Last week, the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law narrowly survived a vote to reject it. An amended EU Nature Restoration Law has now been agreed by the European Parliament, which will inform further negotiations with the European Council. The Nature Restoration Law is to biodiversity what the European Climate Law is to climate – it’s that big of a deal. By setting legally binding targets to restore degraded ecosystems, the law takes a holistic approach to mitigating Europe’s entwined climate, biodiversity loss, and land degradation crises. But these watered-down amendments have left a gulf in EU policy at a time when strong action is urgently needed to reverse carbon and biodiversity depletion across Europe.
What is the link between carbon removal and the amended Nature Restoration Law?
From a carbon–oriented perspective, the amended Nature Restoration Law stands to boost Europe’s land carbon balance sheets by reducing emissions, preserving carbon-rich ecosystems, and increasing sequestration on EU territory. Over time, restored peatlands, wetlands, oceans and forests can remove and store carbon at significant scales, reducing the impact of climate change while increasing nature’s resilience.
How do the tabled amendments affect carbon removal on EU land?
The original proposal required that agricultural ecosystems across member states achieved a trend of increasing organic carbon stocks in cropland and mineral soils until satisfactory levels were reached. This provision has been deleted. Now, no new binding targets are set for the restoration of agricultural ecosystems.
For non-agricultural ecosystems, provisions have also been watered down. The law no longer requires member states to either ensure continuous improvement of areas under restoration nor to maintain the quality of those areas once restored. Instead, all member states must now only demonstrate that they have tried, where possible, to put measures in place aiming to prevent significant deterioration of restored areas at a national level. This amendment changes the character of the law from pro–active and ambitious to preventative and hesitant.
Further caveats added to the proposal weaken its legal muscle, such as the postponement of targets in the face of exceptional socioeconomic consequences. These “consequences” relate to house building and transforming, renewable energy needs, hiked food prices, and drops in EU food production. Due to their breadth and ambiguity, these caveats make legally binding targets (those that remain, that is) difficult to uphold in practice. There is also no nod to the irony that restoring nature, especially on degraded agricultural land, can help shield Europe from such disruptions in the first place.
What’s the link between agriculture and depleted biodiversity, soil carbon and land quality?
- Agriculture is the most frequently reported pressure driving biodiversity loss in Europe, with intensification of land management practices adversely affecting many species and habitats.
- Agriculture (specifically cropland and grassland) is responsible for most of the emissions from organic soils across Europe. These carbon losses are substantial, tipping Europe’s soils into a net source of emissions at a time when we urgently need them to become a net sink.
- Together with population growth and urbanisation, agricultural intensification is a leading cause of soil degradation, with an estimated 1/8th of arable land exposed to moderate to high erosion.
Is the amended Nature Restoration Law sufficient from a CDR standpoint?
The importance of this law for nature and climate change mitigation cannot be overstated. What made this regulation so attractive, besides its legally binding “teeth”, was its balanced approach to pursuing biospheric carbon gains and biodiversity boosts. With the provision on agricultural ecosystems deleted, the law no longer affects vast tracts of EU land. Plus, given that agricultural practices majorly contribute to Europe’s biodiversity decline, carbon loss and land degradation, agriculture–exempting amendments hugely curtail the efficacy of the law. Indeed, Carbon Gap and other NGOs are left examining the new version for any signs of life since so much of the law’s muscle was surgically removed.
From a carbon removal standpoint, the key question is: can carbon sequestration on farmland be sufficiently addressed through other EU policies in a way that will not adversely impact biodiversity? Taking the matrix of current and embryonic laws at face value, the answer is probably not. Although the newly proposed Soil Monitoring Law does take a holistic view of soil health beyond organic carbon content, this regulation does not propose a legally binding target to restore Europe’s degraded land by 2050. Rather, soil health will be monitored but not necessarily improved. Had a legally binding target been set, as Carbon Gap advocated for, then the loss of such targets for the agricultural sector under the Nature Restoration Law would not have been as severe.
To my knowledge, the LULUCF regulation represents the sole legally binding CDR objective facing Europe’s land use sector, comprising managed cropland, grassland, wetlands, forests, settlements and land use change (such as afforestation, deforestation, and peatland drainage). This law sets a land-based net carbon removals target of 310 Mt of CO2 equivalent by 2030, which means that, by 2030, the land use sector must store 310 Mt CO2e more than it emits. Although contributing activities may help boost biodiversity, there is no legal imperative to do so, and there is even a risk that optimising for carbon removal will exacerbate biodiversity decline.
Looking to the future
A strong Nature Restoration Law is necessary to balance climate change mitigation action, especially given that carbon removal on farms might soon be incentivised through measures proposed in the Soil Monitoring Law and the Carbon Removal Certification Framework. Although rewarding farmers for their environmental efforts is positive, it is neither sufficient nor preferable without concomitant imperatives for them to protect nature and the climate. Going forward, European policymakers should implement stronger measures across the Nature Restoration Law and the Soil Monitoring Law. Multifaceted, legally binding targets for Europe’s agricultural ecosystems can complement (and keep in check) the incentive structures emerging from the Commission.
By Kayla Cohen, Senior Researcher