Europe and its peatlands need the Nature Restoration Law

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Recent political developments are putting the proposed EU Nature Restoration Law at risk, with certain politicians citing largely misleading arguments about food security, its impact on settlements and the regulation’s scope. However, the legislative proposal contains important restoration objectives for biodiversity and ecosystems such as peatlands, which the evidence shows can help to tackle real threat to livelihoods – the twin biodiversity and climate crises.

Last month, European People’s Party (EPP), Renew, European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), Identity and Democracy (ID) and The Left MEPs in the European Parliament’s agriculture (AGRI) and fisheries (PECH) committees voted to reject the entire proposal for an EU Nature Restoration Law. Meanwhile, a Swedish EU Presidency draft compromise, which would form the basis of the Council of the EU’s negotiating position, notably includes proposals to substantially water down the peatlands restoration targets, allowing flexibility for EU countries to implement the measures and opening the door for national exemptions. These developments will not prevent the legislative process from continuing but do send an extremely worrying signal about the regulation’s prospects.

The proposal, published by the European Commission in June 2022, sets out a series of measures to revive the EU’s ecosystems in need of restoration, including its heavily fragmented rivers, damaged forests and degraded wetlands, including peatlands. It stems from the EU’s 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, which specifically prioritises the restoration of carbon-rich ecosystems, such as peatlands and forests. Ironically, these are the very habitats most embroiled in the current controversy surrounding the proposal.

Various arguments about the potentially negative implications of the peatlands targets have surfaced in recent months, including their potential to contribute to food insecurity in Europe in the context of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the placing of unfair burdens on farmers, and the suggestion that they could lead to the removal of towns and villages to make way for peatlands.

Global food insecurity caused by the war in Ukraine is a genuine concern but the suggestion that restoring nature – which is vital for the sustainability of Europe’s food system – could cause food insecurity and hunger in Europe is a stretch too far. Peatlands on agricultural land (targeted by article 9.4 of the proposed regulation), for example, represent only 3% of total agricultural land in the EU. Current monitoring of the EU’s self-sufficiency rates for commodities do not indicate major shifts over the past years, nor in 2023 and indicate positive trends. In an Outlook to 2032 published by the agricultural services of the European Commission (DG AGRI) in December 2022, the EU is expected to remain self-sufficient in key agricultural products and able to generate surpluses, which contribute to global food supply, in particular wheat and dairy products.

Peatlands are important allies in mitigating and adapting to climate change

Opposing the restoration of degraded ecosystems for food security reasons is also self-contradictory, as the restoration of ecosystems such as peatlands helps to avert many of the disasters that threaten food production. In recent years, farmers in many parts of Europe have suffered the consequences of more frequent and larger floods and droughts caused by changes in weather patterns linked to climate change. Much like large natural sponges, they soak up excess rainfall and water flows, combating flood peaks, and gradually release the stored water, helping to avoid droughts.

Wet peatlands also play an important role in tackling climate change, the cause of many of these extreme weather events. As a recent Commission staff working document on the drivers of food insecurity states, “changes in weather patterns induced by climate change are already jeopardising food production in Europe”. Wet peatlands, however, are the most space-efficient, long-term carbon store and sink in our planet’s biosphere and can store twice as much CO2 as the world’s forests, so their restoration is fundamentally important if the EU is to achieve its commitments to tackle climate change and address the changing weather patterns that threaten agricultural productivity.

The loss of nature and biodiversity – such as the decline of pollinators and degradation of soils – is also a major threat to the EU’s food system. As stated by Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides when they presented the Nature Restoration Law, 70% of the EU’s soils are in bad shape, which “already limits food production in certain areas” and one in three pollinator species “are in decline even though 80% of our crops depend on them”. To safeguard food security, Europe needs nature restoration to restore water cycles, see biodiversity thrive, revive our ecosystems, and support the natural elements undermining our food production system. This requires restoring, specifically the rewetting, of peatlands drained for agricultural use. Peatlands are also essential homes for biodiversity, providing habitat and refuges for endangered and highly adapted species, particularly in the context of a changing climate.

The EPP has also argued against the proposal by claiming that it goes beyond the restoration goal of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, agreed last year at COP15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, by calling for restoration of “30% of the territory of the EU”. The proposal, however, refers only to the restoration of ecosystems “in need of restoration”, specifically “at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030 and all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050”.

We call on members of the European Parliament – including the environment (ENVI) committee, which will vote on the proposed law on 15 June – to support the swift adoption of an ambitious Nature Restoration Law before the end of 2023. We also call on them to maintain or even strengthen a mandatory peatlands restoration target. For this target to meet EU’s climate and biodiversity commitments, it should require the full rewetting of peatlands in need of restoration (a prerequisite for peatland restoration) and include other land-use types beyond agricultural areas (including forested land, with the exception of settlements).

For more information on peatlands in the Nature Restoration Law, please consult our Nature Restoration Law page and Joint Policy Briefing produced within the EU-funded WaterLANDS project, published in September 2022. This publication is summarised in a joint factsheet on peatlands restoration, published in October 2022.  A joint policy brief, Questions & Answers: Bringing Clarity on Peatland Rewetting and Restoration, published on 23 May 2023, provides clarifications regarding common assumptions about peatland rewetting.