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It’s hard to be a “tree-hugger”, but progressive politicians must try

The EU’s Nature Restoration Law could signal the start of a new backlash against environment policy, not the end.

By India Bourke

Climate change has seared itself into daily life this July. A new average global temperature record was set multiple times last week. Yet ambitious plans for green development – from the EU’s Green Deal, to the Labour Party’s £28bn a year green investment pledge – have recently shown signs of wilting.

In Brussels the fight for nature’s recovery has intensified in recent months. A Nature Restoration Law that will require states to set binding targets for the protection and restoration of their biodiversity was passed by the European Parliament on Wednesday 12 July, but only by a slim margin: 336 votes for, to 300 against.

The law, designed to help Europe meet the pledge made at the Cop15 biodiversity conference to restore 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems by 2030, has been subjected to a concerted anti-nature campaign waged by the European People’s Party (EPP). The centre-right party, which is the parliament’s biggest political group, has argued that the legislation would endanger food security and even the freedom to build renewable energy infrastructure.

Although the law survived the vote, its provisions were delayed and weakened, particularly with regard to tackling the impacts of intensive agriculture. “Today’s win came at a high cost,” said Sabien Leemans, of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

In Westminster, meanwhile, optimism about Labour’s pledges on climate action took a hit last weekend. “I hate tree-huggers,” Keir Starmer is reported to have told his shadow cabinet in response to a presentation on energy policy. The insult appeared to be aimed at the disruptive tactics of climate protesters such as Just Stop Oil, yet his choice of wording also suggests Starmer may buy into a wider and older narrative: that those who speak up for nature are the enemies of economic security and growth.

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Such stereotyping is not new: think of the antagonism towards the environmental activist “Swampy” and protesters against road-building in the 1990s. But its contemporary incarnation is arguably more potent than ever. High living costs and the need to re-orientate whole economies to meet climate goals makes environmental action ripe for politically motivated culture wars.

In the Netherlands, for example, a government plan to reduce agricultural emissions was exploited by a right-wing populist party claiming to represent the interests of farmers. Opponents of reform have argued that, rather than adopting less intensive farming practices, they can reduce emissions through unspecified future technological innovation without compromising the existing system’s structures and jobs.

More widely, too, populist politicians are capitalising on the tough economic climate to spread anti-environmentalism. In the case of the EPP’s opposition to the Nature Restoration Law, the party has claimed that its requirement to increase green spaces in cities by 5 per cent by 2050 would “turn the entire city of Rovaniemi into a forest”, and thus destroy the Lapland hometown of Father Christmas.

Policies that would safeguard both global ecosystems and long-term economic security are presented as the domain of a detached and overly technical (often urban) elite, and a threat to the livelihoods and traditions of struggling (often rural) communities, explains Ariel Brunner, director of the charity Birdlife Europe. This sense of antagonism is then further fired up by vested interests in the farming, forestry and fishing industries that benefit from the highly extractive status quo.

So why have so many centrist politicians been reluctant to make a strong case for nature? Are they being cowed by right-wing arguments that restoration is at odds with a strong economy; or are they genuinely worried that the economics don’t yet add up?

Evidence suggests that they should be firmer advocates. The value to Europe of restoring its natural assets has been estimated at €1.8trn by the European Commission. The cost of restoration, in contrast, is just €154bn. Numerous businesses have also given the Nature Restoration Law their backing, from Nestlé to Ikea, and argued that nature and climate action are the allies, not enemies, of a strong economy.

On a practical level, too, numerous projects are showing how improving ecosystems is a boon to local economies. Drive two and half hours east of Porto and you’ll find yourself on the edge of Rewilding Portugal’s 120,000 hectare wildlife corridor in the Côa Valley. In recent years, with the costs of living soaring, the region has become depopulated and wildfires threaten much of the remaining landscape of flammable scrub. Yet the Wild Côa Network run by the charity Rewilding Portugal is now making a concerted effort to resuscitate the neglected land at the same time as supporting the growth of nature-based businesses.

The results are wide stretches of rocky, wildflower heathland populated by specially-bred tauros and wild horses, whose grazing nurtures biodiversity and wildfire resistance; a patchwork of small businesses stand to benefit from increased tourism. According to Joaquim Morgado, a beekeeper and olive farmer based in Côa, honey is becoming harder and harder to produce due to the changing climate and vegetation, yet sharing his love for the landscape with visitors could help to keep his family and community rooted on the land. With this in mind, he has recently opened a set of honeycomb-inspired eco-conscious bungalows on his farm.

As Amy Duthie from Rewilding Europe explained, reinvigorating local economies is a vital principle of rewilding: “We’re talking about future visions of how we want our countries and our land to be. The Nature Restoration Law provides a fantastic opportunity for conversations and coalitions and listening, so we can work together and find our way to making more space for nature so wildlife and natural processes can come back.”

The law will now be subject to negotiations with EU member states over its provisions, however; this could be just the start, not the end, of the campaign against it. And if national governments do not back the new law with funding to help farmers and landowners to change their practices, reform will be easily portrayed as a cost too far in the green transition, or even as an active hindrance, rather than an essential part of climate action.

“What is really at stake is the very existence of our economy,” says Ariel Brunner. Climate change poses an existential threat to businesses through floods, droughts and wildfires. If centrist politicians continue to support green growth only as long as it is more grey than green, they could unwittingly be undermining the very basis of future economic security. To bring nature back from the brink and build a climate-resilient economy, we all need to become tree-huggers.

[See also: Why collaboration is the key to growth]

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