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Failure to adopt Nature Restoration Law deeply concerning 

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Wetlands International is deeply concerned by the failure of EU Member States to achieve the necessary qualified majority to adopt the long-awaited Nature Restoration Law (NRL) in Friday’s meeting of EU ambassadors. This law, the most significant piece of nature legislation in the EU since the 1990s, now faces an uncertain future, contradicting the EU’s stated commitment to biodiversity conservation, climate change mitigation and environmental sustainability.  

The failure to enact the NRL not only undermines the EU’s commitment to environmental protection – it also jeopardises the EU’s decision-making processes on other crucial files, including the achievement of its ambitious environmental targets and its readiness to address impending climate and biodiversity-related disasters. Furthermore, it leaves the EU’s ambitions as a global leader in tatters by rendering it unable to meet its commitments and obligations under the Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in 2022 as well as its own Biodiversity Strategy

Wetlands are key ecosystems, contributing to many of the EU’s climate, biodiversity, and social goals. They help us adapt to and mitigate climate change, they can help deliver the Global Biodiversity Framework, improve water resilience, and are central to achieving the SDGs

Unfortunately, over 80% of European habitats have poor or bad conservation status. Evidence extracted from the MAES assessment (Mapping and Assessment of Ecosystems and their Services) shows that compared to all terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, wetlands represent the ecosystem in the worst condition in Europe. In fact, about 80% of European wetlands that existed 100 years ago have been lost.  

Drainage for agriculture or infrastructure, pollution, over-exploitation and climate change are some of the biggest drivers of wetland loss. However, there is one more key factor in play – the lack of a European policy that protects and restores wetland ecosystems.  

In 2022, to implement the EU’s existing environmental obligations (included in its 2030 Biodiversity Strategy, Water Framework Directive, Habitats and Birds Directives and its Green Deal), the European Commission proposed the NRL which would require all 27 member states to set targets to restore at least 20% of their land and sea areas by 2030, with a commitment to restoring all ecosystems in need by 2050. To reach the overall EU targets, Member States would have had to restore at least 30% of habitats covered by the law (from forests, grasslands and wetlands to rivers, lakes and coral beds) to good condition by 2030. 

What could this mean for Europe’s wetlands?  

According to the proposed law, EU countries would have to restore at least 30% of drained peatlands by 2030.  

Restoring drained peatlands is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce emissions in the agricultural sector.  For example, paludiculture, the climate-friendly practice of farming on rewetted peatlands, which can also be beneficial to several species which are endangered. 

Wetlands International and researchers at the Greifswald Mire Centre and elsewhere are developing and promoting ways of farming with paludiculture. In July 2022, we took German policy makers to see an EU-funded project near Malchin in Northeast Germany, where farmers cultivate Typha, a flowering wetland plant also known as cattail or bulrush, which can be sold to make construction materials such as boards and insulation. Other potential high value paludiculture activities include harvesting peat moss, for use in horticulture as an alternative to mining fossil peat, and herding water buffalo. These are just some examples of promising pilots that can be scaled up to have far-reaching impact.   

The Nature Restoration Law would have also required that Member States take steps to restore at least 25,000 km of rivers into free-flowing rivers.  

Free flowing rivers provide critical connectivity for aquatic species and improve the health of floodplains and the communities that depend on them downstream. However, the most comprehensive overview of European river barriers estimates that the continent has over 1 million barriers on its rivers. Consequently, freshwater migratory fish have faced a decline of 93% in Europe alone. Many European dams are old and obsolete, and the removal of these dams has proven a cost-effective and efficient ecosystem restoration tool. In 2022, at least 325 river barriers were removed – a positive step in the right direction.  

The adoption of the Nature Restoration Law would have been a catalyst to unlock the potential of wetland restoration, stimulating funding and scaling up wetland solutions. Alongside our European office, which represents 13 member organisations working to protect and restore wetland ecosystems across the continent, we are calling on the countries that abstained to change their vote to support the law. We are also calling on Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, to intervene decisively to salvage at least one element of the biodiversity strategy, and a key pillar of her European Green Deal. 

I urge leaders of Member States who have thus far abstained to vote in support of the Nature Restoration Law which will show the world that the EU is committed to a nature-positive future. Nature, and wetlands in particular, support our biodiversity, economies and our well-being. Healthy wetlands in the EU will help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, make us more water resilient, and boost our local biodiversity. Wetlands International Europe remains eager to work with our network and allies in realising the ambitions of the Nature Restoration Law.

Chris Baker
Director, Wetlands International Europe