THE European Union’s Nature Restoration Law is a “step forward” but Scotland “should want to be going much further”, a think tank has said – after the legislation squeaked through in a European Parliament vote.

The law will establish a common EU commitment to place 20% of land and sea across the union under recovery measures.

It has been heralded as a “huge social victory” by those in charge of the proposal, after a concerted effort from the bloc’s right-wing forces – including the far-right Identity and Democracy group, the European People’s Party and elements from the economically liberal Renew group.

These groups argued that the laws would punish farmers and damage European food security.

These claims, which featured prominently in the discourse surrounding the law, were decried as both “lacking” and “contradicting” scientific evidence in an open letter backing the EU’s Green Deal signed by 6000 scientists.

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However, the pro-independence Common Weal think tank has said that being in line with the EU should not be the standard Scotland is aiming to meet.

Common Weal director Amanda Burgauer said: “This is a step forward from the EU but we shouldn’t get carried away – this is still a fairly modest proposal and it only squeaked through against strong opposition.

“Common Weal has done a lot of work on how Scotland could restore its land and there is none of it we couldn't be getting on with right now.”

The organisation pointed to the slim margin by which the vote passed and the heavy far-right influence in the EU as factors limiting environmental reform and change within the bloc.

The lack of such influence in Scotland could therefore allow for the introduction of more radical climate initiatives by the Scottish Government.

Burgauer added: “We should want to be going much further, much faster than this EU initiative. And if we want to make a start we should be getting serious about the degraded ‘wet deserts’ of our grouse moors and barren hillsides.

“Last year Scotland’s land emitted more carbon into the atmosphere than it soaked up. Our land is actually a climate pollutant. Values are all very well, but it is action that brings change.”

Peatland will be an area of particular focus for many member countries as part of their measures to fulfil the obligations imposed by the law, as such areas represent the largest carbon stores of any natural environment.

When peatland degrades it becomes a net contributor to the climate crisis, as the carbon typically sequestered in the ground is released into the atmosphere.

If all the carbon stored in Scottish peatlands were to be released into the atmosphere, it is estimated that it would be equivalent to 185 years’ worth of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Restoring peatlands also plays a significant role in mitigating the impacts of flooding and wildfire, improving water quality and boosting the biodiversity of upland areas.

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Scotland will not be affected by the obligations imposed on EU member states, but the Scottish Government has made peatland recovery a key part of its rural policy.

Environment Minister Gillian Martin told The National: “We have already made clear our commitment to align with, or exceed, EU laws and standards where we can. 

“Peatland restoration is a good example of the Scottish Government putting into practice what we promised.

“We previously announced new conditions from 2025 for farmers and crofters on maintaining and restoring peatland to sequester more carbon. That puts into effect the EU’s GAEC 2 [good agricultural and environmental conditions] standard here in Scotland.

“It is further evidence of Scotland leading the way on peatland restoration with ambitious targets.”

Since its launch in 2012, Peatland ACTION, NatureScot’s project to restore Scotland’s degraded peatlands, has “set over 35,000 hectares of degraded peatland on the road to recovery”, according to its website.

A campaign video for the project acknowledged that in order to meet Scottish Government targets, the pace of work will soon have to be ramped up.

In 2020, the Scottish Government announced £250 million of funding for peatland restoration in a bid to reach its goal of restoring 250,000 hectares of degraded land by 2030.

This target is approximately in line with the EU’s 20% overall goal, but the European Council has set out aims to restore 30% of peatland under agricultural use under the new law, to which this target may fall short.

Martin added: “We are committed to significantly increasing the rate of restoration to help us deliver a just transition to net zero through the creation of good, green jobs in the rural economy.

“Our new Biodiversity Strategy sets out a long-term ambition and vision to restore Scotland’s natural environment.

“It is designed to deliver landscape-scale, transformative change and will be backed by evidence and underpinned by statutory targets for nature recovery.”

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According to Wetlands International, around 50% of the EU’s peatlands are degraded, and the union is the second largest global emitter of greenhouse gases from drained peatlands.

In Scotland, more than 20% of our total land mass is peatland (around 1.7 million hectares), and 80% of that is degraded and in need of restoration.

In Germany, a country more than four times Scotland’s size, the figure is 1.8 million hectares.

This makes Scotland one of the densest areas of peatland in Europe, outside of Nordic countries such as Finland and Sweden.