Restoring nature can remove huge amounts of EU emissions - new study

Posted on 07 Feb 2022
The upcoming nature restoration law needs to be ambitious, timely and enforceable to make a real difference.

Restoring degraded terrestrial habitats across the EU could take up to 300 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent [1] out of the atmosphere each year – as much as the combined annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, new research reveals. The findings show the huge climate action potential of the upcoming EU Nature Restoration Law.

The study, commissioned by WWF and conducted by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), looked at the climate mitigation potential of restoring “habitats of EU importance” (listed in Annex 1 of the EU Habitats Directive) [2]. WWF commissioned the study in the lead up to the EU Nature Restoration Law, which the European Commission is expected to present in March.

When restored, the 47.2 million hectares of Annex 1 habitats that are currently degraded [3] – an area roughly the size of Sweden – could sequester around as much CO2 each year as the entire EU land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector [4]. Given the limited scope of information available on the habitats, the researchers stress that the findings are not an exact figure but nevertheless illustrate the huge potential that nature restoration can have for climate mitigation. The findings also do not take into account the climate mitigation potential of restoring marine habitats, due to the lack of data, so the order of magnitude could be even higher. 

“These findings are a rallying cry: We cannot achieve climate neutrality without nature,” said Sabien Leemans, Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer at WWF’s European Policy Office. “To avert the worst impacts of climate change, we need an extremely rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, combined with at least some CO2 removal from the atmosphere. Doing so by increasing the natural carbon sinks through restoring nature is a safer and much more feasible alternative to technology-based solutions and will provide many co-benefits like protecting us from droughts, floods and fires – so the upcoming restoration law presents a major opportunity to support the EU’s climate action.”

The study’s findings point to the urgency of taking restoration action, as some habitats will take decades to improve and re-establish carbon cycling. This clearly shows why restoration needs to be accelerated and given immediate priority, and why the bulk of efforts must occur by 2030 and should not be postponed to 2040 or 2050, as is currently being discussed.

This is why at the end of last year, WWF, along with over 150 other NGOs, called on the Commission to include in the law an overarching binding target to restore at least 15% of the EU’s land area, river length and sea area by 2030. WWF is also calling for net carbon removals to be increased to 600 Mt CO2-eq per year under the LULUCF regulation, which is being revised as part of the EU’s 2030 ‘Fit for 55%’ package. The nature restoration targets will contribute to achieving this higher LULUCF target.

“The climate and biodiversity emergency is already here and unless we get our act together it will only get worse. The nature restoration law can be a game-changer but only if it translates into immediate and ambitious action,” Sabien Leemans added.

The IEEP study further highlights the importance of increasing efforts to protect habitats that are not degraded, to preserve their existing carbon stocks, and also points to the climate benefits of restoring habitats that are not within the scope of the EU Directive. In particular, rewetting drained organic soils that are currently under agricultural use [5] could decrease emissions by more than the annual GHG emissions of countries like Austria or Romania – a target on this should be included in the Nature Restoration Law.

WWF published a briefing that covers the key findings of the study and provides policy recommendations for the upcoming EU nature restoration law.

Source WWF EPO, for more information
Sabien Leemans
Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer

Bartosz Brzezinski
Communications Officer for Biodiversity & Agriculture
Tel. +32 484 28 15 10

Notes to editors

[1] Equal to around 84 million tonnes of carbon. Excluding sparsely vegetated and marine habitats for which not enough sufficient information was available. 
[2]  For examples of habitats covered by the Habitats Directive, see here.
[3] 47,2 million hectares of Annex 1 habitats reported as being in “degraded” or “unknown” condition by the Member States, excluding sparsely vegetated and marine habitats, for which not enough carbon data is available.
[4] In 2018 the LULUCF sector was reported as a net sink of -263 Mt CO2-eq. See here.
[5] Around 52 000 km2.

Wild Wonders of Europe

Wild Wonders of Europe

© Diego Lopez/ WWF