Why an EU nature restoration law is badly needed
Focusing restoration efforts on degraded forests can deliver accelerated climate and biodiversity benefits because these areas retain elements of their natural ecology and can recover quickly, write Janice Weatherley-Singh and Tim Rayden.
Heatwaves across Europe. Flooding in China. Wildfires in Canada and the US. The effects of global climate change were all too evident this summer, and European citizens are increasingly asking for greater political action to tackle it. A Eurobarometer poll in July showed that more than three-quarters of EU citizens think that climate change is a very serious problem and the majority of EU citizens agree that the EU and national governments need to take responsibility for tackling it.
Forests play a vital role in stabilising the climate, capturing and storing CO2 in biomass, especially forests that are high in ecological integrity. When forests are degraded and destroyed, we lose this climate safety net. Protecting and restoring nature is key to the fight against climate change and can provide up to one-third of the global climate mitigation needed by 2030 to meet the Paris climate goals. Restoring degraded ecosystems can also make a significant contribution to implementing the new Global Biodiversity Framework that was agreed by governments in December 2022.
Newly published research shows the scale of the climate and biodiversity benefits that could be achieved globally by prioritising restoration within existing degraded forest areas. Over 1.5 billion hectares of forests worldwide retain 50–80% of their potential biomass. The new study, published in Conservation Biology, reports that prioritising restoration in these areas could deliver rapid biodiversity and climate mitigation benefits, relative to restoring forest on cleared land.
Focusing restoration efforts on degraded forests can deliver accelerated climate and biodiversity benefits because these areas retain elements of their natural ecology and can recover quickly. Recovering these areas can be more cost effective than reforesting completely deforested lands and raises fewer concerns about competition between farming and the conservation of nature. Because of the large area of degraded forest globally for example, (with an estimated 60% of the world’s forests below their natural ecological integrity) there are abundant opportunities for countries to focus on the recovery of these areas.
Despite the urgent need to address the climate and biodiversity crises and the important role that restoring degraded ecosystems can play, political action is uncertain. When the European Commission proposed a new law in June 2022 that would have a game-changing impact by setting binding targets on EU Member States to restore degraded ecosystems within the EU, it met with a split vote in the European Parliament Committee on Environment. The law only just got the go ahead in Parliament plenary vote on the 12th July. As it goes forward in the political negotiation process, there is still a risk that the legal text will be weakened.
A new EU nature restoration law is badly needed. The EU itself has some of the most heavily degraded ecosystems in the world. More than 80% of European habitats are in bad or poor condition. Up to 70% of EU soils are in an unhealthy condition and contribute to a loss in agricultural productivity of more than €1 billion per year. A new EU nature reforestation law also makes economic sense. Every Euro invested in nature restoration provides €8 to €38 in benefits, such as improved crop pollination. Strong action by the EU can also catalyse global action to protect and restore areas of the world’s last remaining and vitally important large ecosystem areas, such as the Amazon or Congo basin forests.
The EU is already supporting some global nature restoration efforts. For example, in November 2022, the EU committed €25.5 million to scale up funding for the Five Great Forests of Mesoamerica. Stretching from Mexico to Colombia, these forests store around half of the region’s carbon stock and 7.5% of the world’s biodiversity. Such areas are also vitally important for the livelihoods and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples and local communities who depend on them.
Unfortunately these forests face tremendous pressures and three of the five forests have already decreased by over 20%. The new study on restoration shows that around 45% of the land within Mesoamerica’s Five Great Forests has very high potential for forest restoration efforts. The study identified areas where restoring forests would reinforce the protection of existing high integrity areas and enhance habitat extent for wildlife. Previous restoration priority-setting approaches in the region have tended to ignore the recovery potential of standing forests, indicating the potential for this to contribute substantial and underappreciated climate mitigation benefits.
Support from the EU at the global level for ecosystems to be restored in regions like Mesoamerica is to be applauded. And scaled-up support from the EU and other donors is necessary if the global community is serious about meeting its climate and biodiversity goals. To maintain global credibility and spur similar action by other governments, it is also essential that the EU reaches political agreement on a strong and impactful EU Nature Restoration law in the coming months.