18.07.2023 | European Parliament split over environmental policy
On 12 July 2023, the European Parliament Plenary in Strasbourg voted in favour of the EU’s Nature Restoration Law. The vote comes after months of tense debates overlooking possible synergies between climate, biodiversity and renewable energy production. The narrowly accepted vote allows for the legislative process to move to the next step - the Trilog: Council - representing the EU Member States - and the European Parliament will now have to find a compromise. The European energy industry seems split over the impact of the law on its activities.
The Nature Restoration Law is a cornerstone of the European Green Deal, which is one of the main political priorities of the current van der Leyen-Commission. The initial proposal was published on 22 June 2022 and aims at preserving and increasing biodiversity in the EU: it combines an overarching restoration objective for the long-term recovery of nature in the EU’s land and sea areas with binding restoration targets for specific habitats and species. These measures should cover at least 20% of the EU’s land and sea areas by 2030, and ultimately all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. Apart from preserving biodiversity the idea is to claim back these surfaces so they can also capture and store carbon and prevent and reduce the impact of natural disasters. The Natura Restoration Law takes the form of an EU Regulation, leaving EU Member States limited flexibility in its application.
Possibly triggered by long-standing protest of Dutch farmers against EU nitrogen emissions standards, which translated into electoral gains for the anti-establishment BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB), the Natura Restoration Law become engulfed in a political spat about the balance between environmental protection, climate policies and other policy targets. With EU elections scheduled between the 6 and 9 June 2024 and many important national elections looming (e. g. Spain, Slovakia, Netherlands, Poland, Belgium), the centrist European People’s Party (EPP) – led by MEP Manfred Weber (CSU, DE) - seized the occasion and broke the informal alliance of pro-EU parties including the liberal RenewEurope, the left-wing Socialist & Democrats and the Greens and started catering to parties on its right including the conservative European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the right-wing Identity and Democracy Party (ID). Commentators are asking themselves whether the EPP is testing the water for centre-right coalition to emerge after next elections, which could also impact the next European Commissions political priorities (2024 – 2029).
Following weeks of tense negotiations and tumultuous votes in the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, the Nature Restoration Law was adopted in the European Parliaments Plenary on 13 July 2023 with 336 votes in favour versus 300 against and 13 abstentions. In order to win over undecided Members of the European Parliament, the European Parliament decreased the goal to restore river ecosystems to 20’000 kilometres by 2030, instead of the 25’000 kilometres proposed by the European Commission. Conservative MEPs also succeeded in inserting an amendment that postpones the biodiversity targets if the EU experiences “exceptional socioeconomic circumstances”: this would also include a situation where national permitting procedures lead to a clash between the Nature Restoration Law and the rollout of renewables.
The Council had adopted its position – the General approach – on 20 June 2023: with view to finding a balance between biodiversity and the development of renewable energies, the Council added a new article providing that the planning, construction and operation of plants for the production of energy from renewable sources, their connection to the grid and the related grid itself and storage assets, are presumed to have an overriding public interest. This means that they would benefit from a derogation to the obligations of continuous improvement and non-deterioration foreseen in the law. In addition, the Council wants EU Member States to be able to exempt these projects from the obligation to demonstrate that no less damaging alternative solutions are available, if a strategic environmental assessment has been carried out.
According to European electricity association Eurelectric, climate action, the development of renewable energies and protecting biodiversity can go hand in hand but requires balanced rules, which might still be lacking in the current proposal. Eurelectric’s reserved position might be driven by concerns about the impact on hydropower; e. g. the definition of “free flowing rivers” as introduced by the law, might lead to regulatory uncertainty for hydropower operators. WindEurope and SolarPower Europe on the other side have taken a much more pro-active stance on this file, claiming that the Nature Restoration Law is well integrated with the acceleration areas defined by the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). As a consequence the Nature Restoration Law does not pose a threat to solar PV and wind power development, but actually sets a framework boosting such nature-restoration technologies.
Hopefully, the right compromises will be found during the Trilog negotiations, likely starting in September 2023. Much will depend on the current Spanish Council Presidency, which has declared this file one of its priorities. But nobody knows whether the current Spanish Government will survive Spanish elections on 23 July 2023 …