Exclusive for 3eNews EU Commissioner Mr. Sinkevičius: Air pollution and the protection of nature in Bulgaria is still a cause for serious concern

All European countries, including Bulgaria, will for the first time have to prepare their own plans for the restoration of nature.

Climate / Analysis / Interview , Ecology
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The largest EU project for the protection of biological diversity - the Nature Restoration Act is the most important topic for the exsclusive interview with the European Commissioner for the Environment, Virginijus Sinkevičius. The Nature Restoration Act includes conservation of wetlands, rivers, forests, grasslands, marine ecosystems, urban greenery to provide food, health and a good living environment. Most of our ecosystems and habitats face severe problems: natural and semi-natural areas disappear or get more and more degraded by fragmentation, unsustainable use, pollution and other pressures. 

The EU must restore up to 20% of terrestrial and marine species by 2030. The EU Biodiversity Strategy envisages that more than €20 billion will be unlocked for biodiversity each year as part of the European Green Deal. Read more about how Bulgaria copes with the protection of biological diversity and air in the interview of European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, especially for Dir.bg and 3eNews.

Mr. Sinkevičius, the European Commission proposed the first ever legislation that explicitly targets large-scale restoration of Europe's nature. How EU could monitor that in each member state?

First of all, it is a truly ground-breaking proposal. It even goes beyond restoring those habitats of which Member States are already reporting the condition under the Habitats Directive. The Nature Restoration Law also covers urban and marine ecosystems, forests and agricultural land beyond the scope of the Habitats Directive, as well as pollinators.

To ensure implementation, Member States will have to develop and then submit National Restoration Plans to the Commission for assessment within two years of the Regulation coming into force, showing how they will deliver on the targets. They will also be required to monitor and report on the progress in implementation – thereby making best possible use of existing information already reported in other areas and modern remote sensing data in order to reduce the reporting burden on Member States. The European Environment Agency will draw up regular technical reports on progress towards the targets. The Commission, in turn, will report to the European Parliament and to the Council on the implementation of the Nature Restoration Law.

What kind of measures can take each member state to fulfill the new requirements?

The Nature Restoration Law sets targets for restoration measures to be put in place but it does not set detailed measures. It is up to Member States to decide where and how the restoration should be carried out. Member States have therefore full flexibility in designing their restoration measures. We closely follow the principle of subsidiarity here.

Member States will have to plan measures for the various ecosystems and species addressed in the Nature Restoration Law. Natural and semi-natural ecosystems - improving and re-establishing biodiverse habitats on a large scale, and bringing back species populations by improving and enlarging their habitats. Pollinating insects – managing land in a way that allows reversing the decline of wild bees and bumblebees, butterflies, hoverflies and other pollinator populations by 2030, and enabling pollinator populations to start increasing again, with a methodology for regular monitoring of pollinators.
Forest ecosystems – managing forests in order to achieve positive trends for standing and lying deadwood, uneven aged forests, forest connectivity, abundance of common forest birds and stock of organic carbon.

Urban ecosystems – measures that lead to no net loss of green urban space by 2030; a 3% increase in the total area covered by green urban space by 2040; and a 5% increase by 2050; a minimum of 10 % urban tree canopy cover; and a net gain of urban green space that is integrated into existing and new buildings and infrastructure developments.


Agricultural ecosystems – adapting agricultural practices in a way that certain indicators are increasing: the grassland butterflies and farmland birds, the stock of organic carbon in cropland mineral soils, and the share of agricultural land with high-diversity landscape features; furthermore restoring 30% of drained peatlands under agricultural use by 2030; and 70% by 2050 shall be achieved.


Marine ecosystems – restoring marine habitats such as seagrasses or sediment bottoms that deliver significant benefits, including for climate change mitigation; and restoring the habitats of iconic marine species such as dolphins and porpoises, sharks and seabirds;
River connectivity – identifying and removing barriers that prevent the connectivity of surface waters, so that at least 25 000 km of rivers are restored to a free-flowing state by 2030.

 How the new rules will change ecosystems, from forest and agricultural land to marine, freshwater and urban ecosystems? 

Most of our ecosystems and habitats face severe problems: natural and semi-natural areas disappear or get more and more degraded by fragmentation, unsustainable use, pollution and other pressures. The impacts of climate change also become more and more severe.  The proposal for a Nature Restoration Law is a key step in avoiding ecosystem collapse by restoring and re-establishing healthy ecosystems that are more resilient in the face of climate-change, thereby helping to prevent and reduce disasters such as floods and droughts.  Restoring EU wetlands, rivers, forests, grasslands, marine ecosystems, urban environments and the species they host is a crucial and cost-effective investment: into our food security, climate resilience, health, and well-being.

What means to cover at least 20% of the EU's land and sea areas by 2030 with nature restoration measures, and eventually extend these to all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050?

 

The terrestrial estimate is based on the targets related to the Annex I habitats, as well as other targets and obligations such as on forests, agroecosystems and urban. The estimates of areas that would be subject to restoration measures by 2030 are given as percentages of EU land area: Annex I terrestrial habitats up to around 4%; Agro ecosystems around 6%; Forest Ecosystems up to around 9%; Plus a small contribution from urban.

Further, we can assume that the other obligations (e.g. on pollinators, farmland birds, habitats of protected species, forest and agricultural ecosystem indicators) will require action on more areas than the ones mentioned above thus increasing the above, although it is difficult to make exact estimates of these. We therefore estimate at least 20% of EU land area with restoration measures by 2030.

The marine estimates are based on the targets on soft sediment and other habitats, such as sub-types of marine habitats listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive. An additional estimate is based on the marine areas to be restored for the habitats of marine species. The estimates of areas to be covered by restoration measures are given as percentages of EU-27 European marine waters (with Macaronesia).

-          EU seabed area to be restored under the targets for habitats ≈10%;

-          Areas to be restored for species ≈10%.

So overall around 20% of EU marine area will have restoration measures by 2030. There are obvious synergies with the EU Biodiversity Strategy target to strictly protect at least 10% of the marine area (strict protection is a passive restoration measure) and to protect at least 30% of marine area (part of the 20% protected areas not strictly protected will also require restoration by 2030).

Therefore, we can reasonably say that at least 20% of EU land and sea area would need to have restoration measures in place by 2030. By 2050, this should be the case on all EU ecosystems in need of restoration.

 

At what stage is the debate for the Nature Restoration Law and what follows next?

The proposal was adopted by the Commission on 22 June. Discussions in the Council and Parliament can now start.

 

The nature of which countries in EU is more needed to repair? Why?

All EU Member States need to take action to restore nature, no particular Member State is singled out. Obviously, there are big differences between Member States in terms of the occurrence of natural habitats and species, land-use history and main pressures so there is no ‘one-fits-all' approach. This is why the development of national restoration plans that take account of all these situations is so important.

Under the Commission’s proposal for a Nature Restoration Law, legally binding targets for nature restoration in different ecosystems – as far as these ecosystems exist in a Member State - will apply to every single Member State.

 

Could you share with us how Bulgaria fulfils the requirements now and what kind of specific measures we can take to protect our nature?

Bulgaria has very rich biodiversity but has seen a rapid development in infrastructure and land-use intensification over the last two decades, which had also impacts on nature & biodiversity.

Although Bulgaria’s Natura 2000 Network is one of the most significant ones within the EU, with close to 35% coverage, the country still struggles to successfully manage its sites and impose the required protection. Many protected habitats and species continue to steadily decline and the country still loses high nature value grasslands, forest, riverine and coastal habitats and the species depending on them.

Therefore Bulgaria is not only facing challenges in protecting its rich natural heritage, but will also have to deal with restoration of degraded and lost habitats.

For pollinators, it is essential to address the key drivers that lead to their decline, and in particular the loss of structural diversity on farmland, and intensification of land use, as well as the high use of pesticides. It is necessary to bring back habitats, for instance leaving wild flowers along roads and field verges, and maintaining and enhancing places for hibernation and nesting. It is also necessary to lower the use of chemical pesticides that pose high risks to bees and other insects.

Which laws and directives are going to change?

The proposed Nature Restoration Law would not change any existing law or directive. It builds on existing legislation, but covers all ecosystems beyond the habitats and species covered by the EU nature legislation, aiming to put all natural and semi-natural ecosystems on the path to recovery by 2030.

Which funds and financial instruments will the countries use?

The EU Biodiversity Strategy foresees that more than €20 billion will be unlocked for biodiversity every year as part of the European Green Deal. Specifically, under the EU Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for 2021-2027 the biodiversity financing target adopted will see 7.5% of the EU budget dedicated to biodiversity from 2024, rising to 10% for 2026 and 2027. Under the current MFF, around €100 billion will be available for biodiversity spending, including restoration.

The Commission is working to ensure that funding for nature restoration and biodiversity is fully integrated into the Recovery and Resilience Facility, InvestEU, the European Structural and Investment Funds, the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund, research funds and the LIFE Programme for environment and climate.

EU funds such as the Common Agriculture Policy and the Just Transition Fund, as well as various national funds in most EU Member States, will assist farmers in the transition to more sustainable farming or other activities closer to nature.

Through carbon farming and the upcoming carbon removals certification framework, the Commission will promote a new business model for land-based carbon removals, including financial incentives to rollout nature-based solutions.

Market-based instruments could be promoted by Member States to help cover costs of restoration and to prevent deterioration, for example fiscal approaches, payments for ecosystem services, result-based payment schemes, and others. 

We need to mobilize funding from all sources and accelerate the implementation of technological, nature-based and societal solutions. At the same time, we have to eliminate or redirect investments and subsidies harmful to biodiversity.

The impact assessment for the Nature Restoration Law has shown that the benefits of nature restoration far outweigh the costs. The economic benefits of restoring peatlands, marshlands, forests, heathland and scrub, grasslands, rivers, lakes, marine and alluvial habitats, and coastal wetlands are estimated to be greater than the costs by eight times.

The European Commission also proposes each member state to reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030. What does it mean? How the EU is going to improve the monitoring?

The new rules set out binding EU-level targets to reduce the use and risk of chemical pesticides and to reduce the use of the more hazardous pesticides by 50%. By doing so, it translates in tangible action the commitments laid down in the Farm to Fork Strategy.

The new rules stipulate that Member State must adopt binding targets to help meet the overall EU target. When setting these national targets, Member States have the flexibility to take into account their national situation, including historical progress and the intensity of pesticide use. This must be done within the parameters of a legally defined mathematical formula.  While allowing for the national situation to steer target setting, in no case may the national target be lower than 35%, to ensure all Member States reduce the use of pesticides. After reviewing the Member State targets, the Commission may recommend Member States to establish more ambitious targets in certain cases. The Commission may also take further measures in case the national targets are deemed insufficient to reach the 50% reduction collectively at EU level by 2030. Each year, the Commission will publish trends towards meeting the EU's 2030 reduction targets.

Progress towards reaching the targets can be achieved by making use of a range of actions which will help reducing the use of chemical pesticides:

·         Removing more hazardous pesticides from the market;

·         Development and more widespread use of alternative pest control techniques in line with Integrated Pest Management, including in particular biological pesticides such as micro-organisms;

·         Support from CAP for investments, advice as well as through area payments

·         Increase in organic farming;

·         Precision agriculture and use of new technologies.

What kind of strong rules are going to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and ensure more sustainable food systems by 2030?

The Commission has proposed new rules to reduce the use and risk of pesticides in the EU, delivering on the Farm to Fork Strategy objective of a fair, healthy and environmentally respectful food system.

The new rules introduce:

·         Legally binding targets: binding EU-level targets to reduce by 50% the use and risk of chemical pesticides and the use of the more hazardous pesticides by 2030. Member States will have to set their own reduction targets within clearly defined parameters as well as their own strategies to ensure that the EU wide target is achieved collectively.

·         Strict new rules to enforce environmentally friendly pest control: a comprehensive new enforcement framework to ensure that all farmers practice Integrated Pest Management ‘IPM', in which all alternative methods of pest control are considered first, before chemical pesticides can be used as a last resort measure.

·         A ban on the use of all pesticides in sensitive areas: the use of all pesticides is prohibited in sensitive areas (and within 3 metres of these areas), such as public parks or gardens, playgrounds, recreation or sports grounds, public paths, as well as ecologically sensitive areas

·         Exceptional EU support: Farmers will be supported by the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in this transition: for 5 years, Member States can use the CAP to cover the costs of the new requirements for farmers.

The new rules will be laid down in a Regulation, which is directly binding on all Member States.

Why the biodiversity is part from the European Green Deal?

Nature is the basis of our existence, well-being and prosperity. Healthy ecosystems regulate water, air and climate. By maintaining soil fertility and pollination, they support food security. By maintaining a rich pool of genetic resources, they support research, innovation and sustainable development. Nature is our ally in the fight against climate change. We cannot limit global warming to 1.5°C without reversing the loss of nature.

The European Green Deal draws on our realisation that climate change and environmental degradation – including the loss of biodiversity – pose existential threats to Europe and the world. It sets out an agenda to overcome these challenges. The EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 is at the core of this agenda, closely linked with other Green Deal initiatives such as those on sustainable food, climate or zero pollution.

The Commission’s nature restoration proposal demonstrates that – while pushing for an ambitious global biodiversity agenda – the EU is also ready to deliver its part. It increases Europe’s credibility in the ongoing negotiations towards an ambitious post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to be adopted at the end of the year in Montréal, at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

How we can calculate the advantages of nature restoration and which are going to be the restoration targets. When we are going to be obligated to implement the new rules?

Restoration closely involves and benefits all parts of the society, it has to be done in an inclusive process and it has particularly positive impact on those who directly depend on healthy nature for their livelihood, including farmers, foresters and fishers. The impact assessment for the Nature Restoration Law shows that investment into nature restoration adds €8 to €38 in economic value for every €1 spent, thanks to the ecosystem services that support food security, ecosystem and climate resilience and mitigation, and human health. It also increases nature in our landscapes and daily lives, with demonstrable benefits for health and wellbeing as well as cultural and recreational value.

The Nature Restoration Law will set restoration targets and obligations across a broad range of ecosystems at land and sea. Ecosystems with the greatest potential for removing and storing carbon and preventing or reducing the impact of natural disasters such as floods will be the top priorities.

How do you evaluate the new Bulgarian politics in environment? What do you expect?

A detailed assessment of the Member States’ performance in the area of environment is available in the Commission’s Environmental Implementation Review country reports. They highlight good practices as well as key environmental implementation challenges and provide recommendations. The next report will be published this autumn. It reflects the developments since the 2019 review. This period, characterised by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and short-lived parliaments and political instability in Bulgaria during the most of 2021, did not help in addressing the challenges Bulgaria faces in many spheres, including the environment. It should be acknowledged that the coalition agreement, signed by the parties that formed a government in December 2021, was the first general political document of governing parties with explicit and detailed commitments on environment in Bulgaria. There was, however, no clear timeline for implementation.

How does Bulgaria deal with the penalty procedures in environment and are we the only member state that will pay due to the air pollution? Why the procedure takes so many time?

The infringement proceedings against Bulgaria, as in all Member States are mostly related to bad application of EU law and less – to non-conform transposition or lack of transposing national measures.

As regards air pollution in Bulgaria, despite some progress in implementing measures to address it, air pollution is still a cause for serious concern and the exceedances of the EU limit values are systematic and persistent. Bulgaria is still one of the Member States with the most pollution-related deaths, number of years of life lost associated with air pollution, and urban population exposure to micro-particles. Therefore it was the first Member State taken to Court, but Bulgaria is not singled out. The Commission has taken a systematic approach to make sure Member States comply with their obligations to properly monitor and, if necessary take measures to keep exceedances of dangerous pollutants such as particulate matters (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) or sulphur dioxide (SO2), as short as possible, in accordance with the Ambient Air Quality Directive.

Financial sanctions might be imposed by the Court in a second judgement, if it finds that a Member State has not taken the necessary measures to address the first Court judgement establishing breach of EU law. The Commission does not hesitate to refer to the Court of Justice of the EU any Member State for a second time as soon as it establishes that the first judgement is not implemented.

There are objective reasons why the infringement procedure takes time. The infringement procedure is not designed to find a quick response and solution of a specific individual situation; it aims to ensure that Member States comply with their obligations under EU law, without necessarily bringing the matter before the Court of Justice of the EU. In addition, the Treaty provides for specific steps to be taken, before an infringement reaches the Court, in particular to give a chance to the Member States to defend itself and solve the matter. In the case of air quality, the proceedings are further stretched in time because air quality monitoring is done on yearly basis – by September each year for the preceding year, i.e. the data for 2021 is to be reported by September 2022. 

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