Do you know what a peatland is?
A peatland is a type of wetland with exceptional biodiversity. They take up just 3% of the Earth’s surface and absorb more planet-warming carbon dioxide than all of the world’s forests combined. To put the strength of these swampy habitats into perspective, forests cover about 38% of the globe.
Peatlands are one of the world’s strongest natural carbon sinks, second only to oceans, but when they are exploited — drained and used for agriculture and fertilizer — they morph into yet another source of potent greenhouse gas emissions.
In fact, in Europe drained wetlands and peatlands are responsible for 7% of the continent’s emissions. That’s almost as much as the emissions produced by the world’s entire steel industry, which could instead be a source of carbon negativity.
The state of Europe’s peatlands is one reason that, for months, the European Union’s lawmakers have been engaged in a fierce battle over the proposed Nature Restoration Law, a key pillar in the EU’s Green Deal and Biodiversity Strategy. As the European Commission, which proposed the law, reports 81% of the EU’s habitats are in “poor condition.”
The bill aims to set the world’s most ambitious climate and biodiversity targets, setting binding restoration goals for specific habitats and species, with the aim to cover at least 20% of the region’s land and sea areas by 2030, and ultimately all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050.
When it comes to climate mitigation and restoration, the EU wants to be the world’s point of reference.
While the law has targets across biomes, from river, urban, and marine ecosystems, to dunes, rocky habitats, and forests, one of the biggest reasons the law has faced weeks of intense lobbying by industrial farming lobbyists is its targets concerning agricultural lands, many of which are peatlands that were drained for agricultural use.
On Wednesday, the law narrowly passed by a blade of grass, with a 324-312 vote with 12 abstentions to move onward to be negotiated by the EU’s 27 member states. As the Associated Press reports, it could “take months” before the final text of the law is approved. Still, by passing through Parliament, organizations like Greenpeace call it a “landmark” because the law marks the first-ever legislation explicitly aimed at restoring Europe’s nature.
“European nature is in a dire state, but this vote shows that there is still hope to restore and grow what’s left,” Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe Biodiversity Project Manager Špela Bandelj said in a statement.
“As another unprecedented heatwave grips Europe, it’s clear that to survive climate breakdown and ensure food supplies we’ll need nature on our side. So far governments and the EU have failed to act. The nature restoration law is a clear benchmark to judge them on their actions on the ground.”
For months, EU member states have sought to water down the ambitions to “rewet” peatlands, which studies show are extremely strategic in terms of climate mitigation and biodiversity action. However, more than half of Europe’s peatlands are lost, whittled down to a patch of land roughly the size of Germany, which itself has over 85% degraded peatlands, seven times that of the amount degraded across the world.
According to Sophie Hirschelmann, an expert at the Greifswald Mire Center, a research institute in Germany, via DW, rewetting peatlands can be, for Europe, “very comparable, in scope, to phasing out coal.”
The law’s chief opponents on the right argued that restoring 20% of the land and sea, particularly agricultural land, by 2030 would endanger food and economic security, putting farming and fisheries at risk; however, scientists have long rejected claims like this.
In fact, 6,000 scientists signed an open letter in support of the Green Deal, writing that protecting nature is essential to food security, rather than endangering it, adding that marine restoration boosts fisheries, with ecosystem protections creating new jobs, and that the future burden of environmental degradation is worth the cost it takes to restore it now.
Aside from the lands’ potential as carbon sinks, it’s also essential for biodiversity restoration. As one May study published in the journal PNAS shows, farmland practices are driving down bird populations across Europe so quickly that populations have halved in the last 40 years.
As, Guy Pe’er, a conservation biologist at the Helmholtz-Center for Environmental Research and the first author of the letter, said via The Guardian, “Forty years is an extremely short time. In evolutionary terms, it’s the speed of a meteorite falling on us.” It’s unclear if even the dinosaurs died out that fast, he said.
“Lobby organizations can generate as much misinformation as they want. But when policymakers are going against the science, we need to step in.”
Like the scientists, the Commission knows restoring peatlands works. The Living Bog Project, an EU-funded peatland restoration project in Ireland, brought 12 peat sites across Ireland back to life between 2016 and 2021, restoring 18% of what’s known as peatland bogs.
If the EU’s new law is successful, this is just the beginning of bringing back the 99% lost in Ireland over the last 200 years.
While the current version of the law is weakened, the provisions concerning agricultural land restoration have survived, with climate protesters including the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg supporting the law.
Prior to the law’s passing, Thunberg called on politicians to “choose nature, to choose people over profit and greed,” at a demonstration on Tuesday.
“Farmers and the environment go hand in hand, you cannot have food without nature, and by wrecking our life-supporting system it will become even more difficult to secure food safety,” she said. “So, we are on the same side here.”