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SPEECH/12/356

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Addressing soil contamination, land take and soil sealing: good for the environment, good for the economy

Conference 'Soil remediation and soil sealing'

Brussels, 10 May 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning and welcome to Brussels! It is a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to exchange views with you on such an important topic.

In his book 'Plan B 4.0', Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute quotes from a 1938 report of Walter Lowdermilk, a senior official in the Soil Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lowdermilk travelled abroad to look at lands that had been cultivated for thousands of years, seeking to learn how these older civilizations had coped with soil degradation. He found that some had managed their land well; maintaining its fertility over long stretches of history, and were thriving. Others had failed to do so and left only remnants of their illustrious pasts. In particular, Lowdermilk described a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings were still standing in stark isolated relief, but they were on bare rock.

During the Seventh Century, this thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. To this Lowdermilk noted, 'If the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be re-peopled again and the cities rebuilt, … but … now that the soils are gone, …. all is gone.'

In about six weeks, Rio de Janeiro will host a major conference on sustainable development organised by the United Nations, twenty years after the first Rio Summit. That first Summit, started a process that gave rise to important international conventions on environmental issues that have a clear impact on a global scale, such as climate change or biodiversity.

This has allowed us to find global solutions and agree on specific instruments or targets to encourage and measure progress towards global sustainability. Some may be very familiar to you, such as the Kyoto Protocol. Less known may be that Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity two years ago agreed to restore at least 15% of degraded ecosystems.

Such instruments are extremely important when it comes to the environment, because the environment is - most of all - a shared global asset that can find long-lasting solutions only at global level. However, when it comes to land management the world doesn't have something similar. And this means that problems linked to global land and soil degradation do not have global answers.

The European Union is proposing that in June 2012 the world agrees to establish global objectives and targets to drive the overall process and transformation towards sustainability. We are calling for focused and clear operational targets on five specific areas. One of them is sustainable land management, for which we are proposing to arrive at zero net rate of land and soil degradation within an internationally agreed timeframe.

In my view this target would fill the existing gap and focus international attention to these precious, and in practice - non-renewable - resources: namely land and soil.

The time has come to act at global level. The pace at which we are degrading soil and changing land uses worldwide is quite worrying. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, up to 50,000 km² are lost annually through land degradation. This corresponds to the surface area of Slovakia or Costa Rica. It may not seem much, but if we consider that less than one fifth of the land on the planet is naturally fertile – it actually is much! The rest is too cold, too hot, too dry, too wet, too high or too saline. With this in mind, degrading every year the equivalent of Slovakia or Costa Rica takes on another dimension, doesn't it?

Coming back to my initial case and findings of Lowdermilk, the situation in Europe is certainly not comparable to that of Seventh Century Syria. However, the Commission's Joint Research Centre report on 'The State of Soil in Europe' shows that 1.3 million km² are affected by soil erosion and almost 20% of this surface loses more than 10 tonnes of soil per hectare per year. This is has a knock-on effects on water and biodiversity and is far beyond the sustainability threshold which is of less than 2 tonnes.

Although we do not have precise data (as there is no European legislation in this field), it is estimated that there are around three million potentially contaminated sites in the EU. About 250,000 pose significant risks to human health or the environment and need to be remediated, but progress is slow. Finally, in the period 1990-2000 a surface area equivalent to Cyprus (some 10,000 km²) was converted to urban or industrial land, mainly from agriculture.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We face at least three great world problems when it comes to soil:

  • erosion, often of already organic matter reduced soil;

  • millions of potentially contaminated sites; and

  • land take for urbanisation at a scale that is unprecedented in human history.

These issues are not just a cause for reflection. They a reason for action!

In addition to the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive, the Commission services have recently finalised best practice guidelines to limit soil sealing (you will hear more about this tomorrow). And … in addition … I am also considering putting forward some ideas on land use in 2014. It's in two years time … but in the meantime, we can already make some preliminary strategic considerations. And I haven't given up on Soil Framework Directive. Maybe 7th EAP could be a moment for a renewed commitment!

The first strategic consideration is on those three million suspected contaminated sites and an unspecified number of abandoned and degraded former industrial sites (the so-called "brownfields"), that cover a non-negligible part of Europe. Unfortunately, we lack sound figures on the extent of the problem.

Remediating and regenerating all these areas is clearly a challenge – and a costly one. However, it also represents an opportunity. Promoting the re-use of existing buildings and the redevelopment of brownfield sites alleviates, at least partially, the need for further land take and soil sealing.

Contaminated sites are often well connected and close to urban centres. Remediation can bring hidden benefits in terms of less new infrastructures, fewer new transport networks and less greenhouse gas emissions. Already now transport accounts for 24% of the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions, so we should look for urban and infrastructure models which save resources, including land and soil.

Some are calling for a special EU fund to help solving the problem, but let me remind you that in the Cohesion funds the money is there for such purposes and remains to large extent unused. It will also be available in the next MFF.

Promoting the remediation of contaminated sites also creates green jobs and offers development opportunities to the remediation industry, which in 2004 was estimated to be worth some €5 billion in the older EU Member States (EU 15). European expertise in remediation could be a useful and beneficial export industry especially if given the underpinning of EU legislation to drive expertise. For example, experts believe that there are some 36,000 unregulated waste dumps in India and between 300,000 and 600,000 contaminated sites in China. So, as you can see there is a lot of potential.

The second strategic consideration that I would like to share with you is linked to the estimated nine billion people that will share the planet by 2050. The task of providing food for everyone is already exercising minds throughout the world. But as much as this is already a great challenge per se, it will be even a greater challenge if we do not address land take.

At the moment, the world is losing arable land at an unsustainable rate – equivalent each year to the amount of land needed to provide bread for 80 million people. Without changing this, we will not be able to face the challenge of providing food security for the world as a whole.

This leads me to the third strategic consideration, which concerns the proposed Soil Framework Directive. By protecting soils and ensuring their sustainable use, the Soil Framework Directive would literally protect the ground needed to make planning decisions on. Without it, we may wake up one day and find that soil degradation has gone beyond the point of no return. Just as Lowdermilk noted we risk waking up and noting that the soils are gone…. and that … all is gone.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our soil, the thin skin of our planet, has always been very precious. It hosts one quarter of global biodiversity; it keeps in store around twice the amount of carbon to be found in the atmosphere and three times that in vegetation; it can absorb and deliver some 3,500 m³ of water per hectare to plants.

Mark Twain is reported to have said "Buy land. They ain't making any more of it". This is unfortunately a piece of advice that some countries appear to be following – buying land elsewhere in the world when their own land becomes unsustainable. Somehow, they seem to find that this is a miracle solution which allows an escape from responsibility. But there is no miracle: there is simply no other solution than to prevent land degradation and begin to reverse it.

This is the message that we are taking to Rio de Janeiro in June. Because it's much more than a European issue – it's a global one! Our own credibility however depends on us being able to show that we mean what we say by delivering first here in Europe.

So, let's start making a difference. It is still time, but is running out!

Thank you for your attention.


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