Last Updated on Thursday, 4 August, 2022 at 12:20 pm by Andre Camilleri
Vanya Walker-Leigh interviewed the European Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius
Why has the Commission just proposed an EU Nature Restoration Law – the text to be discussed with the Parliament and Member States with a view to approval of a final agreed text with entry into force some time during the next 15 months or so?
For decades, the EU has been attempting to stop the decline in biodiversity and ecosystem degradation. Despite some successes, the overall picture remains poor, and current approaches are failing to deliver. Accelerating climate change exacerbates the problem.
The European Green Deal is a game changer; it underlines the commitment to protect and restore nature, stating that the Commission will identify measures, including legislation, to help Member States improve and restore damaged ecosystems to good ecological status, including carbon-rich ecosystems and ecosystems key for disaster risk prevention.
The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 sets voluntary targets to protect nature, while stressing that protection alone will not be enough. This is why the Commission committed to put forward a proposal for legally binding EU nature restoration targets.
I can’t speculate as to the timing of the entry into force as this will depend on the progress made in the Council and the Parliament, but of course we need to see this enter into force as quickly as possible. The biodiversity crisis is very urgent, so we have no time to lose in addressing it.
Meanwhile, will the Commission make a formal presentation of its key points to the Environment for Europe ministerial conference (Cyprus, 5-7 October 2022), the discussions on Nature-Based Solutions at the 27th UN Climate Change conference (COP 27) in Egypt (6-18 November) and at the subsequent COP 15 of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal this December?
The post-2020 global biodiversity framework to be agreed at COP15 in December 2022 in Montreal is a key priority for me, and I will use every occasion to reach out and get all countries to support an ambitious agreement. The reactions from Member States, the European Parliament and stakeholders so far have been very positive. Our proposal is already ambitious, so I do not expect a need to propose any changes in the light of COP15. But if needed, these can be considered during the legislative process which will most likely run to after COP15 end December.
What are the seven goals in the Commission proposal?
We are proposing an overarching restoration objective coupled with a set of binding targets and obligations for specific ecosystems, to ensure a broad coverage of ecosystems to be restored. In particular, we are proposing targets for habitats such as forest habitats, peatlands, grasslands, rivers and lakes, as well as targets for certain essential marine habitats, pollinators, farmland birds, rewetting peatlands under agricultural use, and green urban spaces. We have also included an obligation to achieve a positive trend in certain key biodiversity indicators in wider agricultural and forest ecosystems.
Member States should plan the means of intended financing and support to stakeholders to ensure they reach the targets. These sources can be EU funding instruments, national sources, as well private financing. Member States will also have to explain, in their National Restoration Plan, how they involved the public in the preparation of their Plan and of how they considered the needs of local communities and stakeholders.
Since 27 of the 42 members of the Union for the Mediterranean are Member States, does the Commission visualise encouraging the non-EU UfM members to align their legislation with the law in due course?
Leading by example means setting the political direction and defining ambitious targets, and that’s very much what we are trying to do with the NRL. This EU leadership is complemented by bilateral assistance and cooperation on common objectives with EU partners. We put particular emphasis on supporting the ecological transition in our immediate neighbourhood, specifically the Western Balkans and the Southern Neighbourhood (europa.eu).
For candidate countries like Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey, we work closely with their national authorities to bring about full alignment of the national legislation and the EU acquis. Environment is sometimes one of the more complex areas on the way towards EU accession. We also provide financial assistance under the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance. For the period 2021-2027, about €6 billion in pre-accession financial assistance has been allocated to candidate countries for implementing the green agenda and sustainable connectivity.
Assistance for other countries is provided in the framework of the new Agenda for the Mediterranean, which includes the green transition, focused on climate resilience, environment, and energy among its key priorities. The Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – Global Europe and the European Fund for Sustainable Development Plus is the main instruments for EU cooperation with partner countries.
On top of that, we have opened negotiations that could enable Albania, Israel and Turkey to be associated with the LIFE programme. Their participation in this Programme would provide an incentive at all levels: public authorities, private companies and civil society organisations. It could mean direct access to support for establishing green partnerships with EU organisations, adopting green technologies, and sharing best practices for improving the environment.
What are some key elements in the Commission text of particular relevance and priority to and for Malta, given its latitude and related climate as well as the environmental implications of being an island, not part of the European landmass?
In general terms, Malta needs to step up implementation action on nature protection and restoration and increase the investment allocation in biodiversity which seem currently rather low and insufficient to obtain positive results.
Some of the actions that Malta could take are the adoption of clearly defined conservation objectives and necessary conservation measures for the marine Natura 2000 sites and the revision of conservation objectives and measures for terrestrial sites, in line with the required standard. Malta also needs to provide additional resources for their implementation in order to maintain/restore species and habitats of community interest to a favourable conservation status across their natural range.
Malta also has to keep up its current efforts to further reduce nitrates pollution from agriculture in groundwater. Efforts on monitoring inland and transitional waters for nitrate pollution should continue.
How will their implementation be financially supported by EU funding. Will NGOs be allowed to tap into these funds?
As regards the EU level funding, this can come from many sources, including the LIFE Programme for the Environment and Climate Action, the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund (EMFAF), the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), the European Agricultural Guarantee fund (EAGF), the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Cohesion Fund and the Just Transition Fund, as well as Horizon Europe, and the European Solidarity Corps. The Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) is a further source of funding for the protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems.
The LIFE Programme can support actions to reach all the above-mentioned goals. NGOs are key stakeholders of the LIFE programme. As private and public companies, they have access to LIFE action grants and can present projects in the framework of the calls for proposals. They have also a privileged access to operating grants for getting a co-financing of their own work programmes. NGOs inputs are systematically required and taken into consideration in all the phases of the implementation of the programme. NGOs also have a unique role in reaching these goals by raising awareness and ensuring the involvement of EU citizens.
Several NGOs have emphasised the need for increased public participation and consultation for the development of the law ensure openness and inclusivity in its formulation and implementation. Is this a fair comment?
On the topic of public participation, the preparations for the law followed the normal legislative procedure and the better regulation rules, which requires a considerable degree of public participation. That includes a public consultation on the inception impact assessment, an open public consultation on the development of binding EU nature restoration targets (which received more than 111 000 replies!), and in this case five consultation workshops with stakeholders and Member States. And when you look at the results of the conference on the Future of Europe, it’s clear that this proposal is absolutely in line with what citizens want.
And – of course – there will be more consultations further down the line. When Member States draw up their Nature Restoration Plans, public and stakeholder participation will be crucial.
What is your response to the following comment by Ioannis Agapakis, wildlife and habitats lawyer at ClientEarth.“for this law to have teeth, we need to see planning and monitoring, rules for the measures adopted, and consistency with other EU legislation – otherwise the law’s targets will remain just numbers on a page.” Other NGOs call for increased public participation and consultation on the final text – is this a fair comment?
I agree. This is why the proposal has strong provisions on planning (e.g. through the National Restoration Plans), monitoring and reporting obligations and we made sure it is fully consistent with – and adds value to – existing legislation.
Regarding public participation and consultation, we are following the EU legal procedure, so the text is now with Parliament and Council, bodies with mechanisms to ensure they represent the views of European citizens.
What role is envisaged for greatly expanding the practice of agroecology, agroforestry and organic agriculture and for sustained dialogue for the maximum possible promotion of these with the farming sector?
As outlined in the EU Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies, sustainable agriculture is vital for the maintenance of many species and habitats in biodiversity rich areas, and fundamental to climate resilient development. Many extensive agricultural practices have significant benefits for biodiversity protection – precision agriculture, organic farming, agro-ecology, agroforestry, low intensity permanent grassland and so on. It’s perfectly possible to farm with less pesticides, and studies have shown that agro-ecological farming can also provide better profit margins for farmers.
All around Europe, many farmers are now following agro-ecological approaches which rely on ecosystem services instead of external chemical inputs like pesticides. We know that while using fewer pesticides, we can still produce sufficient quantities of food – not only for our own consumption but also without impacting European exports of agri-food products.
What we cannot do is to maintain functional (agro-)ecosystems without pollinating insects, and the biodiversity that provides so many essential ecosystem services.
And how will the long-term water needs of the agriculture sector be addressed in the light of expected impacts of climate change on water availability, in particular in southern regions?
On the water issue which is a key concern for us, we try to address it in many different ways. In the context of the European Green Deal, both the Circular Economy Action Plan and the new EU Climate Adaptation Strategy refer to wider use of treated waste water as a way to increase the EU’s ability to respond to the increasing pressures on water resources.
Water reuse can limit abstractions from surface waters and groundwater and promote a more efficient management of water resources, through the multiple uses of water within the urban water cycle. This drive towards more efficient use of water is also reflected in the recent Commission proposal to revise the Industrial Emissions Directive, calling also for a more efficient use of water across all industrial processes including through water reuse. The upcoming Commission’s proposal to revise the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive will also aim to further facilitate water reuse.
How much emphasis is placed on maximum protection/restoration of old-growth forests in view of their high biodiversity, carbon absorption levels and fire-containing properties?
Our Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 encourages the recovery of European biodiversity, including forest biodiversity. It highlights the sustainable management of forests as a nature-based solution in the fight against climate change and calls for biodiversity-friendly forestry practices to continue and to be further developed. The Nature Restoration Law recalls the EU commitment to strictly protecting at least 10% of land, including all remaining primary and old-growth forests.
The EU Forest Strategy for 2030 echoes this commitment, highlighting closer-to-nature forestry as a set of multiple practices to ensure multifunctional forests by combining biodiversity and increased carbon absorption with timber-related revenue. The Commission is developing voluntary guidelines on closer-to-nature forestry in line with the strategies to support forest owners and managers in the transition to more biodiverse forests. Forests that are more biodiverse are more resilient to environmental impacts such as droughts, pests or diseases, already a challenge and increasing due to climate change in many regions.
We are also working, together with Member States and relevant stakeholders, on new guidelines for biodiversity-friendly afforestation and reforestation. It is known that monocultures often provide a disservice to biodiversity and to the resilience of forests. We are seeing it in unprecedented forest dieback in much of Europe, we saw it in the bark beetle infestations that have plagued much of Europe, and we see it now in the tragic wildfires that are often occurring in fire-prone monocultures. So we are actively engaging with Member States to increase their share of multi-species forests, and asking them to reflect this in their national strategies and CAP strategic plans.
A graduate of the universities of Aberystwyth (UK) and Maastricht (Netherlands), Commissioner Sinkevičius(aged 31) of Lithuania held several private sector jobs before becoming an MP in 2016. Appointed Chair of the Parliament’s Committee on Economics he was then named Minister of Economy in 2017 – subsequently then renamed as of the Economy and Innovation. His nomination as European commissioner was approved by the Parliament in April 2019.