What’s next for the Nature Restoration Law?

The Nature Restoration Law (NRL) is the most important piece of legislation for nature in Europe in the last 30 years. At Fair Seas, we are currently campaigning for effective Marine Protected Area (MPA) legislation to protect our ocean, this will be complemented by a strong Nature Restoration Law in Europe. This blog highlights where the NRL is at and some of the myths surrounding it.

Ireland needs a new network of Marine Protected Areas to conserve our marine biodiversity however, many of our marine ecosystems and populations of species are badly damaged and stand at a fraction of their historic levels. This is why it is vital to see the coupling of strong Marine Protected Area legislation that allows us to safeguard havens for biodiversity with the Nature Restoration Law that will allow us to help the biodiversity in those areas recover. 

The Birds and Habitats Directives were established in 1993 with the aim of protecting EU ecosystems but unfortunately, they haven’t worked as well as we hoped. Over 80% of EU habitats are in bad environmental condition, and that is why this new law is so important. 

It is no longer enough to simply protect many areas; we must also assist in the recovery of these degraded ecosystems. This includes everything from rewetting peatlands, to planting native trees. In the marine environment the best way to restore large areas is by passive restoration. Passive restoration means removing anthropogenic pressures, leaving an area alone, and letting it return to its natural state.

The NRL’s main goals aim to restore 20% of EU land and 20% of EU seas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. One of the main concerns for the marine restoration targets is the interaction with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). The CFP is in place to sustainably manage EU fish stocks. If we do not implement the practices in the CFP and manage destructive fishing practices, then many of the marine restoration targets will be empty in practice. A strong NRL which takes into account the CFP along with the new Irish MPA bill will be a big win for our oceans. 

But there are politicians out there who state that parts of the NRL law ‘go too far’. The European People’s Party (EPP, of which Fine Gael is a part) is on a mission to kill this law before it even has a chance to get off the ground. They want the law to be taken off the table and not even be considered by the EU. They and other conservative groups have taken part in the spread of misinformation about this law in the hopes that they would gain public support to reject it. They even walked out of negotiations on the NRL, on May 31st, which meant that they couldn’t add any input on proposed amendments.

Recently, however, individual members of the EPP group started to speak out against their party’s stance and said that the EU needed this law and they would not vote to reject it. These members were quickly silenced and substituted out of the committee which means they would not have a vote. The EPP claim to be the voice of farmers, therefore it is nonsensical why they didn’t use their voice to negotiate a law that would benefit both nature and farmers!

The Facts and the Myths

Myth – Restoring ecosystems at sea will take space away from renewable energy projects and affect the fishing sector.

Fact – Having large areas of passive restoration and preventing fishing in these areas will have long-term benefits for fisheries due to the population increase of species caused by the ‘spillover’ effect. This has been shown in many areas around the world. Baja Mexico has a marine-protected national park and it has been shown that the industrial fishing sector around the area showed no economic losses. Closer to home, Lyme Bay in England created a MPA and the fishing community saw fish abundance increase by 370%!

Marine renewables are an important tool in the fight against climate change but the climate and biodiversity crisis are two crises which need to be fought alongside each other. Healthy marine ecosystems absorb around 25% of carbon emissions each year. Restoring marine areas will help us naturally achieve climate neutrality and this needs to be taken into account when deciding where the best place to have marine renewable energy infrastructure.

Myth – Nature restoration will have a negative impact on the economy

Fact – No! Nature restoration is worth around 1.8 trillion euros and many large business networks support the Nature Restoration Law. They recognise that nature is necessary for a healthy economy. Having ecosystems which are healthy also help to mitigate the effects of climate change by sequestering carbon and providing natural flood barriers. 

The 2022 IPCC report  has stated that without nature restoration Europe will experience increased floods, droughts and other negative impacts due to the changing climate. The cost of repairing damages caused by climate change will keep increasing (at the moment around 12 billion Euro is lost annually) and restoring ecosystems will help prevent that.

Myth – There is not enough data available to justify the cost of nature restoration

Fact There is a lot of data available due to monitoring of existing N2000 sites, scientific research, citizen science and organisations such as the European Environmental Association and the Biodiversity Information System. Even if there was not enough data, that is not a good enough reason to sit back and do nothing. The precautionary approach should be implemented to prevent further damages and losses to the environment.

Myth – Nature restoration will undermine food security

Fact Nature restoration is the key to securing long-term food availability. How can a farmer grow crops or feed livestock on soil that has no nutrients in it due to overexploitation and degradation? Healthy ecosystems support pollinators which are crucial to creating the food crops we rely on.

Myth –  Rewetting peatlands means they cannot be used anymore

Fact Bogs that have been rewetted can be used in agriculture to grow many crops which thrive in the wetter environment. This not only allows the ground to be used but it also allows the invaluable ecosystem services the peatlands provide to continue happening. 

Peatlands sequester nearly twice as much carbon as the world’s forests as well as being a unique biosphere for many species and being of great cultural importance to many countries. Whenever peatlands are dried out for agriculture, forestry or other uses, they release 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Important voting events for the NRL

On the 15th of June the committee for the Environment (ENVI) in the EU voted on the NRL. It was extremely close with 44 MEPs voting to reject and 44 voting to keep it. This means it could not be rejected outright and they went forward to voting on the compromised amendments. During this process members of the EPP group rejected every single amendment – including one that would ensure a new nature restoration fund would be established for farmers who needed to make a transition to more sustainable farming methods. Rejecting these amendments significantly weakens the effectiveness of the proposed law. The voting ran over and not all the amendments could be voted on in time. Today (27th June) the ENVI committee concluded their voting process and the final vote was 44-44 which means the report was not formally adopted.

However, on the 20th of June the EU council (which is made up of ministers from each member state) had a majority of member states accept the NRL. This is important as it shows national parties representing EU citizens want this law to go through.

This is not the end of the process. The law will go on to plenary vote in July where all MEP’s in the parliament will have a chance to have their say. The rejection of the weakened law in the ENVI committee today gives politicians an opportunity to adopt a more ambitious text in July. We have time now to continue lobbying politicians to make the NRL as strong as possible and reject any amendments which may weaken the law.

If you would like to send a letter of support for a strong NRL follow this link to the quick and easy email tool. Just add your name and a prewritten letter will be sent to Irish TD’s, Minister’s and MEP’s.

Let’s continue to fight for the amazing biodiversity we have in Ireland above and below the water.

This blog was written by Grace Carr, Marine Policy Officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust, a partner of the Fair Seas campaign.

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