Berlin [Germany]: Farmers and conservative lawmakers in the European Union are up in arms over landmark nature legislation meant to bolster the bloc's green transition and prevent vital ecosystems and species from being wiped out due to climate change.
The Nature Restoration Law, first introduced by the European Commission in June 2022, has met political resistance over plans to restore drained peatlands. If passed, the bill would allow for 30% of all former peatlands currently exploited for agriculture to be restored and partially shifted to other use by the end of the decade, a figure rising to 70% by 2050.
But farmers' associations say they fear the widespread loss of valuable agricultural land. Supporters, meanwhile, see the new rules as crucial to meeting the EU's climate goals because peatlands help slow planetary heating.
Peatlands absorb more carbon than forests
Peatland, which is a type of wetland, forms over thousands of years from the remains of dead plants, storing more carbon than any other ecosystem.
Globally, peatlands take up some 3% of the planet's land area — and yet, they absorb nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all the Earth's forests combined. But when damp peatlands are drained and used for other purposes, like agriculture or fertilizer, they go from being a CO2 sink to yet another potent source of greenhouse gas.
Across Europe, 7% of the continent's greenhouse gas emissions are the result of drained peatlands and wetlands. That's nearly as much CO2 as the emissions produced by the EU's entire industrial output.
More than half of Europe's peatlands lost
European peatlands, full of nutrients and especially important for biodiversity, make up a patch of land roughly the size of Germany. More than half have suffered permanent damage. In Germany, the amount of degraded peatlands is estimated to be as high as 90%.
Former peatlands in Scandinavia and the Baltic states are mainly used for forestry. But in the Netherlands, Poland and Germany, large swathes of these drained areas are now farmland. Former peatlands account for about 7% of Germany's agricultural land, and now generate 37% of all greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.
Sophie Hirschelmann, an expert at the Greifswald Mire Centre, a research institute in northeastern Germany, said that when it comes to agriculture the continent needs a "paradigm shift" to meet the Paris climate goals. This means moving away from farming on drained peatlands and investing in paludiculture — agriculture on rewetted peat soil. The latter would stop carbon emissions while improving soil and water quality.
In the EU's proposed legislation, rewetting has been planned for half the former peatlands across Europe. For the other half, less effective measures would be used.
In Germany, a comparatively large amount of agricultural activity takes place on peat soils. For Hirschelmann, that means the proposed rewetting and conversion of agricultural land to paludiculture is "very comparable, in scope, to phasing out coal."
"We need policies designed to transform the use of these peatlands," she said.
Political pressure to water down green proposals
The European People's Party (EPP), the conservative group in the European Parliament, is seeking to drastically reduce the scope of these plans for wetland restoration. It is also against the conversion of agricultural land for other uses.
A recent claim that it "doesn't make sense to tear down villages built 100 years ago to create wetlands," boosted by the EPP and other groups on Twitter, caused an uproar.
In response to a question by DW as to exactly which villages this tweet was referring to, the EEP press office replied that it could not say whether any villages or infrastructure were actually in danger of being cleared. Jutta Paulus, a German Member of the European Parliament for the Green Party, called the dissemination of such misinformation "absurd" and "populist."
European farming group Copa-Cogeca, on the other hand, has warned of the economic and social fallout of the EU's green proposal. Rewetting, it says, could lead to a widespread drop in the productivity of large areas of agricultural land and even endanger food security.
Supporters of the law have pointed out that the new legislation would actually ensure Europe's long-term food security. In early May, Virginijus Sinkevicius, EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, tweeted that "despite the myths, the benefits for farmers are many: fertile soils, less impacts from droughts, water retention, pollination."
"[Farmers] will always be able to make a greater short-term profit from a drained peatland planted with a cash crop, than if it's managed in its rewetted form," said Green MEP Paulus. "And that's why, of course, they will need to be compensated."
Profitable agriculture, green solutions can coexist
Backers of the ambitious legislation have pointed out that profitable agriculture and the restoration of wetlands need not be at odds with each other.
The European Commission has calculated that every euro invested in restoring natural resources would result in at least eight times the economic return over the long term.
And while rewetted land wouldn't be able to support monocultures like grains or corn, it could support the growth of other crops, according to a position paper released in January by several scientific institutions and environmental organizations, including the Greifswald Mire Centre.
Rehabilitated land could also be used to grow timber, or plant grasses and reeds that could serve as insulation material for the construction sector or as raw material for organic plastic substitutes. And instead of cows, revitalized areas could one day become grazing grounds for water buffalo.
The one thing that is clear, however, is that land use must change over the long term, said Hirschelmann.
"At the moment, we still have the chicken-and-egg problem," she said. Many of these new products are ready for the market, but farmers are still waiting for long-term production commitments. Customers don't know enough about these products to give farmers those commitments.
In the coming weeks, the European Parliament plans to agree on a common position and negotiate a final version of the legislation with representatives from the 27 EU member states. The goal is to get the bill passed before the European elections next year.
That could be a challenge. On May 22, the bloc's green policy chief, Frans Timmermans, told lawmakers who have called for the plan to be scrapped that the Commission would not redraft the bill.
"We will not come up with another proposal. There simply isn't time," he said at a European Parliament committee meeting. Rejecting the proposal would put the EU's overall green agenda at risk, he added.
"As an interconnected package of solutions, if one piece falls, the other pieces fall," said Timmermans.