12 April 2012

EU unveils new guidelines to limit soil sealing

© Stephan Lorenz
© Stephan Lorenz
Soil is defined as the top layer of the earth's crust. It is formed by mineral particles, organic matter, water, air and living organisms. This non-renewable resource performs many vital functions: food and other biomass production, storage, filtration and transformation of many substances including water, carbon, nitrogen.

Soil sealing - the covering of the ground by an impermeable material - is one of the main causes of soil degradation in the EU. It often affects fertile agricultural land, puts biodiversity at risk, increases the risk of flooding and water scarcity and contributes to global warming.

New guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate and compensate soil sealing made public by the European Commission Thursday collect examples of policies, legislation, funding schemes, local planning tools, information campaigns and many other best practices implemented throughout the EU.

The guidelines call for smarter spatial planning and using more permeable materials to preserve our soil.

"The loss of soil resources through urbanization and the conversion of our landscape is one of the major environmental challenges Europe is facing," said Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik.

"There is an urgent need to use this valuable resource more wisely, in order to secure its many vital services for future generations. We simply cannot pave over our chances for a sustainable future."

More responsible land management needed

Europe is the world's most urbanised continent. An additional 1,000 square kilometers (an area larger than the city of Berlin) is claimed every year for human use, a high share of which ends up being sealed.

If this trend continues at the same speed, in 100 years we would convert an area comparable to the territory of France and Spain combined.

Soil formation is a very slow process. It takes centuries to build up a centimeter, so soil sealing causes significant damage to soil and often results in permanent loss.

This is why, while infrastructure development must be supported in order to fuel economic growth, there is a need for more efficient and responsible land management.

Soil sealing can be limited through smart spatial planning and limiting urban sprawl. Development potential inside urban areas can be used instead, through the regeneration of abandoned industrial areas (brownfields), for example.

Mitigating measures include using permeable materials instead of cement or asphalt, supporting 'green infrastructure', and making wider use of natural water harvesting systems. Where on-site mitigation measures are insufficient, compensation measures that enhance soil functions elsewhere may be considered.

The Commission guidelines underline the importance of an integrated approach to spatial planning. Taking specific regional approaches and mobilising unused resources at local level has also proven efficient.

Existing funding policies for infrastructure development are currently being carefully reviewed in order to reduce subsidies that may act as drivers for unsustainable land take and soil sealing. Reducing the share of urbanization fees in municipal budgets can also support long term planning.

Aim to achieve "no net land take by 2050"

The guidelines stem from the recent Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe issued by the European Commission on 20 September 2011.

The Roadmap suggests that by 2020, EU policies take into account their direct and indirect impact on land use, and that the rate of land take (e.g. the loss of agricultural, semi-natural or natural land) is on track with the aim of achieving no net land take by 2050.

The guidelines will be presented and discussed at the Conference on soil remediation and soil sealing hosted by the Commission on 10 and 11 May 2012 in Brussels.

The guidelines will be made available in the course of the year. They are aimed at competent authorities at national, regional and local levels as well as professionals dealing with land planning and soil management. Furthermore, they are meant to raise awareness in the broad public on continuous soil degradation.

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