Climate mitigation potential of large-scale nature restoration in Europe

This study and its accompanying analysis explore the climate mitigation potential of restoring the habitats protected under the EU Habitats Directive. As part of this, the feasibility of ranking these habitats based on the climate mitigation benefits of their restoration is evaluated.

Restoring habitats listed under Annex I of the EU Habitats Directive has great potential to deliver important climate mitigation benefits as well as restore biodiversity. By improving the condition of habitats and re-establishing their carbon cycling abilities, restoration can increase the amount of carbon sequestered and stored by habitats and can avoid the emissions some ecosystems release when degraded.

The European Commission is expected to propose a set of legally binding nature restoration targets on 23 March 2022. Alongside their primary objective to restore degraded ecosystems for nature, the targets will address habitats with the greatest potential to capture and store carbon, thereby contributing to the achievement of both EU biodiversity and EU climate goals. This creates a great opportunity for Member States to design restoration plans which maximise synergies between climate adaptation and biodiversity conservation, including restoration of habitats protected under Annex I of the Habitats Directive.

To compare the climate mitigation potential of Annex I habitats, we produced a ranking of habitat types in terms of restoration priorities to maximise climate co-benefits. This explanatory note provides the context for this exercise, discusses its value, and provides key considerations for its interpretation.

The following key factors must be considered, prior to restoration, when prioritising Annex I habitats for restoration for carbon benefits:

  • Whether protection of the existing habitat to reduce pressures is more efficient.
  • Potential trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and carbon capture and storage. For Annex I habitats, restoring biodiversity should be the primary objective.
  • Feasibility of restoration considering the current state of the ecosystem, its context, and potential to recover.
  • Factors affecting the success of restoration including site conditions, the time needed to achieve restoration, costs and benefits, permanence of carbon gains, and monitoring.

The EU level ranking exercise developed and tested here is a useful starting point to help prioritise habitats for restoration and protection to maximise carbon co-benefits. However, there are various limitations and uncertainties which must be considered when using its results and the precise carbon figures presented should be treated with caution.

Overall, the analysis shows that although it is not currently feasible to give precise numerical estimates of the carbon benefits of Annex 1 habitat restoration, there is good evidence for the strong carbon sequestration potential of restoring key habitats, namely wetland and forest ecosystems. The following key conclusions are highlighted when considering the climate mitigation potential of Annex 1 habitat restoration more broadly:

  • Restoration can deliver crucial ecosystem service and climate adaptation benefits.
  • Conservation is key to ensuring the protection and permanence of existing carbon stocks. Moreover, protection can be more efficient as restoration may not fully re-establish carbon sequestration and storage potential, and it may take over a decade to improve condition.
  • Currently available data can support Member States to identify restoration priorities to maximise biodiversity and carbon benefits.
  • Restoration is complex and key factors affecting the potential of restoration to deliver carbon benefits must be assessed at the site level.
  • Long-term monitoring must be implemented, and pressures eliminated in re-stored sites to secure the permanence of the carbon gains.
  • The restoration of the biodiversity value of the Annex I habitats should be the primary objective, in line with the aim of the EU Habitats Directive.

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