Europe and Central Asia
16 Apr 2020

The time for nature restoration is now

By Iván Ramírez, Senior Head of Conservation, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia
What do you see out of your window? Before confinement, did you actually know about that old tree, the noisy redstarts that cheep around your bedroom every morning, the violet flowers defying the sidewalk concrete? Nature is all around us, but you probably hadn’t realized.
The COVID19 pandemic has a massive impact on our daily lives. A lot of ink has already gone into describing its causes and consequences, but maybe less has been said about how it is making us miss the outdoors. By that I mean both the city park near your home and the wilder areas, the ancient forests that connect you with your childhood and your ancestors, the wetlands where you were once both amazed by the sound of the cuckoo and bitten by mosquitoes.
In our daily, automated lives, we were quick to plug in our earphones to stay away from noisy traffic, disturbing phone conversations in the metro and the squeaking trams… Now, when everything is put on hold, nature’s soundtrack blasts louder than ever, and it’s telling us that it is ready to help us, if we just let it be.
Back in 2011, all EU Member States agreed to restore 15% of all degraded ecosystems by 2020. Guess what? This target will not be met. Only at the peak of the 2014-2018 economic crisis did some indicators turn positive, but make no mistake, as soon as economic growth soared again, destruction continued. And its consequences are already here: by decreasing the size of our natural carbon sinks – natural habitats that absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – we are doubling the impact of rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis. By polluting our rivers downstream, we are bankrupting our local communities, as they lose their recreational and fishing activities. By continuing to pollute our cities, we are doubling the impact of respiratory diseases, such as the Coronavirus.  
I would be lying to you if I said there was a simple and inexpensive vaccine against nature destruction, but here‘s the good news: we already have the solution – the equivalent of a vaccine, and we have it now. If only that were the case with COVID19! 
To successfully turn the tide and save nature, we need two things: to enforce existing nature protection legislation, and increase the old 2020 target. We cannot simply now maintain the target of restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems. It’s too late now to stick to the old target. We need to raise the bar, and restore up to 30% of each EU member state’s land and sea area by 2030. This is not about meeting old targets, it’s about saving nature and our very own lives.

Here’s what the EU should do to achieve this 30% target:

  1. Increasing the connectivity of the world´s largest network of protected areas, our one and only Natura 2000 network. We should be proud of what we have achieved, but we cannot see Natura 2000 sites as islands. Our fauna and flora, like ourselves, need to feel the benefits of a connected network, a true web of life.
  2. A prioritization scheme that will first tackle the degraded habitats with the biggest potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Let science show the way.
We just need to “inoculate” this solution massively at all levels, from our political institutions to our daily way of life, and make no mistake, its impact will be massive and truly positive, restoring nature will mean restoring our economy, restoring our jobs, boosting our solidarity and our well-being.
So, how do we do that? And most importantly, how do we make sure this 30% target isn’t ignored? Well, as mentioned above, the solutions are already known and ready to be implemented. The destruction of nature has happened for such a long time that a massive army of nature doctors (that is, scientists, farmers, fishermen…citizens!) have already come out with successful treatments. It is time to deliver them into our political and economic systems. We need to be active agents of change.
Scientists have already pointed out that particular types of habitats, such as peatlands, wetlands, old growth forests and sea grass beds are among the most important habitats for carbon sequestration – the long-term storage of carbon dioxide. In other words, the Posidonia prairies of the Mediterranean, the sustainably grown rice fields and wetland reserves, the vast central and northern European peatlands have the solution, if we only let them be… And I insist on this, because the beauty of restoration is that we actually don’t need to invest a lot: it is as simple as avoiding direct damage and enhancing the conditions for nature to grow and expand. Take the example of the sea grass prairies: we just need to stop the indiscriminate anchoring that rips up these fragile ecosystems, and avoid massive organic discharges of polluted water that stops sunlight reaching the seafloor.  Do you want to know what YOU can do? Go to the supermarket, find a package of ecologically grown rice or sustainably farmed sheep cheese. You will already be supporting the restoration of wetlands and grasslands. 
At this moment in time, where the whole EU political leadership is being challenged, and when perhaps more than ever, scientists are heard and respected, we must be ready to fight for nature and demand political action against its destruction.
These days, we are calling our parents and older relatives and worrying about their health. We can do that for nature too… Just like them, nature is full of energy and wisdom… but it is also fragile.  

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.