Opinion: Nature Restoration must be supported by Irish MEPs

Jul 10


Nature Restoration must be supported by Irish MEPs

By Damien Thomson

Political Advisor to the Left grouping in the European Parliament on environment & climate, July 10th 2023


On Wednesday (July 12th), there will be an extraordinarily decisive vote in the European Parliament which will decide whether we have a chance of overcoming the biodiversity crisis in Europe.

The Nature Restoration Law proposal is the first comprehensive nature legislation in the EU in 30 years. If adopted, it would set into action a process by which all 27 countries of the EU would create national nature restoration plans, in which they set out how they will contribute to overarching EU goals to restore the state of nature in Europe to a good condition.

The proposed law establishes a new EU framework for nature – with restoration objectives for rivers, forests, peatlands, the marine, urban areas and more, which will see Member States take action to give nature a chance to recover. This isn’t about ‘space for nature’ – it’s about making peace with nature, and securing a future where it still exists around us in our daily lives. This law is in line with the political international commitment signed up to only eight months ago, and supported by Ireland, with the landmark Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

Now that it’s time to implement it, why has it become the most controversial vote of the whole legislative mandate in the European Parliament?


Political battle

At times of crisis you would expect politicians to find unity to work effectively and decisively to overcome the problem. The Nature Restoration Law is the political response to the biodiversity crisis, to address the dramatic loss of species and all the loss of benefits we would normally get from healthy ecosystems.

We are in a dire situation of depleting soil fertility, worsening water quality, and pollinators dying off en masse – which is a severe threat to our food security and our ability to continue life as we know it.

A political response that would tackle this enormous threat should be commensurate in scale, scientifically-informed, and guided by the principle of a just transition. It should be something that our politicians rally around. For a crisis, they have a duty as legislators to collectively find a way forward. This has, very unfortunately, not been how it has played out.


It is extremely unfortunate that the Nature Restoration Law has been reeled into a wider political war, which has pushed it to a cliff edge of outright rejection – all to be determined this week.

The European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament, made up of Christian democratic groups including Fine Gael, is the political force leading the charge to kill the new law before it sees the light of day. Despite the European Council (the body representing all 27 national governments) arriving at a good text and approving the law, the EPP is still hell-bent on its mission to stop it.

They even walked out of negotiations and voted against all negotiated text in the committee votes, including on inserting new chapters on funding and on public participation. The EPP has coordinated closely with the further-right ECR group, and even with the untouchable ID political grouping, made up of Europe’s most extreme right parties. A new political alliance has emerged, with the centre-right ‘moderates’ now being totally indistinguishable from right-wing extremists.

Throughout the past months, the EPP has deeply entrenched itself into an anti-nature position ahead of next year’s European elections in a bid to consolidate right-wing votes – a decision that comes at an enormous cost of having an effective response to the biodiversity crisis with wide political support. But it is not in the interest of any Irish representative to oppose the law, and it has certainly put Fine Gael into an awkward position, especially as the EPP disinformation campaign has reached comic levels in its desperation. With prospect for a knife-edge vote, let’s examine the most Irish of issues.



In Ireland, the reporting on the Nature Restoration Law has centred around the objectives for restoration and rewetting of peatlands. However, it is important not to forget that the new legal framework, relates to restoration of much more than peatlands, it includes our seas and coastal areas, dunes and wetlands, objectives for rivers, forests, pollinators, agricultural areas, and even urban areas. The Irish debate has been often presented as a farmers vs environmentalists divide, with a lot of politicians driving this wedge of division.

The national question of what to do with our peatlands concerns everyone, and some people more directly. We need a fact-based and structured conversation about this, with space for all voices. Public participation is a key part of the Nature Restoration Law. In the designing of the plans, the implementation, and review, there must be effective and meaningful public participation. So, while the current debate seems to be only in light of an upcoming vote in the EU, it is much more than this – it is the start of a just transition process, fundamentally grounded in and guided by public participation and justice.

Peatlands are incredible ecosystems. Once you learn about the power of peatlands, you cannot help but be obsessed with them. They have an outstanding ability to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, with the world’s peatlands holding nearly three times the amount of carbon as all the world’s forests. Our peatlands are our Amazon.

We cannot preach about the destructive palm oil industry in Indonesia or deforestation in Brazil while we neglect our peatlands. They are a climate superpower, by restoring them to a wet or semi-wet condition, we would significantly reduce our national greenhouse gas emissions, and turn them from emitters into carbon sinks.

This is particularly important for those concerned about emission targets for the agriculture and land sector. But peatlands are not only a greenhouse gas sponge, they are unique and ancient habitats, home to our indigenous species which are fading away forever. Our bogs, fens and mires are becoming lifeless, and we are poisoning our waterways in the meantime, with dissolved carbon accumulating in our lakes and rivers. If we want a decent future in this country, we really don’t have a choice – we need to bring our bogs back to life.

We have already degraded 84% of our peatlands in Europe, if we do not start using peatlands in a way that guarantees they last for future generations, then we lose not only a habitat, but a central part of the Irish identity and psyche. What is Ireland without its bogs? How do we describe a fen to our grandchildren? They will undoubtedly be unfamiliar with the words like bogs, fens, and mires if we stay on the trajectory we are on.

Healthy bogs are essential ecosystems

The Irish coalition government, in coming to its position on the Nature Restoration Law, agreed to support it but with one big priority edit. The conditional support rested on a weakening of the targets for restoring drained peatlands.

The Commission’s proposal Article 9 lays out objectives for restoring drained peatlands under agricultural use, with 30%, 50%, and 70% restoration targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050 respectively. This 2050 target would equate to 116,000ha of drained peatlands to rewet.

Considering that Bord na Mona and Coillte have already committed to around 110,000ha, the real target considering the flexibilities would, in actual fact, mean rewetting only 6,000ha of agricultural land. Rewetting of agricultural land is already happening, with department of agriculture funding and various national incentives.

But as mentioned, the Irish key priority was to bring down these targets, and they succeeded in forming an alliance of Member States to insist on lower targets for peatlands. The targets in the agreed text are so low now that nearly all the rewetting targets will be covered by Bord na Móna commitments alone, with 83,000ha now being the new 2050 target. In practice, this means that Ireland could reach its targets without converting any drained grasslands back to wet conditions. This is not something to be proud of, as it really is not in the Irish interests to ignore the need to restore drained peatlands under agricultural use.

We still need to restore these drained peatlands, and the sooner we do it, with positive and rewarding incentives, the better off we will all be, particularly the farmers on the land who would benefit from new funding streams.


Six per cent of our agricultural land is on peat soils in Ireland. Restoring that is not a threat to our food production or our way of life, nor does it kick anyone off the land or create a national park. It entails different farming practices, among which there are many different options. We can still produce food with different levels of restoration, and paludiculture offers new economic opportunities.

Moreover, the portion of the EU budget dedicated to biodiversity action is growing, and there is significant movement on establishing a new permanent Nature Restoration Fund to directly financially support those who implement the measures in this law. But the reality of the agreement on the table now is that no agricultural land is legally required in this law to be touched.

However, the national Nature Restoration Plans have to be set by each Member State, and they are in no way limited in their ambition. They should of course include incentives for restoring drained agricultural peatlands. Failing to do that would cut off Irish farmers from new finance streams and incentives, and would leave the frontrunners without reward.

On Wednesday the fate of the Nature Restoration Law will be decided. It is in Irish interest to have this law adopted. The structure of an EU framework law with national level plans and strong public participation safeguards is a good one. It will get the transition going and will make it fair, incentive-based and rewarding. It will also allow for local conditions to be considered in full and pave the way for predictable funding streams for those who undertake the restoration measures. Without this law, we fail to establish a normative response to the biodiversity crisis, which will set us back decades.

The disinformation has been debunked again and again – there are really no excuses. It’s time our Irish representatives stand up as advocates for this vital law and get it adopted.


This blog represents the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Irish Wildlife Trust