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Fiery exchange over Nature Restoration Law overshadows climate debate

Fiery exchange over Nature Restoration Law overshadows climate debate

The first ministerial discussion on a 2040 emissions reduction target was overshadowed by the intensifying row over the blocked Nature Restoration Law, with the European Commission and some governments warning it called into question the very credibility of the EU decision making process.

The text of the law was agreed in back-room ‘trilogue’ talks in November, and adopted by the parliament last month. But the EU Council presidency holder Belgium, which is itself abstaining, has been unable to muster the necessary majority among governments to give the law the final rubber stamp, with half a dozen governments refusing to endorse the agreement.

"The current deadlock raises serious questions about the consistency and stability of the EU decision-making process, especially if we consider that member states after the conclusive trilogue in November had already endorsed the deal,” Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told ministers at a public discussion during an EU Environment Council in Brussels.

Belgium added the debate to the agenda after having to cancel a planned vote last week, when diplomatic talks made it clear that a further six countries intended to block the adoption of the law by either voting against it or abstaining.

“Let me be very clear, in light of this deadlock, the EU's and its member states’ international reputation is at stake,” Sinkevičius said, observing that EU negotiators had been instrumental in achieving a UN deal to protect 30% of the world's land and sea under the UN Convention of Biological Diversity, but were now at risk of failing to follow through.

“We inspired others, yet now we risk arriving empty handed at COP16,” he said, referring to the upcoming first conference of parties to the convention since the signing of the landmark Montreal-Kunming global framework in 2022. “Backtracking now is…very difficult for me to accept,” he said.

Germany was “very concerned” about the turn the legislative process had taken, deputy permanent representative to Brussels Helen Winter said, and urged the governments blocking the law – Sweden, Italy, Finland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium – to reconsider, suggesting they could follow her country's example by putting their concerns and support for farmers on the record of the summit.

Slovenia, Ireland, Czechia, Spain. France, Denmark, Luxembourg and others endorsed the Commissioner’s words and expressed degrees of surprise and frustration at the impasse.

“To let this go now means we go into European elections saying the European system is not working, we do not protect nature, we do not take climate seriously,” said Irish minister Eamon Ryan, having raised the issue during a debate on climate action earlier in the day. “That would be an absolute shame.”

Spanish minister Teresa Ribera added that she was “very concerned” about obstructionism that was becoming “customary” in the EU Council. Legislation on car CO2 emissions standards and a law on corporate due diligence over environmental impacts were similarly held up due to backtracking by governments, though eventually adopted. To let the nature law drop, Denmark said, would set “an extremely bad precedent”.

Austrian minister Leonore Gewessler spoke of the importance of the Nature Restoration Law, blaming – as the Belgian presidency has – her country’s federal structure and regional opposition for the inability of her government to support the legislation.

Italy said it supports the objectives, but that the final agreement was “not satisfactory”, citing concerns over its impact of farmers.

Hungary, which had earlier supported the law, said its opposition, which tipped the balance against a qualified majority support last week, was over concerns about ‘subsidiarity’ and a lack of leeway to pursue national policies. Finland said it had no intention of reversing its position

Several ministers had used the morning’s exchange of views on the Commission’s recommendation for a 2040 emissions reduction target of 90% to stress that climate mitigation cannot be separated from nature protection and the renewal of ecosystems that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

On emissions reduction, climate Commissioner Wopke Hoekstra noted that the implementation of existing climate law would need to be stepped up, with draft national plans suggesting the EU would fall short of its 2030 target of a 55% emissions reduction by four percentage points. Governments needed to do their “homework” before submitting final plans by the end of June, but Hoekstra was “confident” the goal would be achieved.

Irish Green Ryan was vehement, slamming the EU political class for creating doubt and uncertainty that he argued prevented businesses from making the necessary investment in clean energy. Ryan pointed the finger at colleagues he said were “in retreat” from climate action commitments and “buckling” before protesting farmers ahead of elections. “The biggest risk is the collapse of political ambition and will,” Ryan said.

Alain Maron, climate and environment minister for the Brussels region, who chaired the meeting, said his government still planned to see the nature law adopted during its presidency, which ends on 30 June.