Q&A: What does the EU ‘nature restoration’ law mean for climate and biodiversity?

The EU’s law to restore nature was given the green light by the European parliament this week.

Global and national targets are in place around the world to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. But, currently, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and biodiversity is declining at a level described by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as “unprecedented”. Image: International Monetary Fund, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The long-awaited “nature restoration” law aims to repair the EU’s damaged ecosystems over the next few decades. 

The final vote on the law came amid farmer protests across the EU and, in response, rollbacks of some of the bloc’s other environmental plans

The law became a focal point for misinformation in recent months and saw strong levels of opposition from different groups. 

It passed through a final parliament vote on 27 February, with 329 votes in favour, 275 against and 24 abstentions – a larger margin of approval than a knife-edge vote last summer. 

It now needs to be approved by the council of the EU before it can take effect. 

In this Q&A, Carbon Brief explains the aims of the nature restoration law, the challenges it faced, its scientific backing and what it will mean for climate change and biodiversity loss in the EU. 

What is the EU nature restoration law?

Proposed in June 2022, the nature restoration law is seen by the European Commission as a key part of meeting the EU’s climate and biodiversity goals. 

It aims to restore at least 20 per cent of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030. 

Within this wider goal, countries need to restore 30 per cent of habitats covered by the new law (including forests, rivers and wetlands) that are already degraded by 2030. This increases to 60 per cent by 2040 and at least 90 per cent by 2050. 

Sabien Leemans, a senior biodiversity policy officer at WWF EU, says the law is a “very big opportunity” for nature – and a rare one in terms of EU policy. She tells Carbon Brief:

“It is comparable to the habitats directive that was adopted in the early 90s – more than 30 years ago. It’s not like in the climate sphere that you have legislation coming up every year or every couple of years. 

“For nature, with a proposal that would really impact how we use land and sea in Europe, I think this is really historic and [it is] not happening even every decade.”

The law is intended to work alongside other environmental policies on a range of issues, including birds, habitats, water and invasive alien species. Its goals also align with the new EU 2030 forest strategy, which intends to protect and restore forests across the bloc.

The law states that EU countries should, “as appropriate”, prioritise restoring habitats that are “not in good condition” and also located in Natura 2000 sites – an EU network of protected areas containing at-risk species and ecosystems – until 2030. 

These areas are “essential” for nature conservation, the law says, and there is an existing EU obligation to ensure that Natura 2000 areas are covered by long-term restoration measures. 

EU countries will need to submit national restoration plans to the commission to show how they plan to deliver on key targets, with requirements for monitoring and reporting on their progress towards those goals. Leemans tells Carbon Brief: 

“The member states will choose where they will restore, what they will restore, how they will restore. And together the national restoration plans need to add up to the targets.” 

More than 110,000 people and organisations responded to an online public consultation on the proposal in early 2021. The results showed “overwhelming support” for legally binding targets, with 97 per cent of respondents in favour of general EU restoration targets across all ecosystems, the commission said. 

The law scraped through a parliament vote in July 2023, which saw elements of the text “watered down”. (See: What are the most contentious parts of the nature restoration law?)

After further negotiations, the commission, parliament and council of the EU provisionally agreed the terms of the new law in November 2023. This passed through the final parliament vote on 27 February 2024. 

There was a “last-ditch attempt from rightwing parties” to reject the law in this vote, the Guardian reported. The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the parliament, voted against the law alongside “far-right lawmakers”, the newspaper said. 

Civil society organisations such as the European Environmental Bureau and Friends of the Earth Europe celebrated the EU parliament passed the law “despite EPP & far-right’s attempts to block the text”.

Politico noted that the proposal’s “narrow survival underscored broader trends likely to hamper green lawmaking” after the upcoming European parliament elections in June. 

The law still has to be adopted by the council of the EU before it can take effect. This is usually a formality, but Deutsche Welle reported that “it is not guaranteed and some recent EU policies have faced blockages and delays because of domestic pushback”. 

The parliament’s lead negotiator on the proposal, César Luena, said the EU can now “move from protecting and conserving nature to restoring it”. 

Will the law help the EU meet its climate and biodiversity goals?

The commission’s original proposal for the law said that “more decisive action” is needed to achieve the EU’s climate and biodiversity goals, adding that the bloc “has so far failed to halt the loss of biodiversity”. It said:

“The outlook for biodiversity and ecosystems is bleak and shows that the current approach is not working.”

Global and national targets are in place around the world to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. But, currently, greenhouse gas emissions are still rising and biodiversity is declining at a level described by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) as “unprecedented”. 

Despite the fact that many elements have been weakened since the first proposal, the law is intended to be one part of several solutions needed to bridge this gap between goals and action. Leemans tells Carbon Brief:

“It’s quite clear from all reports that we are still losing nature. More than 80 per cent of the natural habitats in Europe that are listed on the habitats directive are not in a good condition. So there is really a lot of work to do.

“It’s really important to protect nature…But it’s not enough – you also need to start restoring nature where it has been lost and bring it back.”

The EU’s 2030 biodiversity strategy sets out the bloc’s plans to protect nature and improve ecosystems.

Healthier ecosystems would have a range of wider benefits, including being more resilient to climate change, reducing the impact of extreme weather and helping to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, 26 per cent of the EU’s land and 12 per cent of marine areas are protected. 

Romina Pourmokhtari, the Swedish climate and environment minister, says the nature restoration law will hopefully help the EU “rebuild a healthy level of biodiversity, fight climate change and meet our international commitments under the Kunming-Montreal agreement”. 

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) is a set of goals and targets aiming to “halt and reverse” biodiversity loss by the end of this decade. It includes a target to conserve 30 per cent of the world’s land and 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. (See Carbon Brief’s recent Q&A on progress one year since the framework was agreed.) 

The map below, taken from a 2023 study, shows the existing European network of protected areas under strict protection (light blue), not-strict protection (yellow) and new protected area corridors (dark blue). EU countries are shown in dark grey. The level of the protection is based on categories from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The areas under the strictest protection have minimal presence of humans. 


The geographical spread of the European network of protected areas. EU countries are coloured in dark grey, non-EU countries are light grey. Strictly protected areas are noted in light blue, less strictly protected areas are noted in yellow and new protected area corridors are noted in dark blue. Source: Staccione et al. (2023) (CC BY 4.0 DEED)

According to an impact assessment study published by the commission earlier this year, the economic benefits of restoring a number of different EU ecosystems – including peatlands, forests and lakes – by 2050 range at around €1.86tn, compared to the estimated €154bn cost of these actions. 

The report added that, in a number of ways, the “climate mitigation benefits alone outweighed the cost of restoration action required”. 

What is the scientific backing behind the law?

The scientific rationale for the EU’s nature restoration law is laid out in the commission’s impact assessment study, which considers both ecosystem restoration needs and the financing needed to implement such targets in the EU.

About 80 per cent of habitats in the EU have “bad” or “poor” conservation status, and only 15 per cent are in “good” condition, according to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) 2020 “state of nature in the EU” report.

More than half of peatlands – including bogs, mires and fens – and half of dune habitats are in bad condition, the report says. Coastal habitats have the smallest area remaining in good condition. 

The chart below, taken from the report, shows the percentage of habitat in good (green), unknown (grey), poor (yellow) and bad (red) condition.


Conservation status per habitat, with green indicating good condition and grey, yellow and red indicating unknown, poor and bad condition, respectively. The number in parentheses next to each habitat type is the number of assessments made for each type of habitat in the report, with a total of 818 assessments. Source: EEA (2020)

As a result of the degradation of habitats, many species across the EU are in decline. 

For example, pollinators are crucial for food production, but one in three bee and butterfly species are in decline, according to the council. It points out that €5bn of the EU’s annual agricultural output “can be directly attributed” to those species, but about half of the areas where pollinator-dependent crops are grown “do not provide suitable conditions for pollinators”. 

The EEA assessment provides a map of the conservation status in the EU habitats, shown below. Regions in red have “bad” conservation status, regions in yellow are classified as “poor” conservation status and green areas have a “good” conservation status. 


Distribution of the conservation status around the EU and UK, with green indicating good condition and yellow and red indicating poor and bad condition, respectively. Source: EEA (2020)

During a webinar hosted by the European Geosciences Union at the end of last year, Damien Thomson, a political advisor working within the European parliament, said the law is “largely scientifically based, but there’s room for improvement”.

In the webinar, Thomson emphasised that the commission considered the scientific merit of the legislation, but said that the scientific evidence did not hold equal weight to the political voices in the parliament. 

The EU set its first nature restoration target in 2010, as part of the EU biodiversity strategy to 2020. That strategy contained a target aimed to restore “at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems” by 2020. 

However, the bloc did not achieve any of the six targets set out in that strategy, the impact assessment found. It stated that the restoration target was hindered by several issues, such as the lack of legally binding targets and the “ambiguity” as to which ecosystems and restoration activities it was referring to. 

The new restoration law stems from the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030, which aims to establish legally binding targets to restore “significant areas of degraded and carbon-rich ecosystems by 2030”.

The strategy aims to legally protect a minimum of 30 per cent of the land, including inland waters, and 30 per cent of the sea in the EU by 2030. It additionally set a target to ensure that 30 per cent of EU species and habitats reach “a favourable conservation status” and to restore at least 25,000 kilometres of free-flowing rivers by that date. 

It adds that the commission and the EEA will guide countries to “select and prioritise the species and habitats for restoration measures”.

The restoration law also acknowledges that the GBF requires that at least 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems worldwide – including terrestrial, inland water and marine and coastal ecosystems – should be “under effective restoration” by 2030. 

However, the law ultimately required restoration of 20 per cent of the EU’s lands and seas by 2030. 

In a joint statement after the final vote, BirdLife EuropeClientEarth, the European Environmental Bureau and WWF EU said they were “relieved that MEPs listened to facts and science, and did not give in to populism and fear-mongering”. The statement added:

“Now, we urge member states to follow suit and deliver this much-needed law to bring back nature in Europe.”

What are the most contentious parts of the nature restoration law?

One of the main objections against the new law was around restoration requirements for drained peatlands used for agriculture and came from political and farming groups. 

Specifically, member states are required to establish measures to restore organic soil in 30 per cent of agricultural lands lying in drained peatlands by 2030. 

This can be achieved by a range of actions, which include converting cropland to permanent grassland, establishing peat-forming vegetation or fully rewetting drained peatlands to allow padiculture – sowing of crops on peatlands or on rewetted peats.

The initial proposal was intended to reach 50 per cent of such areas by 2040 and 70 per cent by 2050; however, the final regulation slashed those percentages to 40 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively. 

This target faced political resistance from conservative parties, who argued that the law would threaten the livelihoods of farmers and fishers, decrease food production and push up prices. These groups raised a “relentless campaign to bring down the text”, Euronews reported. 

The European People’s Party (EPP) also sought “to drastically reduce the scope of [the] plans for” peatland restoration and was “against the conversion of agricultural land for other uses”, including restoring peatlands, Deutsche Welle reported.

In response to these concerns, member states “added flexibility” to targets linked to the rewetting of peatlands and green urban spaces into their proposal, according to Euronews

The outlet reported that Pourmokhtari, the Swedish minister, said the country’s presidency of the council had “listened carefully to all member states who had different concerns and remarks on the proposal”. 

Another target that spurred strong political objection was the restoration of forest ecosystems. 

The final law mandates member states to “achieve an increasing trend at national level of at least six out of seven” forest indicators, which include traits such as the amount of non-living woody biomass in standing and lying deadwood, organic carbon stocks, forest connectivity and tree species diversity.

By June 2031, EU countries need to inform the commission about their progress on restoring nature between when the law takes effect and 2030. 

After this, countries need to report progress at least every six years. The first draft of the law had proposed assessments every three years.

Countries also must, by June 2028, report other information to the commission, including details around which areas will be restored.

The law says that when considering forest and other ecosystem restoration actions, countries “shall aim to contribute” to the EU’s existing goal to plant at least 3bn trees across the bloc by 2030, prioritising native tree species and adapted species. 

Nordic countries “had previously pushed back against previous forestry-related targets” and were expected to oppose the nature restoration law, a parliamentary representative told Euractiv

Sweden, for example, was “believed to be opposed” to the targets of forest management contained in the law, Euronews reported. 

Opposition parties accused Finland’s government of a “failure to protect national interests” and pointed out that the law would be costly, the Helsinki Times reported in November. Riikka Purra, chairperson of the right-wing populist Finns Party, said:

“We won’t stand by pillaging Finnish forests a lot, but also not for pillaging them a bit less.”

In response, Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, said her country would accept the proposal if it included amendments and met “Finland’s overall interests”, the outlet said. It added that the government was pushing for the restoration measures to be “voluntary for land owners”, since forest policy “falls strictly” within national policy.

Following negotiations by the EU parliament, commission and council last year, a statement from WWF said the law had been “watered down”, with “disappointing” exemptions and “excessive flexibility” on some requirements.

Despite this, Leemans believes the law will lead to improvements for European ecosystems. But, she adds:

“The key will be the implementation.” 

What has been the reaction to the EU’s nature restoration law?

Since the law was first proposed in 2022, it has received support from a range of groups, including wind energy and solar power associations, hundreds of scientists, dozens of major companies, an EU organic farming representative group and NGOs such as WWFBirdLife International and Greenpeace.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature called on the EU to adopt the law and Wetlands International Europe, a non-governmental group of wetland preservation organisations, said the law will help to “secure the future of our vital wetlands”. 

Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg was among a group of climate activists calling for a strong nature restoration law outside the European parliament building in Strasbourg last July.

There were two key opponents to the proposed law – the major agricultural lobby group Copa-Cogeca and the EPP. 

The EPP made a number of debunked remarks about the law, including that it would “turn the entire city of Rovaniemi” – the alleged “hometown” of Santa Claus – into a forest. 

The party also claimed that the targets will lead to a “global famine” alongside higher food prices and increased imports of “unsafe food that does not meet EU standards”. These claims have been rebutted by a number of experts

An open letter signed by 3,000 scientists in June last year pushed back on claims that the law will harm farmers and threaten food security. The letter says that these kinds of claims “not only lack scientific evidence, but even contradict it”, Reuters reported.

“Green-minded” lawmakers, scientists and environmental groups said the EPP was opposing nature and climate policies to “score political points in rural constituencies” in the upcoming parliament elections, Politico reported last November. 

In a correspondence to the scientific journal Nature, Dr Kris Decleer, a researcher at Belgium’s Research Institute for Nature and Forest, and Prof An Cliquet, a researcher at Ghent University, wrote that opponents to the law were “influenced by lobbyists in favour of intensive agriculture, fisheries and the forestry industry, who say that the law would cut jobs and undermine food and energy security”.  

Many farmers will be directly impacted by the nature restoration law and it featured among the concerns of farmers protesting across the EU in recent months (see Carbon Brief’s analysis of how these protests relate to climate change).

The commission’s impact assessment for the law said that the farming, forestry and fishery sectors are likely to be most impacted through, for example, lost income from less intensive extractive management in forestry. However, it also said that these sectors stand to benefit in the long-term, as they will be more resilient to extreme weather and reduce the risks of pest outbreaks as a result. 

There are also farm-related exemptions in the law, including an option to halt certain targets for agricultural ecosystems in case of any “unforeseeable and exceptional events outside of the EU’s control and with severe EU-wide consequences for food security”. This was added to the text in November last year. (See: What are the most contentious parts of the nature restoration law?)

The law includes further leeway for countries to potentially set lower restoration targets for certain ecosystems in specific circumstances.

Leemans, from WWF EU, tells Carbon Brief that criticisms from the EPP and others were “mainly misinformation, and really on an unprecedented scale”. She says:

“We’ve never seen such an aggressive campaign against a legal proposal coming from the commission. It was really putting the [EU] Green Deal in jeopardy because the nature restoration law is the biodiversity pillar of the Green Deal, and it’s really a very important piece of the puzzle.”

She adds that while the EPP may claim it is “protecting or defending the farmers’ concerns”, she believes “they are doing the opposite”. She says: 

“All science tells you the same – it’s healthy ecosystems that need to be in place to ensure food security. Agriculture needs healthy soils, needs water retention, needs flooding and drought prevention, pollination and all this depends on healthy ecosystems. 

“It’s very cynical to tell people that you’re defending farmers and actually blocking one of the solutions for farmers.”

This story was published with permission from Carbon Brief.

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