Push to halt biodiversity loss with legally binding EU targets

The biodiversity crisis is rising up the political agenda as Brussels pushes ahead with legally binding targets to cut the use of pesticides and improve natural ecosystems, despite objection from farmers who argue that they face “cumulative crises” following coronavirus and the war in Ukraine.

The laws, published on Wednesday, set broad-ranging targets to improve biodiversity on farmland, increase the number of bees, restore drained peatlands and boost green areas in cities, with the measures that would cover a fifth of the EU’s land and sea by 2030.

Brussels also aims to cut the use of pesticides by half by 2030, both in quantity and the level of risk they pose to the environment.

At the same time, the UN has convened 196 countries in Nairobi this week to negotiate over global biodiversity targets to be decided at a summit in December. The COP15 summit is being moved from Kunming, China to Montreal, Canada, after being delayed by two years due to Covid.

“Our COP has been postponed four times,” said Elizabeth Mrema, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity on Tuesday, announcing that China would continue to preside over the event. “But biodiversity does not wait . . . species are going into extinction.”

The biodiversity drive comes as Russia escalates fears of a global food crisis by preventing the export of grains from Ukraine. Farmers argue that they will not be able to provide stable supplies if they are forced to use less intensive farming methods.

Copa Cogeca, the powerful EU farmers and agribusiness lobby group, said that the bloc’s environmental policy “did not factor in or provide for the cumulative crises” that have hit since the pandemic began.

The “competitiveness and robustness” of the EU agricultural sector should be Brussels’s priority, it said, “before setting a legally binding target that, in any case, may not be realistic and which could be very detrimental for the continuity of farming activities in the EU”.

However, EU environmental commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said that “if nature continues to degrade at the same rate we are going to have even bigger issues with food security”.

The Russian blockade highlighted the dangers of dependency and the possible disruption of value chains, but to achieve food security “we have to have fertile soil which will give the highest efficiency”, he told the FT.

Soil erosion costs €1.25bn in lost agricultural activity, while €5bn worth of agricultural output is linked to pollination, according to European Commission estimates.

The publication of its nature restoration and pesticides laws has been delayed by three months due to the resistance from member states over pesticide reduction targets. Finland, Sweden and Ireland also voiced concerns about requirements to rehydrate peatlands drained for agricultural use, which account for 3 per cent of the EU’s farmland but 25 per cent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

The regulations are part of the EU’s overall push for the bloc to achieve its target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

It is the first time Brussels has attempted to put in place compulsory targets to improve the bloc’s biodiversity. If member states do not meet their obligations, the Commission could take action under the new law.

“We really have an urgency here,” Sinkevičius said. “Very often in those discussions about climate change we forget about importance of ecosystems and what a huge work they do as regards the absorption of CO₂ emissions.”

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