Putting nature at the heart of Europe's climate fight

Pictured: Neris river, Lithuania

Calls for EU decision makers to act more decisively against climate change and ecosystem degradation are growing stronger. But what are the big policy choices to make in a new Green Deal benefitting both climate and nature? Drawing on its experience in EU climate, food, water and biodiversity policy, IEEP has provided some pointers on where action is needed most.

Probably the issue that many voters in the last European election converged on was a desire for bolder EU action on environmental degradation.

Only two weeks before the EU election, the most comprehensive global assessment on the state of biodiversity to date reconfirmed how biodiversity loss is a global emergency on par with climate change

Since the 1970s, degradation has rapidly increased across different ecosytems, to the loss of over 85% of the world’s wetland area. As a result, roughly 1 million known species are today threatened with extinction. This degradation of nature severely limits its ability to provide a healthy living environment for humans, not least by mitigating and helping us adapt to climate change.

Politicians did not fail to notice: As IEEP’s analysis of party platforms showed, they paid much greater attention to environmental issues this time around. Furthermore, the new European Commission president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen put a European Green Deal at the top of her six overarching political priorities

However, even though the Deal would include plans for a new EU biodiversity strategy for 2021-2030 to replace the current one expiring next year, Von der Leyen’s plans mostly revolve around climate action.  

Anyone who has followed EU efforts to encourage renewable energy understands there are risks to incoherent EU climate and biodiversity strategies. For example, growing demand for bioenergy to meet the EU’s renewable targets has led to perverse effects on forest ecosystems, including through an intensification of management practices, the loss of deadwood and conversion of natural forest into plantations. 

Similarly, Europe is slowly waking up to the true costs of decades-long proliferation of hydropower development to river ecosystems, exemplified by the loss of once abundant populations of migratory fish species – many of which of once provided important source of wild food security, such as salmon, trout and sturgeon.

Continuing the path of silo approaches to the detriment of biodiversity is a dead end and puts the future of humankind at severe risk. Win-wins need to be the priority of the new European Commission and Parliament, as well as other EU policy- and decisionmakers. 

Encouragingly, there are several EU policy choices that could address both climate and biodiversity crises simultaneously. IEEP has identified several of them below. These choices follow the recommendations from the more extensive Think 2030 paper ‘Valuing biodiversity and reversing its decline by 2030’, while focusing on the most climate relevant ones.

Building a social movement

Approximately three-quarters of EU citizens live in cities, and it has been demonstrated that providing space for nature in urban areas offers climate adaptation, biodiversity and health- and quality of life benefits. For this reason, government support should tap into the growing energy among urban citizens to make a positive change. 

While plenty of great examples (see here and here) can illustrate urban nature-based solutions across the EU, the majority of local strategies do not yet structurally integrate biodiversity into climate action. This is a missed opportunity, and European decision makers could do more to encourage and support cities to facilitate this, for example by encouraging the adoption of action plans under the Covenant of Mayors with a focus on how climate mitigation and adaptation can work in harmony with biodiversity objectives

More integrated strategies would also help unlock EU investment for action at scale, including increased support from the EU’s Natural Capital Financing Facility similar to that received by the city of Athens

Stepping up action to implement existing EU policies

Various EU policies, if better implemented, would help bring the EU closer to meeting its climate and biodiversity objectives simultaneously. 

In many Member States, fully implementing the EU Nature Directives will require large-scale restoration of ecosystems known to be important carbon sinks such as peatlands, seagrass meadows and salt marshes

Similarly, meeting ecological objectives under the EU Marine- and Water Framework Directives and the Floods Directive could deliver much greater climate benefits for example by restoring ecological resilience of ecosystems to capture carbon and provide defence against more extreme weather events

EU Member States could make a fresh commitment to full implementation of EU water legislation, which would not only boost natural carbon capture and storage but also deliver directly on the EU’s adaptation agenda

Strengthening policy frameworks

Despite the EU’s mature policy framework, a few major gaps and inconsistencies remain. The largest one concerns food and farming. 

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy does not do enough to encourage the farming sector to deliver on climate and biodiversity at the required scale and pace. Some had hoped that the current CAP reform would correct this; but this seems unlikely without a large shift in EU Member States willingness to take (much) more ambitious approaches. 

Moreover, some farmers rightly point to the fact that tackling food system emissions requires governments, food chain partners and consumers to play their part. 

For example, consumption of animal protein remains far above healthy diet recommendations, many governments still fail to set an example through their own procurement policies, and both consumption and production of organic food remains too costly. 

For this reason, the incoming Commission’s plans for a new Farm to Fork Strategy should be at the top of the list of any lawmaker interested in climate and biodiversity successes.   

Making the EU budget work

The 25% target of climate mainstreaming under EU expenditure for 2021-2027 constitutes a significant opportunity to step up change on climate action, if it translates into a real improvement in the climate focus of programmes. However, will it also deliver on biodiversity? 

Biodiversity spending is currently monitored and reported by the Commission, but without any specific targets. As EU institutions gear up towards an agreement on the MFF, on a European Green Deal and on a Paris-like global agreement on biodiversity, it seems appropriate for EU leaders to raise the stakes ahead of the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice meeting 25 - 29 November in Montreal (CA). 

They could do so by ensuring a systematic focus on biodiversity by EU spending programmes – and at the very least, ensuring that EU-funded projects avoid net negative impacts on biodiversity. EU Member States need to ensure their funding programmes will meet the investment needs for nature and Green Infrastructure set out in their Prioritised Action Frameworks

Next to public investment, EU decisions could do much more this legislative term to ensure that private investment in win-win solutions for biodiversity and climate becomes more attractive. At the global level, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development’s platform on natural infrastructure showcases the cost-saving and commercial opportunities provided by nature-based solutions

Increasing EU global action

The EU can have a major influence on global conservation outcomes using its influence on international negotiations and diplomacy. This could include pushing for ambitious multilateral agreements on climate and biodiversity, and support for relevant third countries bilaterally to adopt and meet those ambitious biodiversity objectives.

At next year’s CBD COP 15 in Beijing, the EU has an opportunity to champion a global biodiversity commitment to match the Paris Agreement on climate, and to better align the key initiatives taken under both agreements.

Furthermore, the EU could make better use of its significant economic weight to encourage third countries to live up to their environmental commitments, as currently being debated in relation to the destruction of the Amazon forests

However, by far the largest EU contribution to delivering global biodiversity and climate objectives would be to address the negative spillovers of EU production and consumption patterns. The existing evidence clearly shows that high-income countries, including the EU Member States, are currently exporting their carbon and biodiversity footprints to third countries through trade. The EU needs to start systematically monitoring such external impacts with a view to finding solutions to address them, including as part of its trade policy.

Better knowledge and evidence

Knowledge on climate and biodiversity and the economic arguments for protecting them is increasingly established and increasingly globally integrated through the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). 

Likewise, knowledge of the key solutions available is very well-established. 

Where many unknowns remain is on the practical implementation of these solutions, and on overcoming barriers to funding and governance at scale. 

For example, the ecological- and climate effectiveness of nature-based solutions in implementation is often insufficiently monitored and assessed. 

Similarly, the investment case for some key nature-based solutions is still insufficiently worked out to persuade more mainstream investors to come on board and scale-up efforts. 

Lastly, there is still a lack of understanding of how perverse and conflicting policy objectives at different governance levels (e.g. in relation to biomass and energy), get in the way of progress towards biodiversity targets. Efforts should be made to improve the knowledge base on these barriers to action.