Healthy soils are the very basis of our existence – without healthy soils, our ecosystems will collapse, depriving us of the foundation of our well-being. It takes thousands of years for soils to form. Scientists describe soils as like the skin of the living world, vital but thin and fragile, and easily damaged by intensive farming, forest destruction, pollution and global heating.
In 2006, the European Commission had therefore adopted the Soil Thematic Strategy and in 2012 published a policy report on the implementation and ongoing activities of the strategy. The report highlighted that in 2010, a minority of EU Member States in the Environment Council blocked further progress on the proposed Soil Framework, leaving the protection of soils without a comprehensive and coherent policy framework at EU level.
Despite the fact that soil is considered a non-renewable resource and the most important carbon store in the world, soil protection is mostly an indirect consequence of delivering environmental objectives described in various laws and regulations that are not explicitly soil focused, i.e. the Common Agricultural Policy.
Now, this is bound to change: Under the European Green Deal and its Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the European Commission seeks to update the Soil Thematic Strategy: Towards a common, European framework for soil protection!
The 2006 EU Soil Thematic Strategy is no longer adapted to the policy context of today and our scientific knowledge. If the EU doesn’t take action on soil protection now, there is a high risk that the EU will fail to achieve the objectives of the Green Deal.
In this context, the European Parliament is preparing a Resolution to the European Commission on the protection of soil.
Manuela Ripa is the Co-Sponsor for the Greens / EFA group in the Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety.
In the last few decades in particular, land consumption has increased significantly each year. Europe is one of the continents with the most pronounced urbanisation. Also, Europe is currently preparing for the European Green Deal, which means a systemic change for economic processes resulting undoubtably in an increased use of land and soil.
It is expected that many industries will consume enormous amounts of land and soil because of the growing need of environmentally friendly technologies they produce. Unfortunately, a trend can already be foreseen that the sustainable target of the new industries accelerates the licensing process for the construction of industrial sites. Testing procedures that have been enshrined in national and European law risk to be suspended in order to establish fast the supposedly environmentally world-friendly technology. The European Green Deal seems to boost this development with huge damage to soil protection. However, green industrialisation also leads to a partially non-returnable surface sealing with the same harmful effects as classic industrial surface sealing. Even a sustainable end does not justify the means of sealing valuable soil.
These are only some reasons, why we believe that it is all the more important now to define binding measures that restrict or compensate for land use.
The European Commission had already presented a working document for the Commission services in 2012 with guidelines for best practices for limiting, mitigating and composting soil sealing. However, these were not legally pursued, as the member states opposed an implementation.
Soil is the basis of our existence – it is a precious, non-renewable resource.
It's about time we start treating it as such!
Draft Motion for a Resolution
On 3rd of February 2021, the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) agreed on a Draft Motion for a Resolution.
This draft already contains important aspects on European soil protection, such as acknowledging soil as a non-renewable resource, soil as a crucial element of our ecosystems and biodiversity or soil as a powerful carbon-sink. It stresses, among other things, that healthy soils are essential to achieve the objectives of the EU Green Deal such as climate neutrality, biodiversity restoration, zero pollution, healthy and sustainable food systems and a resilient environment. It further calls on the EU Commission to establish a EU-wide common legal framework for the protection and sustainable use of soil addressing all main soil threats.
It also calls on EU Member States and the Commission to develop measures towards harmonised data collection, exchange of information and best practices on soil protection across the Union.
Finally, the motion for a resolution calls for the new EU soil strategy to include the protection and sustainable use of soil in all relevant aspects of its external policy.
However, the draft of the resolution fails to mention some decisive aspects that will prove to be essential for an effective revision of the EU Commission’s Soil Thematic Strategy.
Therefore, we will keep pushing for the following points:
To note that there are several main threats to soil in the Union, including erosion, compaction, soil organic matter decline, soil biodiversity loss, landslides, contamination, salinisation, and sealing.
EU-set mandatory, measurable objectives and targets together with ambitious timelines and binding measures to preserve soil functions, achieve a good soil status, reduce soil erosion and restore degraded soils all over the Union.
Creation of a proper EU system to monitor and report soil quality, map risk areas and clean up contaminated sites to reduce health risks for citizens and the environment.
Ensure mandatory public participation and consultation on land use planning.
Ensure compulsory priority to brownfield recycling over use of unsealed soil.
Promote stronger protection of soil under the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
No net land take until 2050 at the latest.
Exchange of views on the Draft Motion for a Resolution in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI).
In this exchange of views, all Co-Rapporteurs on the Resolution on Soil protection bring forward their views on the draft and propose amendments. Following the statements from the Members of Parliament, the EU Commission gets the floor to express their perspective.
Deadline for tabling the amendments.
14 – 15/04/2021
Vote on the resolution in the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI).
26 – 29/04/2021
Vote on the resolution in the EU Parliament’s Plenary Session.
Environmental protection, and with that the protection of soil, is a shared responsibility between the EU and its Member States. This means that the EU only acts when the policy objectives cannot be achieved sufficiently by Member States and whenever the EU would have an added value compared to actions taken by Member States individually. For soil protection, an EU-level approach makes a lot of sense for three main reasons:
It is essential in tackling climate change, food security and safety, human health, protection of natural resources and biodiversity, and migration. In addition, soils play a crucial role in nutrient, carbon and water cycle. In short, these are aspects and processes that are not constrained by physical and political borders. Soil degradation, such as GHG losses, contamination, erosion, diffuse pollution and sealing have a transboundary effect and therefore make a European approach to soil protection necessary. For example: Sealed soils that are unable to store rainwater increase the risk of flooding in neighboring countries downstream.
The EU and its Member States seek to fulfill several commitments and treaties, connected to land and soil degradation, such as the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement, the EU Biodiversity Strategy or the Decision of the European Parliament and the Council on the 7th EU Environment Action Programme. However, these commitments are not matched with appropriate action land and soil degradation continues in the EU. To fulfill these international commitments, strong, coordinated and decisive action is required on EU level.
Until today, soil protection is managed at national level within the EU, leading to significant differences policies, rules and actions across Europe. Some Member States have very developed soil protection policies and rules, others only cover the bare minimum. Especially Southern countries suffer most from high pressures of soil, facing high risks of soil erosion, depletion of soil organic carbon and desertification. Other countries progressed faster, tacking historical soil contamination with strong legislation. This creates a distortion in the common market of the EU and Member States should seek to level the playing field.
Take part in the EU Commission’s public consultation on soil: Through this public consultation, the Commission invites citizens and organisations to contribute to the preparation of the new EU Soil Strategy and share their views on potential objectives and actions. It will remain open for feedback for 12 weeks until 27 April 2021.