Brussels, 22 September 2006
The European Commission today proposed a strategy to ensure that Europe’s soils remain healthy and capable of supporting human activities and ecosystems. Good quality soil is essential to our economic activities as it provides us with food, drinking water, biomass and raw materials – and all our human activities are somehow related to soil. But soil degradation is accelerating across the EU, with negative effects on human health, ecosystems and climate change – and on our economic prosperity and quality of life. To reverse this trend, the Commission’s strategy sets a common EU framework for action to preserve, protect and restore soil, but leaves Member States flexibility to implement it in a way which fits local situations best. Member States must take action to tackle threats such as landslides, contamination, soil erosion, the loss of soil organic matter, compaction, salinisation and sealing wherever they occur, or threaten to occur, on their national territories. The Soils Strategy is the last of the seven Thematic Strategies that the Commission is presenting, in accordance with the 6th Environmental Action Programme.
Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Soil is a prime example of the need to think global and act local. That is why we propose a common framework at EU level which will set a level playing field and aim at the same level of protection of soils throughout the EU, while leaving member states room to take into account national situations in their implementation. We want to ensure that citizens today and in the future benefit from soils that are able to perform a wide range of different functions, providing us with all the services that we need”.
A non renewable resource
Soil can be considered a non-renewable resource, as it takes hundreds of years to produce a few centimetres of soil. Yet soil is rapidly degrading in many places across the EU exacerbated by human activity, such as certain agricultural and forestry practices, industrial activities, tourism or urban development. An estimated 115 million hectares or 12% of Europe’s total land area are subject to water erosion, and a further 42 million hectares by wind erosion. Approximately 3.5 million sites within the EU could be contaminated. About 45% of European soils have low organic matter content, principally in southern Europe but also other Member States are concerned.
Call for action at EU level
Soil is a resource of common interest to the EU and failure to protect it at EU level will undermine sustainability and long term competitiveness in Europe. Different EU policies already contribute to soil protection but no coherent policy exists. Only nine Member States have specific legislation on soil protection, often covering a specific threat, in particular soil contamination.
Soil degradation has strong impacts on other areas of common interest to the EU, such as water, human health, climate change, nature and biodiversity protection, and food safety. Soil protection is not only a national concern as soil contamination in one Member State can have transboundary effects and cause pollution and economic burdens on neighbouring states. Also, different ways of dealing with soil problems may distort competition for economic operators within the internal market.
A Framework Directive
Against this background, the Commission proposes a Soil Strategy for Europe. It is set out in a Communication, accompanied by a proposal for a Framework Directive and an Impact Assessment.
The Framework Directive sets out common principles, objectives and actions. It requires Member States to adopt a systematic approach to identifying and combating soil degradation, tackling precautionary measures and integrating soils protection into other policies. But is allows for flexibility - it is for the Member States to decide the level of ambition, specific targets and the measures to reach those. This is because soil degradation offers a very scattered picture throughout Europe, where 320 major soil types have been identified.
Member States are required to identify areas where there is a risk of erosion, organic matter decline, compaction, salinisation and landslides. They must set risk reduction targets for those areas and establish programmes of measures to achieve them. They will also have to prevent further contamination, establish an inventory of contaminated sites on their territory and draw up national remediation strategies .When a site is being sold, where a potentially contaminating activity has taken or is taking place, a soil status report has to be provided by the seller or the buyer to the administration and the other party in the transaction. Finally, the Member States are required to limit or mitigate the effects of sealing, for instance by rehabilitating brownfield sites.
Full details of the Strategy are available at http://ec.europa.eu/environment/soil/index.htm
A video news release on the Strategy is available to television stations and networks; it can be viewed and ordered at http://www.tvlink.org
See also Memo/06/341