Nature gets less than 1% of unprecedented EU budget -report

Published 10:02 on December 16, 2022  /  Last updated at 23:11 on December 16, 2022  / Emanuela Barbiroglio /  Biodiversity

EU Member States are obligated to spend at least 37% of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF, totalling €750 billion in 2018 prices) launched to recover from the Covid pandemic on climate-related issues, but are only devoting a small part of their budgets to nature, a report has found.

EU Member States are obligated to spend at least 37% of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF, totalling €750 billion) launched to recover from the Covid pandemic on climate-related issues, but are only devoting a small part of their budgets to nature, a report has found.

In a recent report on how 10 Central and Eastern European countries spend their RRF funds, green groups EuroNatur and Bankwatch Network found that no new measures have been proposed to increase protected land and sea areas, no restoration measures for rivers will be financed, and less than 0.3% of spending from the 10 recovery plans assessed will be invested in biodiversity over five years.

“Our research has shown that there is a lack of quantity and quality of funding biodiversity protection,” said Pippa Gallop, finance and biodiversity strategic area leader at the CEE Bankwatch Network.

“The other issue is quality, as much of the money available for conservation and restoration goes for measures that look more likely to intensify logging of high-quality forests, or flood prevention projects that will damage important habitats.”

In June 2021, Vivid Economics found that less than 1% of RRF funds was allocated to restoration and conservation activities such as reforestation, agroforestry, wetland restoration, and urban greening.

On the other hand, the researchers estimated that the investment value of €3.7 bln into nature-based solutions across just four countries – Bulgaria, France, Italy, and Poland – would create around 172,000 jobs and €7 bln of economic activity over 15 years.

While EU money is available, “member states don’t prioritise restoration and conservation”, Gallop said.

On top of the RRF, the flow of cohesion money through the European structural and investment funds (ESIF) is continuing its usual course. The old programme under the 2014-20 long-term EU budget is not closed yet, while the new one for 2021-27 has started already.

The overlapping of an unprecedented amount of money is “the challenge”, according to EU Commissioner in charge of cohesion, Elisa Ferreira, as different sources have different objectives, a different degree of flexibility, and different deadlines.

According to numbers collected by the Cohesion data platform, total planned allocations under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Cohesion Fund under the EU Budget was more than €10 billion during the period 2014-20, with implementation continuing until end 2023.

The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 sets several targets for biodiversity financing, including the need to earmark €20 bln annually.

Meanwhile, a study by the Institute for European Environmental Policy found that at least €48 bln will be required annually between 2021 and 2030 to deliver the objectives of the EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030. It includes an estimated average €15 bln annually from the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and an estimated average of €14 bln of Member State expenditure, resulting in a funding gap of nearly €19 bln a year from 2021 to 2030, or cumulatively €187 bln over the period.

Moreover, Gallop added that “there are no real criteria to identify what is ‘green’ and what is not, it is just a label like ‘environmentally friendly’ that anyone can apply to anything they like”.

“It’s easy to call something ‘green’, but it’s often meaningless and it’s used for products, activities, or infrastructure that appear to tackle one environmental problem, but in fact worsen others.”

For instance, “planting trees is not necessarily a good measure, and the frame of such measures has been blurred in the [recovery] plans”, EuroNatur’s report read.

“Most measures in the plans do not differentiate between productive forests and unproductive ones. In most situations, the intention behind measures for planting trees is for the economic use of forests and not for their protection or for afforestation to reconstitute natural habitats. The lack of detail and information in the plans raises questions about the true nature of such proposals.”

The Interinstitutional Agreement for the 2021-27 MFF set the ambition to provide a minimum of EU annual spending to biodiversity objectives, starting with 7.5% in 2024 and rising to at least 10% in 2026 and 2027. From 2022, the Commission must report annually on spending for the biodiversity objective.

According to the last barometer published by the European Environment Agency (EEA), there were almost 28,000 protected sites covering about 438 mln hectares across the EU in 2019.

Those are parts of Natura 2000, a network of protected areas hosting the most valuable and threatened species and habitats. It is also the largest coordinated effort in the world, extending across all 28 EU countries, both on land and at sea.

The LIFE programme, EU’s funding instrument for the environment and climate action established by the Habitats Directive in 1992, co-financed conservation actions on more than 5,400 Natura 2000 sites – roughly 20% of the entire network.

But even when the law does protect them, it doesn’t necessarily mean the sites are safe or will remain so.

Data from the European Commission shows that the environment was the main policy area for infringement cases open at the end of 2021, with 356 cases. New ones accounted for 52.

Some argue that, while EU member states may want to be respectful of the law, they keep violating the law because of the way their economies work.

During EU negotiations on nature protection in the 1980s and 1990s, the EU Commission proposed a list of habitats linked to cross-country eco-corridors, which became part of the Habitat directive when it was agreed in 1992.

“As usual, Member States reached a compromise,” said Lorenzo Squintani, professor of Energy Law at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and they gave “marginal legal value, if any” to sites that are shared across different countries.

“A specific legislation is still missing,” he added. “Important features of the landscapes are treated vaguely.”

The story of the directive “is a history of failure”, according to Squintani. However, “nobody dares to touch it, not because we all agree that it is fine, rather because everybody fears that doing so now would mean reducing its scope”.

“Any results would depend on the political ‘colour’ of the EU Council and it’s well known that the left has been giving ground in many countries”, he added. “Huge interests are at stake.”

By Emanuela Barbiroglio –

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