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The Emperor’s New Clothes: Why the EU Nature Restoration Regulation might fall short on biodiversity

The recent news around the now-adopted EU Nature Restoration Regulation has been significant, but is it really the game-changer it is being promoted as? The original 2022 proposal from the European Commission set the stage with ambitious and unambiguous goals for nature restoration. It was a clear call to action with legally binding targets and commitments.

Fast-forward to 2024, and the final version of the Regulation, shaped by amendments made by the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament, is rather a shadow of its former self. Instead of a robust legislative framework on restoration, we are left with a diluted set of subjective targets. While many argue that this is better than nothing, I find it hard not to see this as a step back from the originally proposed goals. What was once a strong plan is now a paper tiger, lacking substance and bite.

However, as a researcher, I find it interesting to highlight some of the changes and communication around the restoration regulation as an excellent example of framing in practice and the overall power of words (both for communication and legislation).

Let us get into why!

One example can be taken from a recent press release issued by the Council of the EU on 17 June 2024, where the final adoption of the Regulation was announced. It was, amongst other things, stated that:

If you read this for the first time, you might think it sounds great. After all, is it not significant that we now have a joint restoration target? However, if you dig into the origin of this joint target and its associated text, another picture emerges.

First, consider the original paragraph on this target, which set out that “2. This Regulation establishes a framework within which Member States shall put in place, without delay, effective and area-based restoration measures which together shall cover, by 2030, at least 20 % of the Union’s land and sea areas and, by 2050, all ecosystems in need of restoration place.

In the box below, you can read the amendments that were introduced (in bold italics):

These changes to the restoration regulation come with several notable implications:

  • Responsibility has arguably shifted from individual national commitments to the collective EU level. For example, does this mean that modest restoration efforts by larger countries like Germany, France, or Sweden could allow smaller countries to avoid taking any action altogether?
  • Moreover, at first glance, the Council’s emphasis on the word jointly paints a picture of unity and achievement. However, this language hides the original, more stringent targets set by the Commission. What seems like a cooperative effort is, in fact, a step back from the initially proposed goal.
  • Most importantly, introducing the term aim injects subjectivity into the implementation process. What will aiming for the 20% target mean? Is it only the effort carried out by Member States that will matter? These open questions are not really what you want when talking about a supposedly legally binding regulation.

What about forests?

It should be recognised that the Regulation emphasises the importance of forest ecosystems, setting out some key provisions on forests, such as: 

  • Restoration targets: The Regulation sets ambitious targets for restoring degraded forest ecosystems. Article 12 specifically mandates measures to enhance forest biodiversity, address risks such as forest fires, and promote sustainable forestry practices.
  • Tree Planting Initiatives: Article 13 introduces a commitment to plant three billion additional trees across the EU by 2030. This initiative aims to enhance carbon sequestration, improve air quality, and support biodiversity.
  • National Restoration Plans (Articles 14-17): Member States must prepare and implement national restoration plans incorporating forest restoration activities.
  • Monitoring and reporting: The Regulation includes mechanisms for monitoring forest health, biodiversity indicators, and the effectiveness of restoration measures, as detailed in Articles 20-21.

The reduction of restoration targets and a shift from binding commitments to flexible aims raise serious concerns about the Regulation’s effectiveness in driving meaningful change in the future. For instance, the original target to restore 30% of degraded ecosystems by 2030 was reduced to 20%, which does not comply with international commitments, such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.

Other changes, such as the inclusion of provisions allowing for the prioritisation of renewable energy production over restoration efforts (Article 6), imply that there is a risk that increasing bioenergy sourced from forest biomass may conflict with conservation goals. Likewise, the Regulation allows for economic considerations to influence restoration efforts, which may lead to uneven commitment levels and prioritisation of certain habitats over others.

While there are more examples, the key point is that the efficacy of future forest measures has been significantly undermined by the EU’s reduced regulatory ambitions and the introduction of multiple loopholes, as seen in the amendments to the restoration regulation. This will ultimately limit the EU’s ability to hold countries accountable and to meet global biodiversity targets.

Final thoughts

While the restoration regulation is certainly valuable for starting important conversations about biodiversity, it is far from sufficient for driving the meaningful changes we need. Unfortunately, its potential to effect real change will depend entirely on the ambitions of individual Member States, as there are no robust accountability mechanisms in place. My concern is that this will be another case of the emperor’s new clothes, which are highly discussed but ultimately invisible in terms of real impacts.

If you want to learn more, our latest Sustainability publication critically crosswalks the EU Nature Restoration Regulation with the targets set out in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, focusing on forest ecosystems. Dive into the complete analysis here:

Background and affiliation: Filip Aggestam is a guest researcher at the European Forest Institute (EFI) Forest Policy Research Network (FPRN) at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in Austria.

Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Forest Institute.


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