EU proposals to protect wildlife and reduce the use of pesticides in agriculture have run into opposition from businesses, farmers and their allies in the European Parliament.
Embarrassingly for European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, those allies are in her own conservative European People’s Party (EPP). They fear a repetition of the Dutch farm crisis, where strict enforcement of environmental regulations has brought a halt to many construction projects and could drive one in three livestock farmers out of business.
The far right are also against the Commission’s plans. The liberals, led by French president Emmanuel Macron’s party, are divided. Even the Greens are unhappy. Their commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius, is responsible for wildlife protection, but they don’t believe his proposals go far enough.
What the EU wants
Sinkevičius, the only Green politician in Von der Leyen’s commission, has proposed to:
- Protect 30 percent of European land and waters.
- Restore nature in 20 percent of land and waters by 2030.
Currently 18 percent of European land and 9 percent of waters are protected. Member states also manage protected areas without an EU designation, bringing the totals to 26 percent for land and 12 percent for water.
The EU agreed to protect 30 percent of its land and oceans by 2030 at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada last year.
What “restoring” nature means
“Restoring” nature would require member states to replant trees, remove pollution and rewild areas. Currently EU law only compels national governments to avoid degradation in protected areas. Even that has proven a challenge.
Sinkevičius’ proposal includes concrete targets:
- Reverse the decline of pollinator populations, like bees and butterflies, by 2030. Increase their populations after 2030.
- No net loss of urban green spaces by 2030. 5 percent increase by 2050. At least 10 percent tree canopy cover in every European city, town and suburb.
- Increase biodiversity in farms and forests.
This may be achieved by adding hedges, flower strips and ponds to farmland, to attract insects and birds, and reducing clear-felling and replanting of trees, so forests consist of trees of different ages.
- Restore and rewet drained peatlands under agricultural use.
- Restore marine habitats.
- Remove barriers in 25,000 kilometers of river by 2030.
Member states would be required to submit National Restoration Plans to the European Commission within two years.
Some €100 billion in EU funding would be available for biodiversity, including restoration, every year.
How current EU policy is falling short
Member states failed to meet voluntary targets to restore at least 15 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020.
The cornerstones of the EU’s biodiversity policy are the Birds and Habitats Directives, which protect 1,389 animal and plant species and 233 habitat types. Their respective protection and conservation areas make up the Natura 2000 network. The Birds and Habitats Directives do not set deadlines for maintaining or restoring nature.
Human activity isn’t banned in Natura 2000 areas provided it doesn’t harm the natural environment or wildlife — but it often does.
Peat- and wetlands and dunes are in the worst condition due to pollution from agriculture and industry. One in three European bee and butterfly species are in decline. One in ten are on the verge of extinction. 71 percent of fish and 60 percent of amphibians have suffered a decline in the past decade despite EU fishing quotas.
Every six years, member states must update the European Commission on the state of their Natura 2000 areas, which are compiled into an EU-wide report. According to the latest, from 2020, 27 percent of species are doing well, up from 23 percent in 2015. 15 percent of habitats are in good condition.
Data may be unreliable
The data on which those assessments are made can be sketchy.
For every Natura 2000 area, there is a list of criteria it needs to meet in order to be considered in a “favorable” state of conservation, including species of animals and plants. Such data is often lacking, in which case experts may determine the area is in “poor” condition.
Even if there is data, it may be dubious, for example based on volunteer birdwatchers trekking into a Natura 2000 reserve and reporting the number of birds they spotted. If they didn’t see a particular bird species that is on the list one year, the whole area is presumed to be in poor condition.
Even when there is solid data, which reveals no deterioration compared to the last reporting round, the area may still be considered in poor condition, because reference values — for example, the number of birds that “should” be in the reserve — typically predate the Natura 2000 classification. Reference values are determined on the basis of “expert judgement”, which especially in smaller countries could mean one professor who specializes in a species or habitat decided them in 1992.
The Netherlands: a cautionary tale?
In the Netherlands, authorities chose nitrogen as one of the key criteria to evaluate the state of conservation areas. Because the country has such a large farm sector, it has the highest emissions of ammonia (a type of nitrogen) in the EU after Malta.
Moreover, Dutch Natura 2000 areas are often in proximity to farms. High concentrations of nitrogen in the air cause some plants to thrive unnaturally and others to wither, driving insects away, which in turn drives birds away. The Netherlands may have lost 70 percent of its bugs in the last thirty years. In waterways, nitrogen spurs algal growth, sucking oxygen from the water. Fish suffocate.
Almost none of the Netherlands’ Natura 2000 areas are in a favorable condition. The Dutch supreme court ruled in 2019 that as a result, no additional activities causing nitrogen pollution could be permitted. Even if the pollution is tiny and temporary, for example in construction. (Trucks and vans emit nitrous oxide.) That has aggravated the Netherlands’ housing shortage, which is projected to reach 400,000. The government’s solution is to buy out or relocate one in three farmers.
Why conservatives are worried
The Dutch plan, costing €25 billion, with a small share of the money going to subsidize innovations that capture and recycle ammonia emissions, provoked violent protests by farmers. The ruling Christian Democrats (members of the EPP) lost a third of their seats in provincial elections in March, when a new farmers’ party placed first in all twelve provinces.
The EPP’s nightmare is a repetition of the Dutch farm crisis EU-wide. “The EPP is and will continue to be the voice and defender of European farmers and our rural communities,” they write.
The implementation of existing nature legislation has led to a bureaucratic nightmare and planning deadlock.
The conservatives argue Sinkevičius’ plans, coming on top of other EU proposals to ban the use of chemical pesticides in conservation areas, cut their overall use in half, reduce greenhouse gas emissions in intensive livestock farming and phase out bottom trawling in protected waters, are not “not feasible” and put “food security” at risk.
Member states complain that a 50-percent cut in pesticide use wouldn’t take into account how much they have already reduced pesticides.
Most farms are excluded from the EU’s greenhouse gas reduction policy, except the 4 percent largest. The Commission would bring 13 percent of the bloc’s largest cattle, pig and poultry farms, representing 60 percent of ammonia and 43 percent of methane emissions from the livestock industry, into regulation. Those farms would be required to reduce their planet-warming emissions.
Sinkevičius argues farmers will benefit
Sinkevičius believes that, far from threatening food security, his plan “future-proofs” it.
Despite the myths, the benefits for farmers are many: fertile soils, less impacts from droughts, water retention, pollination. It will help damaged ecosystems recover, so they can keep producing healthy and nutritious food for the years to come and so that farmers’ income is secured.
Farmers may need to turn some of their land into flowers and ponds, but Sinkevičius promises their remaining land will become more resilient and productive. That is an assessment shared by many ecologists.
There are also EU subsidies to compensate farmers, since the gains in production — if they happen at all — aren’t immediate: 25 percent of agricultural subsidies go to “eco-schemes” between now and 2027. That includes agroforestry as well as organic, carbon and precision farming.
The current system, which ties agricultural subsidies to farm size and therefore incentivizes farmers to put as much of their land into cultivation as possible, has benefited the agro-industry — sellers of animal feed, fertilizers and pesticides; transporters, slaughterhouses and supermarkets — more than farmers. The EU has lost a third of its farmers since 2005. The average farm size has increased. The average farmer’s income has remained stable at around €20,000 per year.
Why Greens aren’t happy either
For the Greens in the European Parliament, Sinkevičius’ proposals don’t go far enough. They would:
- Rewet all drained peatlands (except where there are houses), not just those in agricultural use.
Healthy peatlands absorb carbon dioxide (“carbon sinks”) and can help stabilize water flows in a flood.
- Make 178,000 kilometer of river free-flowing by 2030.
- Require 10 percent of each farm to support nature by 2030.
Currently 4 percent under the Common Agricultural Policy. Which means farmers lose subsidies if they don’t comply, but they don’t have a legal obligation to.
- Extend marine protection to habitats of fished species that are in a critical state, like the European eel.
- Require cities to set aside 10 percent of their land to green (trees, parks) and blue spaces (ponds, open streams) by 2040.
- Reduce clear-felling and replanting to a minimum, and promote more natural forests with an uninterrupted tree canopy and trees of different ages.
Business has other concerns
The employers’ federations of Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden object to the “generic” character of Sinkevičius’ proposals and call for more “flexibility”.
“There is only so much space and there is also demand for housing and renewable energy and mining to become less dependent on others,” Winand Quaedvlieg, Dutch industry’s man in Brussel, points out. “This law gives almost all priority to nature.”
In the Netherland, even permits for hydrogen plants and wind turbines, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are on hold so long as nitrogen emissions, which harm conservation areas, remain too high.
French president Macron appears to share business’ concerns, saying, “We have already passed lots of environmental regulations at European level, more than other countries.”
Now we should be implementing them, not making new changes in the rules or we are going to loose all our [industrial] players.
When protecting climate and nature clash
Sinkevičius argues deploying renewables goes hand in hand with restoration. But if that is true, why has the Commission proposed to give regulatory agencies the power to override environmental impact concerns for green energy and clean tech?
Building wind turbines in the North Sea and reopening lithium mines (lithium is a key component in electric car batteries) would, in fact, harm plant- and wildlife. Building wind turbines at sea scares away marine life. Birds are felled by the blades of wind turbines once they are operational. The Netherlands shut down its warm farms earlier this week when millions of birds migrated over the North Sea. (Although the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture is an even bigger cause of bird decline.) Europe’s second-largest known deposit of lithium is located underneath an EU-protected nature reserve in Brittany, France.
A stark example of how “sustainability” and nature can clash is biomass. 60 percent of the EU’s “renewable” energy is generated by burning manure and wood, which still emits CO₂. The New York Times revealed last year that ancient forests in Romania are chopped down to give wood to biomass plants. Since 2015, the area of European forest being felled has risen by 49 percent.