Home Brussels How repairing nature became the EU’s most contentious green project

How repairing nature became the EU’s most contentious green project

by editor

The European Union’s flagship law to restore nature is in serious trouble. 

While the bloc’s Green Deal has seen its fair share of controversies — from last year’s carbon pricing drama to Germany’s revolt over the 2035 combustion engine phaseout — the mounting backlash against the European Commission’s Nature Restoration Law has no parallel. 

The European Parliament’s conservative block wants the law dead. Two committees rejected the proposal outright. Farmers on Thursday staged a protest in Brussels. And criticism has started piling in from EU leaders, too. 

The Commission is in panic mode. Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, aware of the risk to his project, spent three hours last week pleading with lawmakers to support the law, which faces a decisive vote in the environment committee this month. 

Here’s why a key pillar of the EU’s climate legislation is coming apart. 

What’s this law, and why does it matter? 

Nature is in bad shape across the bloc, with more than 80 percent of the EU’s habitats in poor condition. 

Healthy ecosystems make an essential contribution to securing food production, protecting against extreme weather events and reducing emissions. That’s why reversing nature degradation — like deforestation, desertification or water pollution — is an important part of combating climate change and biodiversity loss. 

The Nature Restoration Law, unveiled last year, is the Commission’s grand plan to repair the bloc’s damaged natural areas. The proposal mandates restoring at least 20 percent of the EU’s degraded land and seas by 2030 and all areas in need of restoration by 2050. 

The regulation also sets EU-wide targets to rehabilitate certain ecosystems — including rewetting 30 percent of drained peatlands by 2030, restoring 25,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers, tackling pollinator decline and increasing green spaces in cities. 

The Commission says it’s impossible to reach the EU’s legally binding 2050 climate neutrality target — which partially relies on storing CO2 in soils, forests and other natural carbon sinks — without these measures. The regulation is also meant to enshrine in EU law the commitments the bloc made at last year’s COP15 biodiversity summit, which include restoring 30 percent of the world’s degraded areas by 2030.

Where is the backlash coming from? 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo is among those with concerns about the legislation | Nicolas Maeterlinck/Belga Mag/AFP via Getty Images

The law faces fierce criticism from mainly conservative politicians and lobby groups representing the farming, forestry and fishery sectors. 

Much of the pushback centers around claims that the new rules ask too much of Europe’s farmers at a time when they are already struggling with rising costs and the consequences of the war in Ukraine. Overburdening them would endanger the EU’s food security, critics say. 

Leading the backlash is the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), which has repeatedly called for the law’s rejection.

With the support of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists, the far-right Identity and Democracy and part of the centrist Renew Europe groups, the EPP managed to build a majority against the law in the Parliament’s agriculture and fisheries committees, which rejected the Commission proposal last week. 

On Wednesday, the EPP walked out of the final negotiation session on the controversial file in the environment committee, which has overall responsibility for the file. Group chair Manfred Weber said the “proposal was bad in the first place and our concerns remain unanswered.”

On Thursday, farmers held a protest against the law in front of the European Parliament. A counter-protest by green groups took place across the square. 

Lut D’Hondt, a dairy farmer from Flanders, said “the expectations are very high with this nature restoration law” and are “coming on top” of new green requirements in the EU’s agricultural policy. “We’re worried.”

Other critics include fishermen, the European farmers lobby Copa & Cogeca and the Confederation of European Forest Owners, as well as a growing number of EU capitals. 

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo wants to “hit the pause button” on the legislation. Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said some of the targets “go too far … particularly if it comes to taking agricultural land out of use for food production.” 

Similar concerns were echoed by the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Romania and Poland, among others.

Is all of that true?

Plenty of misinformation has crept into the debate. 

The EPP’s campaign has included misleading claims, such as stating that the law will destroy villages, limit the development of renewable energy and decrease food production to the point of causing “global famine.”

But restoring land does not mean that economic activity cannot take place there; it’s not the same as establishing a nature reserve. 

The European Commission Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans is fighting for the nature restoration law, a proposal launched in 2022, ahead of next month’s vote | Stephanie Lecocq/EPA-EFE

An EPP press officer admitted last month that the group could not list “any particular villages” endangered by the law. 

Nor are restoration and renewables necessarily at odds. Offshore wind projects can create artificial reefs, while solar farms on old industrial sites can help recover biodiversity. Industry lobbies like WindEurope back the law. 

A key argument of critics is nature restoration’s impact on long-term food security — even though scientists say climate change and biodiversity loss are the greatest threats to agricultural production in the long run, and agricultural activity can take place on restored land. 

The EPP also states the law will take 10 percent of farmland out of production. That claim refers to the legislation’s target to increase the share of vegetation on farmlands — like hedges, ponds or ditches, which support biodiversity — to cover 10 percent of the EU’s farming territory by 2030, up from the current 7 percent. But these areas aren’t necessarily unproductive land — they include fruit-producing orchards, for example.

The EPP did not reply to a request for comment by the time of publication.

Who’s fighting for the law? 

The Commission, as well as green groups, scientists and left-leaning politicians, are battling to keep the legislation alive.

Scientists and green NGOs have been sending letters to policymakers, urging EU institutions to back ambitious rules. Some companies in the agri-food, textiles and renewables industries have also issued similar calls

In the Parliament, the Greens, The Left and the center-left Socialists & Democrats (S&D) are backing the Commission’s approach and even want to increase some targets. The Renew group is split for the time being. 

On Wednesday, left-leaning and liberal lawmakers leading the environment committee’s work on the file reached a draft agreement following the EPP’s walkout. The fragile compromise now has to survive a committee vote.

The Commission is desperate to defend its proposal. 

“I sometimes hear that these proposals are against farmers. They are not,” Timmermans told the Parliament’s agriculture and environment committees last week. 

The Green Deal, he said, is “not an à la carte menu” and needs healthy ecosystems to function. “We cannot reach climate neutrality or guarantee food production, farmers’ livelihoods, and a prosperous bioeconomy unless we restore our nature.”

What now? 

It’s not over yet. 

EU countries may reach a joint position at the next meeting of environment ministers on June 20. They’ve been asking for more flexibilities and while they recognize restoration measures are needed, several countries point out that implementation will “be extremely demanding.”

Meanwhile, the vote in the Parliament’s leading environment committee is scheduled for June 15, followed by a plenary vote on July 10. 

César Luena, the Spanish S&D lawmaker leading Parliament’s work on the legislation, remains “optimistic” that he’ll find majority support for the proposal. 

Timmermans last week said he is open to discussing “every single line” of the legislation with lawmakers, but ruled out a redraft of the law: “The Commission will not come with another proposal. Let that be crystal clear. Time simply isn’t there.”

This article has been updated.

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