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Environment: Soil sealing in the EU threatens the availability of ecosystem services
Every year in Europe, soils covering an area larger than the city of Berlin are lost to urban sprawl and transport infrastructure. This unsustainable trend threatens the availability of fertile soils and groundwater reservoirs for future generations. A new report made public today by the European Commission recommends a three-tiered approach focused on limiting the progression of soil sealing, mitigating its effects and compensating valuable soil losses by action in other areas.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “We rely on soils for some fundamental ecosystem services, and without them life on our planet would grind to a halt. We cannot afford to continue paving them over. This does not mean halting economic development or the upgrading of our infrastructures, but it does require a more sustainable approach."
Losing ground to asphalt
Soil is sealed when it is covered over with an impermeable material such as asphalt or concrete. Between 1990 and 2000, at least 275 hectares of soil were lost per day in the EU, amounting to 1,000 km² per year. Half of this soil is permanently sealed by impermeable layers of buildings, roads and parking lots.
According to the Report, this trend has been reduced to 252 hectare per day in recent years, but the rate of land consumption is still worrying. Between 2000 and 2006, the EU average increase in artificial areas was 3%, with increases attaining 14% in Ireland and Cyprus and 15% in Spain.
The report proposes a three-tiered approach to address the issue:
Limiting the progression of soil sealing with improved spatial planning or by reassessing "negative" subsidies that indirectly encourage soil sealing.
Mitigation actions to reduce damage when soil sealing cannot be avoided. These include using permeable surfaces instead of conventional asphalt or cement and building green roofs.
Compensation measures to partially offset soil losses in one area by measures taken somewhere else. These may take the form of payments, as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the restoration of already sealed soil. Good practices have been identified notably in Dresden and Vienna.
The results of this report will feed into a Commission technical document on soil sealing, which is being drawn up with the help of national experts. The document will provide national, regional and local authorities with guidance on best practices for limiting soil sealing and mitigating its effects, and should be finalised in early 2012.
Soil sealing causes an irreversible loss of the biological functions of soil. As water can neither infiltrate nor evaporate, water runoff increases, sometimes leading to catastrophic floods. Landscapes are fragmented and habitats become too small or too isolated to support certain species. In addition, the food production potential of land is lost forever. The Commission's Joint Research Centre estimates that four million tonnes of wheat are lost every year to soil sealing.
Many European regions are affected by increasing soil sealing, including half of the Dutch regions, eight provinces in Italy (Vercelli, Lodi, Verona, Piacenza, Parma, Campobasso, Matera, Catanzaro), three French departments (Vendée, Tarn-et-Garonne, Corrèze), the Poznan region in Poland, Western Styria in Austria, the Põhja-Eesti region in Estonia, and the Jugovzhodna region in Slovenia.
The Commission's Soil Thematic Strategy has identified soil degradation, including soil sealing, as a serious problem at EU level. To protect European soils the Commission presented a proposal for a Soil Framework Directive in 2006, with the support of the European Parliament. However due to opposition from some Member States the proposal is currently stalled in the Council.
For more information
Report "Overview of best practices for limiting soil sealing or mitigating its effects in EU-27":
The Report will be presented on 25 May 9:30-11:00 at the Green Week Conference:
For more information on the Thematic Strategy for soil protection:
For more information on the EU policy on soil protection: