Green Deal projects of WUR for a climate-neutral EU

May 30, 2024

A climate-neutral European Union in 2050 with a sustainable economy. That is the goal of the Green Deal of the European Commission. The EU launched a research programme in 2021 to find answers to climate change and to protect ecosystems and biodiversity. WUR is part of nine Green Deal projects. How are they doing after 2.5 years? Let’s delve into three of these projects.

In the Green Deal projects, the researchers want to tackle two challenges simultaneously: climate change and biodiversity loss. In practice, this means strengthening nature reserves so that we can better respond to the consequences of climate changes such as heat waves, forest fires, floods, and drought. Nature-based solutions play an important role in this strategy: measures that use natural processes to deal with drought and flooding, for example, while also promoting species diversity.

European Green Deal

The European Green Deal encompasses a series of policy initiatives,
including a proposal for a law for a climate-neutral European Union by 2050.
This proposal was approved in 2020, and other initiatives followed, but
recently climate and nature proposals have been withdrawn, postponed, or
weakened, including: 

  • The Sustainable Food System Law, part of the Farm-to-Fork strategy. Status: unknown (was supposed to be adopted by the European Commission by the end of 2023, but this did not happen).
  • Regulation for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides. Status: withdrawn (after rejection by the European Parliament at the end of 2023).
  • Nature Restoration Law. Status: postponed (due to insufficient support at the beginning of 2024, unclear if it will be canceled).
  • Soil Monitoring and Resilience Directive. Status: under review (adopted by the European Parliament at the beginning of 2024, but certain obligations and a binding timeline have been removed; the Council will vote in June).

WaterLANDS – wetlands restauration

WaterLANDS is a European research project to restore European wetlands and anticipate their adaptation to climate change. WUR has been working on this project for three years with Radboud University, Wetlands International, and European partners.

It is a multidisciplinary research project where sociologists, ecologists, economists, and artists explore how they can restore peatlands, coastal marshes, and riverine floodplains. ‘The biggest challenge in the project is how to integrate the different fields of knowledge into an approach that helps managers make decisions that benefit both restoration and local communities’, researchers Juul Limpens and Milena Holmgren from WUR explain. They coordinate the tasks leading to synthesise the ecological knowledge and identify the restoration options.

One of the research areas is Venice, and not just the tourist hotspot Venice but the entire coastal lagoon, 55,000 hectares in size with 120 islands. This salty coastal marsh around the city is of significant importance for the safety of Venice because it reduces the impact of the waves from the Mediterranean Sea. WaterLANDS is working on nature-based solutions to fortify this ecosystem. Such an ecological approach to restoration must convince decision-makers more familiar with engineering approaches.

‘WaterLANDS embraced the challenge in an unconventional way’, says Holmgren. The researchers organised an educational programme with school children involving field trips to the lagoon around Venice. They asked the children for their opinions before and after the excursion. This showed that the children felt more connected to the lagoon and became more aware of nature and natural processes after spending a whole day in direct contact with the Venice lagoon’s plants, animals and sediments. They are now working on including this environmental programme in the curriculum of all schools in Venice.

This form of nature education prepares minds for sustainable flood management, Holmgren thinks, also because the children discuss the role of wetlands with their parents. ‘WaterLANDS cannot stop climate change, but we can work on the local stressors and the social capital to reduce the impacts.’

Read more about this project

SUPERB: forest restoration

Forests in Europe are affected by climate change, while the need for renewable resources and biodiversity keeps becoming more important. For that reason, the EU-funded project SUPERB is investigating forest restoration in thirteen European countries.

The European forests are generally having a hard time, but the challenges differ per country, says WUR researcher Ajdin Starcevic. Some areas in particular are affected by drought, others by fires or bark beetles. SUPERB is investigating location-specific measures for forest restoration in 12 demonstration areas. The researchers do not have any final results because the project has been underway for only 2,5 years. SUPERB is an acronym for Systemic solutions for upscaling of urgent ecosystem restoration for forest-related biodiversity and ecosystem services.

One of the demonstration areas is a forest on the border of Serbia and Croatia. This area has been managed as plantations of fast-growing poplar trees for decades, but now there are efforts to transform it into a mixed natural forest dominated by oaks. During the initial restoration actions, seedlings were planted but did not survive due to a very warm and dry summer. Consequently, replanting was done using acorns, which should give a higher resilience to the newly established seedlings in the restoration area. This shows the need for adaptation for practitioners, says Starcevic.

‘Forest restoration is not that simple if you go from paper to practice’, he says. In addition to the climate conditions, the researchers in this project must also deal with partners from 13 different countries, all with their own national legislations. The SUPERB project collaborates with dozens of research institutes and universities and more than a hundred partner organisations, including Staatsbosbeheer in the Netherlands. These organisations must gain knowledge in the demonstration areas and then scale up the best practices to a regional or national level.

The Dutch case study took place in the south of the Netherlands, where a 60-hectare forest area is affected by soil degradation, says Starcevic’s colleague Silke Jacobs. The researchers are now testing whether fertilisation with calcium and magnesium and additional tree species will ensure greater resilience and diversity of the forest, for example, because the forest will then retain more water and have more nutrients available for the trees.

Read more about this project

REST-COAST – climate-proof coastal areas

The EU project REST-COAST aims to develop healthy and climate-resilient European coastal areas through large-scale nature restoration and the provision of ecosystem services. Within this project, WUR focuses on coastal restoration management and scaling up successful nature-based solutions.

One of the tasks is to develop a scorecard methodology for coastal systems, by developing indicators for ecosystem services and biodiversity on a European scale. This knowledge is transferred to the European Nature Information System (EUNIS), a comprehensive pan-European habitat classification system. Wageningen Marine Research has coordinated the development of the scorecard method for nine pilot sites in Europe.

An important element in REST-COAST is carbon storage in salt marshes. Researchers from WUR and Deltares have taken 110 soil samples in five different salt marsh types in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and measured the amount of carbon stored. The results showed that the carbon sequestration rate scales linearly with the sedimentation rate.

Earlier research from Bureau Waardenburg shows that salt marshes are important in capturing CO2. Together, they capture approximately 60,000 tons of CO2 per year in the Netherlands, which is comparable to the emissions of 7,500 households for housing and transport.

Read more about this project