EU seeks to heal, restore nature with landmark law

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The European Commission will on Wednesday propose legally binding targets to restore nature across the EU, in an attempt to recover plunging wildlife populations and repair degraded habitats.

European Union environment policy chief Virginijus Sinkevicius told Reuters the proposal would require EU countries to collectively restore nature to 20 percent of EU land by 2030, and meet individual targets for certain habitats and species.

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“Nothing can replace ecosystem services that the oceans provide, our soils or our forests,” he said in an interview.

The EU has put its climate change targets in law, but not yet those to protect nature.

The law would lay down binding goals to increase farmland bird populations, reverse the decline of pollinators, and restore 25,000 km (15,500 miles) of rivers to flow along their natural courses by 2030. Countries will have to produce national plans to contribute to the EU-wide aims.

Intensive farming, forestry and urbanisation are fuelling the degradation of natural habitats. Most of Europe's protected habitats and species have a negative conservation status, and a third of bee and butterfly species have declining populations.

The EU proposal, which has been delayed twice, will need approval from the European Parliament and EU countries - some of whom have sought to delay or roll back sustainable farming measures, citing the Ukraine war's impact on global food supply.

Sinkevicius said the global food crisis was caused entirely by Russia blocking the export of millions of tonnes of Ukrainian grain, while failure to stop the degradation of nature would ultimately diminish Europe's farming abilities.

“If we lose soil fertility, if soil erosion and degradation continue, that is going to be a major impact on our agricultural output,” he said. Soil erosion already costs Europe around 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) a year in lost agricultural production.

Economic activities like farming would not be banned on land where nature restoration measures are rolled out, under the EU law.

Laura Hildt, policy officer at the non-profit European Environmental Bureau, called the law a “huge opportunity” to address wildlife loss and climate change, but said only substantial nature restoration should count towards the targets.

“It’s great to have an overarching target. But that needs to be filled with the right measures rather than with a whole bunch of weak things that aren't likely to bring about change,” she said.

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