Nature restoration can be a mighty ally in efforts to achieve climate targets, and the EU and its Member States have two upcoming opportunities to add substantive targets with compelling timelines to their restoration plans. One is the Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) Regulation revision (the European Parliament ENVI Committee is expected to vote on the Parliament’s position on 28 April 2022), and the other is the upcoming EU Nature Restoration Law proposal (expected March 2022).
In early February, WWF launched a study by IEEP that examined how much carbon could be absorbed merely by restoring the “habitats of EU importance”, listed under Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive, that are currently in poor and unknown condition. Research was based on the carbon storage and sequestration information in a literature review published by the European Environment Agency (EEA).
It turns out that their untapped carbon storage and sequestration potential is immense: restoring the 47.2 million hectares of currently degraded Annex I habitats could sequester approximately 300 mega-tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year – the equivalent of the current carbon sequestration of the entire LULUCF sector. And that is without even touching on the issue of restoring marine habitats or sparsely vegetated lands. What could be accomplished were we to restore those could be an order of magnitude higher.
Also tremendously hopeful is that – unlike technology-based solutions such as Bioenergy, Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), which always seem to come with nail-biting side effects – the reduction of emissions through natural solutions has extremely positive knock-on effects, including drought and flood protection, reduction of fires, flourishing biodiversity, and slowing the spread of zoonotic diseases.
But there’s a catch, the key to reaping climate benefits is urgency: it can take more than a decade to improve habitat condition and re-establish carbon cycling. Other potential low-hanging fruit must also be examined, with a view to including targets in the Nature Restoration Law: for instance, rewetting the approximately 52,000 square kilometres of drained organic soils in agriculture could “decrease emissions by more than the annual [Greenhouse Gas] emissions of countries like Austria or Romania”.
Restoration must be swift and determined. If serious action were postponed until 2040 or 2050, as is currently being discussed, this window of opportunity will close. As natural disaster upon natural disaster demonstrates in real time, climate-dithering entails unimaginable economic costs – not to mention human and biodiversity costs. We have a rare chance to avert the worst, but it will not happen without decisive legislative action.