EU Nature Restoration Law a Potential “Game Changer”

WWF-sponsored report says legally binding targets could sequester 84 million tonnes of carbon, while also protecting biodiversity.

A planned EU nature restoration law which will set legally-binding targets has the potential to sequester more than 80 million tonnes of carbon, according to a new study by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).

The IEEP said restoring degraded habitats that fall under the EU Habitats Directive could sequester 84 million tonnes of carbon (MtC) a year. The study, commissioned by WWF, “clearly shows the huge role large-scale nature restoration can play in helping tackle climate change”, said the authors.

The European Commission is expected to propose the law in March, following a public consultation that closed in April 2021. In December, 150 environmental NGOs called for measurable targets for land area, river length and sea area in order “to make this legislation as ambitious, adequate and effective as possible”.

The study authors said the law could be a “game-changer not only for addressing biodiversity loss but also the climate crisis”. The targets are a key element of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 and the European Green Deal. The Habitats Directive covers the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora, offering protection to more than 1,000 animal and plant species and 233 European natural habitat types.

The main objective of the restoration targets will be to restore degraded ecosystems, including those with the most potential to capture and store carbon, prevent and reduce the impact of natural disasters, deliver further benefits, such as soil health and pollination, and improve knowledge and monitoring of ecosystems and their services.

The overwhelming majority of the 112,000 submissions came from EU citizens, but included some contributions from financial services organisations, such as Piraeus Financial, a member of the Partnership for Biodiversity Accounting Financials.

Institutional investors are increasingly looking to manage biodiversity risks and impacts alongside efforts to decarbonise their portfolios and support transition to a net zero economy. As well as legislative and policy initiatives to protect natural capital, including those announced at COP26, investors’ efforts will be guided by new frameworks being finalised this year. These will set global targets for the protection and restoration of biodiversity, as well as setting out disclosure requirements for corporates and investors.

Setting a clear target

The IEEP said to fully reap the benefits of nature conservation, the EU nature restoration law should include a “robust and understandable” EU headline target, overarching the individual ecosystems (and species) specific targets. “This is indispensable to mobilise Member States’ actions at the required scale,” the study said. The headline target should be a clear numerical target to create legal certainty for speedy and effective implementation.

“WWF advocates for a headline target to restore at least 15% of the EU land and sea area, as well as 15% of river length by 2030, to which all underlying ecosystem specific targets should contribute. That would mean the restoration of 650,000 km2 on land, one million km2 of marine EU area and 178,000 km of rivers,” said the report.

The IEEP also warned that targets should reflect the urgency of the biodiversity crisis, asserting that the bulk of restoration actions should not be postponed to 2040 or 2050.

EU policymakers should also focus on creating new nature areas beyond those covered by the Habitats Directive, it advised. For example, the “most obvious” measure that will have a significant benefit for climate mitigation is the rewetting of all drained organic soils currently under agricultural use.

Finally, the IEEP said safeguards should be included in the nature restoration law to ensure that the restoration and protection of any restored habitats and the associated carbon gains are permanent.

Policymakers should also stand by the commitments in the EU Biodiversity Strategy – to strictly protect 10% of the EU land and sea area by 2030 and to strictly protect all remaining old-growth and primary forests in Europe and ensure they are “urgently implemented”.

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