27th November 2022
Democracy requires a lot of talking. Too much talking many might say, and certainly when it comes to the biodiversity and climate emergency we have heard far too much talk accompanied by precious little action. As I write, the Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity Loss has just voted to pass a resolution stating that “The State has comprehensively failed to adequately fund, implement, and enforce existing national legislation, national policies, EU biodiversity-related laws and directives. This must change.” This body of policy and laws stretches back to the late 1970s so it might seem futile to be continuing to add to it. Yet, that is exactly what the European Commission (EC) is proposing.
In June of this year, the EC published its proposed Nature Restoration Law. It acknowledges that approaches to biodiversity conservation have failed, that conservation on its own is no longer sufficient, i.e. that restoration is required, that the EU continues to lose biodiversity and that while existing laws, such as the Habitats Directive, have been of value, these have lacked time-bound targets. Additionally, the new Law will be a regulation rather than a directive, meaning that once it is passed it immediately becomes law in the 27 member states (whereas a directive needs to be transposed into national laws in each country).
The Nature Restoration Law proposes that restoration measures will cover 20% of land and 20% of EU seas by 2030. There are defined targets for both species and habitats in the marine and terrestrial environments including for rare and threatened species which are not covered by existing legislation. It has targets for restoration of pollinators, birds and peatlands on agricultural land, urban ecosystems, forests and the opening of 25,000km of free-flowing rivers both by removing dams and connecting rivers with their natural floodplains. The law will complement the EU Biodiversity Strategy which appeared in 2020 and commits to protecting 30% of land and sea for nature with 10% of that ‘strictly protected’. It is hoped that the Law will be passed by early 2024 and then national governments will be given two years to develop Nature Restoration Plans which must have concrete and measurable targets.
However, there is no additional funding stream for the implementation of restoration measures. The EC has suggested that sufficient funds are already available in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and other streams which have not been well utilised. However, this seems unrealistic. Farming organisations have fought for the past five years to ensure that CAP funding would remain targeted towards production rather than meeting climate or biodiversity objectives and have been largely successful in that aim. Asking farmers in particular to go the extra mile for nature, by reducing production or perhaps by ending farming altogether in certain areas, will require a leap of faith on their part. The least we can do is say that we are willing to pay them well for it.
The Nature Restoration Law has not been reported much beyond the farming press. In the Oireachtas, the Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine last month held a hearing to a packed chamber where the law was roundly denounced. Reporting by agriculture journalists has been overwhelmingly reflective of this negative tone. The usual rhetoric of bureaucrats in Brussels wanting to hollow out rural Ireland has been getting a good airing. The government, meanwhile, has been guilty of creating an information vacuum, with Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan saying the Ireland supports the law, but then with no follow up from him or his colleagues on how it will be implemented. Communication has not been good.
However, there is an enormous opportunity here that we can’t afford to miss. The prize is not just the restoration of nature but a transformation of the conversation around nature and land use, particularly in rural areas. Nature conservation has so far been viewed as a burden and farmers have good reason to be wary of new designations that affect their land because this has not brought them any advantages. But were the government to set up a dedicated Nature Restoration Fund it could quickly be seen as a stream of money for the revitalisation of swathes of rural Ireland.
We’d be taking about a substantial injection of money for farmers, local communities and social enterprises that are, by the very nature of nature restoration, tied to the land or coastal area. It would not only employ local people but would attract new people and families and provide viable futures for a generation that today only sees migration to cities as a career option. It would be a ‘Marshall Plan’ for rural Ireland and would help to replace the greenwashing surrounding tourism and food production with genuine ‘green’ credentials.
The Citizen’s Assembly has also asserted that “the ambition of the State needs to be significantly increased to reflect the scale of Ireland’s biodiversity crisis. Adequate funding must be made available to address this crisis. This is likely to require substantial and sustained increases in expenditure, which should be made available immediately and guaranteed in the long term.” Politicians from rural Ireland should be seizing this golden moment. But will they?
The Irish Wildlife Trust held a webinar with representatives of the EC last week about the new law and I asked what would be different this time. Member states have become adept at avoiding implementation of EU laws and if medals were handed out Ireland would be on the podium every time. But there was no direct answer to my question as to whether the EC will be investing more resources in enforcement measures; it was instead suggested that Member States will need to want to implement the new law.
There is a point in that. The formula whereby the Commission harangues reluctant governments into protecting the public good has failed. It has been effectively impossible to force countries to do things they don’t want to do. For 30 years, Ireland hasn’t wanted to protect nature or the wider environment. It has been seen as a bothersome obstacle to economic growth and monetary wealth. We have a chance now to change that.
But if we want people on the ground to want it, we have to appeal to more than just their sense of what is right. We must put money on the table so that bringing back nature also works for people.