European lawmakers, after an unexpectedly bitter political battle, approved a bill on Wednesday that would require European Union countries to restore 20 percent of all degraded nature areas within their borders on land and at sea.
The measure, a key element of the bloc’s Green Deal environmental initiative, passed with 336 votes in favor, 300 against and 13 abstentions. It now goes to a committee of representatives from the E.U. executive, Parliament and national governments.
Negotiations on a final version could take months. But the vote on Wednesday at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, means the bloc is now required in principle to pass the measure into law.
The bill approved by Parliament was a modified version of the original proposal. Lawmakers had submitted more than 2,300 amendments, an unusual number, and accused one another of spreading disinformation. The law initially failed to pass three committee votes after marathon late-night sessions.
A day before the final vote, scores of environmental activists, including Greta Thunberg, faced off against angry farmers on tractors from all over Europe in scorching heat outside Parliament in Strasbourg.
Farmers are a key constituency in Parliament’s biggest political group, the center-right European People’s Party, which led opposition to the bill. Together with smaller far-right groupings, they said the proposed policy would threaten food production, cause a surge in inflation and harm farmers, who have already been hurt by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The party’s leader, Manfred Weber, on Tuesday repeated his call for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, which had put the measure forward, to withdraw the bill and draft a new proposal. The majority of lawmakers voted against his request.
Environmental experts, community groups and many businesses rejected the claims that the policy would impair food production. More than 6,000 scientists from several European universities, including Oxford, Athens and Zurich, said in an open letter last month that these claims “not only lack scientific evidence, but even contradict it.”
They argued that in the long term, it was climate change and nature degradation that constituted the highest threat, and that the proposed policy would ensure sustainable food production.
The final result on Wednesday was met with a standing ovation from supporters, and many lawmakers hugged and cheered.
“It’s a huge social victory,” said César Luena, a Spanish lawmaker who was one of the bill’s leading supporters. “It’s good for everybody. Because if you have healthy ecosystems, then the economic systems which depend on these ecosystems are going to be healthy themselves.”
Restoring degraded land not only can provide relief from climate change, but is critical for addressing a global biodiversity crisis that threatens to drive an estimated million plant and animal species to extinction. In December, nations of the world agreed to 23 targets to tackle biodiversity loss, with Europe pushing for ambitious action during negotiations. One of the targets committed nations to restoring at least 30 percent of the planet’s degraded land, freshwater and marine areas by 2030.
The new nature restoration bill, while watered down to 20 percent, is one of the first examples of governments beginning to put their commitments into policy.
In recent years, Europe has been battling the consequences of the climate change, with record heat, droughts and floods sweeping across the continent and killing thousands. Heat waves, in particular, are increasing in frequency and intensity at a faster rate than almost any other part of the planet, including the Western United States.
More than 61,000 people died last year in Europe as a result of extreme heat, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Medicine, and researchers say the months ahead could be even worse. This year, around 30,000 people were displaced in Northern Italy by the most severe flooding in over a century.
Defenders of the bill asserted that in the long term, Europe has no other choice than to restore biodiversity if it wants to maintain food production and achieve a binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the bloc by 2050.
The European Commission painted the nature restoration bill as essential to Europe’s future. Saving the continent’s deteriorating natural spaces, 81 percent of which are described as being in “poor condition,” the executive body said, is vital for preventing an ecosystem collapse.
“We need nature to tackle the climate crisis, to absorb carbon, to cool cities and towns, to retain water on dry land, and to ward off flood damage,” Frans Timmermans, the bloc’s environmental policy chief, said last month. “We need to help nature restore itself if we want to meet our goals that we have already agreed.”