EU lawmakers pass contentious nature restoration bill in a razor-thin vote amid farmer backlash
Lawmakers supported the European Commission's Nature Restoration Act in a razor-thin 324-312 vote with 12 abstentions
The Nature Restoration Act had become a contentious issue within the European Parliament, but climate activists welcomed the acceptance of the bill while farmers fear they could lose valuable agricultural land.
The European Parliament has accepted a key biodiversity bill that will see the restoration of CO2-storing peatlands but has been criticized by farmers and other opposition groups due to fears they might lose land.
Testing the EU's global climate credentials, the lawmakers supported the European Commission plan in a razor-thin 324-312 vote with 12 abstentions.
After weeks of intense negotiations and despite the steadfast opposition of the legislature's biggest group, the European People's Party, the plan survived in the vote at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Immediately after its approval, lawmakers started voting on more than 100 amendments in a bid to adjust the plan. These amendments will be negotiated with the member states of the EU, signifying a months-long process before the final law can be approved.
The debate surrounding the law had become an important campaign issue prior to the European elections in June 2024. The makeup of the next European Parliament will influence the priorities of the next European Commission, which is currently led by Ursula von der Leyen.
The full chamber had to vote on the bill after a parliamentary commission failed to agree on a position.
What is the Nature Restoration Act?
The Nature Restoration Act was at the center of the EU's biodiversity strategy, forming part of the bloc's Green Deal approach to boost environmental protection and mitigate the effects of climate change. Degraded ecosystems could be restored by boosting forested areas and marine habitats as well as increasing connectivity between rivers.
The Nature Restoration Law was first introduced by the European Commission in June 2022 and met political resistance over plans to restore drained peatlands.
The bill will allow for 30% of all former peatlands currently exploited for agriculture to be restored and partially shifted to other use by the end of the decade, a figure rising to 70% by 2050.
Farmers protest loss of agricultural land
However, farmers' associations said they fear the widespread loss of valuable agricultural land. Political opposition groups even claimed the bill could endanger food security in the EU.
Protesters including climate activist Greta Thunberg gathered at the European Parliament on Tuesday in support of the nature restoration law. "Vote for the strongest law possible," she demanded, adding that "anything less" with be a "a betrayal to future generations."
Farmers and conservative lawmakers in the European Union strongly opposed the landmark nature legislation that bolsters the bloc's green transition and prevents vital ecosystems and species from being wiped out due to climate change.
Meanwhile, farmers also took part in a counter-demonstration that called for a slower approach that would lessen the impact on their income. However, supporter see the new rules as crucial to meeting the EU's climate goals because peatlands help slow planetary heating.
Peatlands absorb more carbon than forests
Peatland, which is a type of wetland, forms over thousands of years from the remains of dead plants, storing more carbon than any other ecosystem.
Globally, peatlands take up some 3% of the planet's land area — and yet, they absorb nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all the Earth's forests combined. But when damp peatlands are drained and used for other purposes, like agriculture or fertilizer, they go from being a CO2 sink to yet another potent source of greenhouse gas.
Across Europe, 7% of the continent's greenhouse gas emissions are the result of drained peatlands and wetlands. That's nearly as much CO2 as the emissions produced by the EU's entire industrial output.
More than half of Europe's peatlands lost
European peatlands, full of nutrients and especially important for biodiversity, make up a patch of land roughly the size of Germany. More than half have suffered permanent damage. In Germany, the amount of degraded peatlands is estimated to be as high as 90%.
Former peatlands in Scandinavia and the Baltic states are mainly used for forestry. But in the Netherlands, Poland and Germany, large swathes of these drained areas are now farmland. Former peatlands account for about 7% of Germany's agricultural land, and now generate 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Sophie Hirschelmann, an expert at the Greifswald Mire Centre, a research institute in northeastern Germany, said that when it comes to agriculture, the continent needs a "paradigm shift" to meet the Paris climate goals. This means moving away from farming on drained peatlands and investing in paludiculture — agriculture on rewetted peat soil. The latter would stop carbon emissions while improving soil and water quality.
In the EU's proposed legislation, rewetting has been planned for half the former peatlands across Europe. For the other half, less effective measures would be used.
In Germany, a comparatively large amount of agricultural activity takes place on peat soils. For Hirschelmann, that means the proposed rewetting and conversion of agricultural land to paludiculture is "very comparable, in scope, to phasing out coal."
"We need policies designed to transform the use of these peatlands," she said.
Political pressure to water down green proposals
The European People's Party (EPP), the conservative group in the European Parliament, has been seeking to drastically reduce the scope of these plans for wetland restoration. It is also against the conversion of agricultural land for other uses.
A claim that it "doesn't make sense to tear down villages built 100 years ago to create wetlands," boosted by the EPP and other groups on Twitter, caused an uproar.
In response to a question by DW as to exactly which villages this tweet referred, the EEP press office replied that it could not say whether any villages or infrastructure were actually in danger of being cleared.
Jutta Paulus, a German Member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, called the dissemination of such misinformation "absurd" and "populist."
Supporters of the law have pointed out that the new legislation would actually ensure Europe's long-term food security. In early May, Virginijus Sinkevicius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, tweeted that "despite the myths, the benefits for farmers are many: fertile soils, less impacts from droughts, water retention, pollination."
"[Farmers] will always be able to make a greater short-term profit from a drained peatland planted with a cash crop, than if it's managed in its rewetted form," said Green MEP Paulus. "And that's why, of course, they will need to be compensated."
Profitable agriculture, green solutions can coexist
Backers of the ambitious legislation have pointed out that profitable agriculture and the restoration of wetlands need not be at odds with each other.
The European Commission has calculated that every euro invested in restoring natural resources would result in at least eight times the economic return over the long term.
And while rewetted land wouldn't be able to support monocultures like grains or corn, it could support the growth of other crops, according to a position paper released in January by several scientific institutions and environmental organizations, including the Greifswald Mire Centre.
Rehabilitated land could also be used to grow timber, or plant grasses and reeds that could serve as insulation material for the construction sector or as raw material for organic plastic substitutes. And instead of cows, revitalized areas could one day become grazing grounds for water buffalo.
The one thing that is clear, however, is that land use must change over the long term, said Hirschelmann.
"At the moment, we still have the chicken-and-egg problem," she said. "Many of these new products are ready for the market, but farmers are still waiting for long-term production commitments. Customers don't know enough about these products to give farmers those commitments."