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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Patrick Greenfield

Flagship EU law to restore nature must not be derailed, warns environment chief

A dead fish in the River Oder, on the German-Polish border.
A dead fish in the River Oder, on the German-Polish border. Photograph: Patrick Pleul/dpa

A flagship law to restore nature across Europe must be agreed by member states or risk sending “a dangerous, negative signal to the world”, the EU’s environment commissioner has warned, amid growing opposition to the legislation.

Last June, the European Commission revealed proposals for legally binding targets for all member states to restore wildlife on land, rivers and the sea. The nature restoration law was announced alongside a separate law proposing a crackdown on chemical pesticides, and both were welcomed as a milestone by environmentalists ahead of the Cop15 biodiversity summit in Montreal.

But they have since faced strong opposition from agricultural, fishing and forestry lobbying groups and some member states. The centre-right European People’s party (EPP) – the largest group in the parliament – has called for the legislation to be scrapped, saying it would have a negative impact on farmers and claiming it would jeopardise climate commitments.

Documents seen by the Guardian indicate that some member states are trying to water down both proposals, with particularly strong opposition to the creation of areas designated for restoration and to curbs on pesticide use.

“We are standing on the edge of the cliff with biodiversity collapse and the rejection of the nature restoration law would be jumping into the void,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, told the Guardian. “The rejection of the most ambitious proposal ever to restore nature would send a dangerous, negative signal to the world that the EU and its member states backtrack on commitments.” A separate commissioner oversees the pesticides law proposal.

“There is no possibility to implement the Green Deal without nature,” Sinkevičius added. “We can do excellent work in decreasing emissions. We can get to zero. But if ecosystems degrade, if soil degrades, if our forests degrade, if marine ecosystems degrade, they are not able to absorb carbon or mitigate heat. We have no technologies to replace them. The nature restoration law is equivalent to the climate law and I hope it will be taken as seriously,” he said.

Ariel Brunner, regional director at BirdLife Europe, said the opposition from member states and lobbyists went beyond normal horse-trading in Brussels, and said abandoning commitments in Europe would undermine calls from member states to protect key ecosystems in other parts of the world, such as the Amazon rainforest.

“This is very serious. There is a high-level attempt by the farming, forest and fishing lobby to kill the legislation. This is not a debate about details with the usual games, here there really is an attempt to just knock it off,” he said.

“These two pieces of legislation [nature restoration and pesticides] are one of the three legs of the European Green Deal. Killing them means abandoning the Green Deal. It would be terrible for Europe’s standing in the world and would give credence to the Bolsonaros of this world who say that all the climate and biodiversity stuff is an attempt to keep us poor by the rich world so they can stay rich,” Brunner added.

Time is running out on the EU’s legislative agenda to pass the proposals ahead of European elections next year.

The EU was a key player in driving the environmental ambition of the final agreement at Cop15 in Montreal, which included targets to protect 30% of the planet for nature by the end of the decade and restoring 30% of degraded ecosystems.

“It was not an easy task to find a balanced position between 27 member states in Montreal and negotiate with the rest of the world, but we managed to achieve it,” Sinkevičius, leader of the EU negotiations, said. “We helped set the standards of the agreement and it would do huge damage to lose this strategic position [if we do not pass the nature restoration law].”

He said the bloc would make good on a scale-up of financing for biodiversity, as well as supporting public-private investments on nature.

He added: “I’m extremely worried that Europe is heading to one of the worst droughts in its history. This summer could be truly difficult and those pressures will be felt by those who work day by day with the environment. By that, I mean our farmers. We have to do all we can to build in resilience and at some point it’s going to be too late.”

Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest news and features

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