First in World: New law to make nature restoration legally binding in Ireland 

June 22, 2022

The legislative proposal for binding nature restoration targets presented by the European Commission today will be transformative for Ireland’s degraded ecosystems and help us tackle climate breakdown.

BirdWatch Ireland warmly welcomes a new law proposed today that would make nature restoration legally binding in Ireland. The law proposed by the European Commission will require the time bound restoration of 20% of land and sea area by 2030. The Commission’s proposal is a huge milestone: no other law in the world has set legally binding nature restoration targets at this level before.

The focus on restoring specific habitats both inside and outside the protected area network, covering terrestrial, coastal, freshwater and marine ecosystems as well as in our cities and towns has the potential to dramatically improve the state of nature at large scale in Ireland while also supporting efforts to address the climate crisis.

  • 85% of Ireland’s internationally important habitats are in poor condition and not able to function properly so we cannot fully avail of the services they provide such as carbon storage in peatlands and flood attenuation
  • 26% of Ireland’s birds regularly occurring bird species are Red Listed birds of conservation concern in Ireland with farmland birds the fastest declining group of birds.
  • One third of Ireland’s wild bee species are threatened with extinction

Degraded habitats are less resilient to the effects of climate change. We need strong and healthy habitats to help us both to mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown. Restoring nature is a critical tool in the climate toolbox.

Oonagh Duggan, Head of Advocacy at BirdWatch Ireland said “At the recent National Biodiversity Conference An Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that “the business case for biodiversity is compelling: the benefits of restoring nature outweigh the costs ten-fold, and the cost of inaction is even higher.” We now need the Irish government to back the highest ambition possible in this law and to set up a Nature Restoration fund to restore our decimated biodiversity and to provide a safe future for all of us”.

On agriculture and food security
We’re not just talking about the survival of nature, we’re talking about the survival of humankind. From farming to fishing, our ability to continue feeding ourselves hangs on repairing the damage done to ecosystems while we still can. Vested interests argue that nature is a threat to our food provision, but the truth is, when you consider the need for healthy soils and food production, it’s our most important ally.

On birds and other biodiversity
We are being robbed of our biodiversity in the wider countryside due to unsustainable agriculture practices and afforestation on biodiversity rich habitats. Many once common birds are not common any more– birds like the Kestrel and Snipe were widespread until recently and are now becoming much rarer due to intensification of agriculture. If birds aren’t thriving, nature and people are not thriving either. We must support farmers in practices that restore farmland biodiversity. Coupled with strong enforcement, this law can bring back the wealth of biodiversity Ireland once had.

On peatlands
Ireland’s peatlands cover more than 20% of our land mass but emit 11 million tonnes of carbon annually. They are severely degraded with knock on negative consequences for plant, bird and insect life. They are one of Ireland’s greatest allies to help us in the climate crisis and must be restored. Loopholes in the law must be closed to ensure effective restoration of Ireland’s fragile peatlands.

On freshwater and marine waters
Water is life but water quality in Ireland is declining and water pollution is rising at an unprecedented rate. Both people and wildlife rely on clean water. Pollution threatens drinking water quality and aquatic life. The life of the Kingfisher depends on good water quality but it is now an amber listed bird of conservation concern and poor water quality is a growing problem for it. We must cut pollution from all sources entering our waterways and restore them so that people and wildlife can have safe water”.

On oceans
A healthy, thriving ocean is fundamental for the survival of humankind. But the reality is that our seas have never been in a worse state than they are today. Twenty-three of Ireland’s twenty-four breeding seabirds are red or amber listed birds of conservation concern. Ensuring they have sufficient fish to eat is essential. If given a proper chance, and with a helping hand, our ocean will have the chance to heal, and nature can be restored at sea. With a strong EU Nature Restoration Law, there is the chance to reverse much of the harm caused by humans and fisheries.

On woodlands
Ireland only has remnants of intact old native woodland. We need to protect and restore these woodlands. Woodlands are one of our greatest allies against the climate crisis – storing carbon, and even regulating the climate. Their conservation is of the utmost important, but they are neglected and becoming infested with invasive species like Rhododendron. Their restoration and preservation is of huge importance as is expanding our native woodland cover.

Strong elements of the law and what needs to improve

Strong elements
The text includes strong elements such as the overarching objective for area-based restoration measures on 20% of the EU land and sea area by 2030, as well as time-bound restoration obligations for natural habitats, covering terrestrial, coastal, freshwater and marine ecosystems. These have a potential to improve the state of nature at large scale.

Also of great importance are the results-based targets for the restoration of agricultural and forest ecosystems. These will oblige Member States to make progress in the recovery of vulnerable species and their habitats in land and seascapes currently overused by intensive practices. Such targets have been under extreme pressure by primary sectors wanting to keep their high-impact production activities.

Other positive elements include strong non-deterioration obligations to ensure that restored sites will benefit biodiversity and the climate in the long-term. In addition, it is good to see that Member States will have to draw up national restoration plans with the key elements on what to restore where and how to finance it. The Commission’s review and linked obligation for Member States to adapt their plans accordingly are also promising to ensure that the plans actually deliver.

What needs to improve

We will be working with the European Parliament and European Council to improve the proposal in the co-decision process. The key elements include:

Peatlands emit 11 million tonnes of carbon annually in Ireland. The targets on rewetting peatlands should be strengthened so that a higher share of peatlands under agricultural use is rewetted without loopholes. Drained peatlands account for 5% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, so the nature restoration law needs to contain strong targets on rewetting peatlands to ensure these store carbon instead of emitting it.

By failing to overcome the deadlock risk posed by the Common Fisheries Policy’s ineffective procedure for managing destructive fishing impacts, the marine restoration targets risk being unimplementable and empty in practice. A safeguard mechanism should therefore be added to ensure the Commission can break the deadlock if Member States cannot agree to the measures required to achieve the restoration targets.

While it is positive that there is a separate article on river and floodplain restoration, the law should contain quantified and time-bound targets to remove barriers. Member States should be required to restore 15% of river length (178,000 km) into free-flowing rivers by 2030 as well as restoration of floodplains.

The compliance architecture must be made more robust to allow enforcement and proper monitoring, ensuring that each Member State contributes fairly to the overarching objective.