake up to the danger, it could all be over before this summer’s end. This would be terrible news for all of us.

So let us look at the key anti-restoration claims, while also examining the relevant scientific evidence.

Opponents of the Nature Restoration Law claim it poses a threat to food security. Restrictions on pesticide use and bringing back hedgerows and other ‘space for nature’ in farmland, will reduce yields, the argument goes. The scientific evidence clearly contradicts this. In the long-term, it is climate change and the droughts and floods it brings, along with loss of pollinators and other biodiversity-based ecosystem services that are the biggest threats to farm yields. Sustainable food-production systems rely on a stable climate and healthy farmland ecosystems, rich in pollinators and natural enemies of crop pests.

The new law can set us on the right path for long-term food security. Opponents add that the restoration drive will prevent Europe from feeding the world. The evidence though, is that the best way for Europe to contribute to global food security is not by driving for more unsustainable, high-input production. Instead, what the science says is that we should be taking action to reduce high meat consumption and the use of farmland for growing biofuels (which, for the most part, do not actually help in reducing emissions).

Restoration at sea will require new marine protected areas, which will harm fisheries, the naysayers claim. Again, the actual evidence argues that the opposite holds true. Studies show that marine protected areas actually boost fisheries catches, by providing vital nurseries and refuges, from which fish ‘spill over’ into fishing areas. With more than a third of commercial fish stocks overfished in 2017 (up from 10 per cent in the 1970s), the need for marine protected areas to maintain and boost catches is clear.

This new environmental regulation will kill jobs, opponents say. The scientific evidence is that the nature restoration regulation and phased-in restrictions on pesticide use will both generate new employment opportunities and stimulate innovation. More sustainable, extensive, farming practices tend to require more workers and more innovation, while the reality is that unemployment is growing fast in conventional, business-as-usual farming, with many smaller farmers giving up.

Most of the above evidence is drawn from a recent statement in support of the restoration regulation signed by more than 3,300 scientists (see https://rb.gy/mzitk for more details, including links to the relevant research papers).

To close, a reminder of the excellent provisions in the Nature Restoration regulation in its original form, as drafted by the European Commission. The priority is linking ecosystem restoration to the need for urgent action to halt the march of climate change. Therefore, the focus is on restoration of systems such as forests, wetlands and marine systems, which can soak up and store CO2. Building on EU ‘Green deal’ commitments, the new law sets an overarching objective of having one fifth of all ecosystems of EU, on land and sea, under restoration, by 2030. By 2050, the target is for all EU ecosystems to have restoration plans implemented.

The new law also aims to cut pesticide use in half by 2030. It is important to note that restoration targets extend to beyond Natura 2000 sites and are set not just for natural systems, but also for semi-natural ecosystems such as farmland, and even include targets for urban areas. Pollinators get much-needed attention, with targets for reversing the declines of bees and the myriad of other flower-frequenting insects.

At sea, the new law will include targets to close down fishing areas so that habitats destroyed by highly destructive bottom trawling can start to recover. River restoration targets are very interesting and challenging – not least for Cyprus. They include the removal of dams and the reopening of floodplains through restoration of natural river flows. For built-up areas, the target is to ensure ‘no net loss’ of green space and to increase tree cover by 10 per cent by 2030.

What would be wrong with any of that? Nothing.

 

Martin Hellicar is director of local nature conservation NGO BirdLife Cyprus