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The EU Nature Restoration Law: six recommendations for freshwater ecosystems

December 6, 2022
Scientists have published recommendations for foregrounding freshwater ecosystems in the proposed European Nature Restoration Law. Image: Juan Rubiano | Flickr Creative Commons

Earlier this year, the European Commission published a proposal for a major new European Nature Restoration Law. The proposal outlines a series of binding targets to restore 20% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030, alongside deadlines for the restoration of important natural habitats. The draft suggests that all European ecosystems in need of restoration should be restored by 2050.

Two weeks ago, the draft Nature Restoration Law was analysed by five EU-funded environmental research projects, including the four Horizon 2020 Green Deal restoration partners. Discussions at a science-policy workshop in Brussels – organised by the Research Executive Agency of the European Commission and DG R&I – yielded six key recommendations for foregrounding freshwater ecosystems in the draft law.


1. Increase the profile of freshwater ecosystem restoration

As we regularly cover on this blog, although freshwaters only cover a small percentage of the Earth’s surface, they are especially rich in biodiversity. However, they are significantly threatened by human pressures in many parts of the world.

The projects recommend that freshwaters should be more prominently recognised in the law. This means that freshwaters should always be mentioned alongside ‘terrestrial and marine’ ecosystems when setting restoration targets for European countries.

2. Urban blue spaces are important

The draft law repeatedly emphasises the importance of urban ‘green spaces’ as a means of bringing nature back to cities, and mitigating the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss. Urban green spaces – such as parks, meadows, green roofs and urban gardening schemes – have become an important part of European city planning in recent years.

However, the projects recommend that the Nature Restoration Law also needs to take into account the importance of urban ‘blue spaces’ such as lakes, wetlands and rivers. They highlight the benefits such urban blue spaces bring for biodiversity, climate mitigation and public recreation, and suggest that ‘urban green and blue spaces’ should be referred to when outlining targets for restoration.

London Wetland Centre: the projects recommend such nature-based solutions for restoration in urban green-blue spaces. Image: Matt Brown | Flickr Creative Commons

3. Support the implementation of the Water Framework Directive

The Water Framework Directive is Europe’s long-standing policy mechanism for improving the health and status of freshwater ecosystems. The projects see great potential in the draft Nature Restoration Law in helping improve the implementation of the WFD which, as yet, has not reached many of its ambitious goals. They recommend that the WFD’s River Basin Management Plans are better integrated into the planning of the Nature Restoration Law.

4. Highlight the role of nature-based solutions

Nature-based solutions are becoming an increasingly central part of restoration projects, both in Europe and globally. Nature-based solutions aim to protect, sustainably manage or restore ecosystems in ways that address social challenges such as water security, flood protection and climate change.

The projects suggest that the draft Nature Restoration Law is largely focused on the restoration of habitats, and the population health of individual species. They state that nature-based solutions should be better highlighted in the law, as a means of making obvious the benefits that society will gain from restoration projects.

The projects call for more ambitious targets for river restoration across Europe. Image: Romy Durst | Save the Blue Heart of Europe

5. Improve and specify targets for restoration of rivers, floodplains and deltas

The draft Nature Restoration Law states that European countries should restore 25,000km of free-flowing rivers by 2030. This focus on improving the connectivity of river catchments, including their floodplains and deltas, is a key focus of many freshwater restoration projects, and often involves the removal of barriers such as dams and hydropower projects.

However, the projects suggest that these aims for river restoration (outlined in Article 7 of the draft law) are less ambitious, less stringent and less specific than those for other ecosystems. They state that river connectivity targets should be strengthened with time-bound and binding objectives to remove river barriers. Further, they suggest that this process should be closely monitored to measure the effectiveness of restoration actions.

6. Woody riparian vegetation as a key measure in agricultural landscapes

Riparian areas are the strips of land alongside rivers and streams in agricultural areas. In recent years there has been an increased focus on the value of restoring woodland and vegetation in riparian strips as a means of creating biodiversity habitat, buffering pollution and shading waters warmed by climate change.

The projects recommend that the Nature Restoration Law should include specific targets for the establishment of woody riparian buffer strips alongside streams and rivers. They suggest that the restoration of woody riparian vegetation is the most cost-effective measure for enhancing freshwater and riparian biodiversity and ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes.


Read the European Nature Restoration Law recommendations in full.

This article is supported by the MERLIN project.

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