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European Commission

[Check Against Delivery]

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

'They ain't making it any more': managing our land sustainably'

Conference 'Land as a resource'

Brussels,19 June 2014

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the early Seventies, Joni Mitchell protested in her hit song 'Big Yellow Taxi' that we were "paving paradise to put up a parking lot".

If the lyrics were fitting forty years ago, they are even more so today. They’re also a fitting introduction to this conference. That’s because today we will be discussing a specific 'resource', land, which the Treaty in Article 191 calls on us to use "prudently and rationally". It’s fair to say that we are far from using this resource either prudently or rationally in Europe or globally for that matter. In many ways, in too many places, we're still paving paradise.

Land is coming under pressure from different sources, each of which brings its own specific challenges.

Since Joni sang Big Yellow Taxi, big cities have become bigger, coast lines have been increasingly built up, transport networks have expanded, and parking lots keep growing and growing. All this has resulted in an ever greater area of the soil being sealed over with concrete. Because of this, soil can't do a proper job of absorbing water, carbon and nutrients, and that “small business” of hosting life.

Industrialisation has left in its wake a large number of contaminated sites, especially in and around urban areas. Instead of cleaning them up and bringing them back into a new productive life, they are often left abandoned. At the same time, green fields and natural areas are being converted into residential and industrial zones. This is reducing and fragmenting the space necessary for species and habitats to thrive, and is undermining the objectives of our nature legislation. It is wasting some of the best productive land which would otherwise be the fundamental basis of flora, food production and the bio‑economy. And it has also led to the deforestation of vast areas, many of which have gone on to suffer subsequent losses of soil.

Meanwhile, the intensification of agriculture and forestry can over‑exploit the soil, leading to the loss of organic matter, erosion or diffuse contamination. This degradation reduces the soil’s fertility and other functions.

In the longer term, it will almost inevitably result in diminishing returns on investment in agriculture or forestry. On the other hand, land abandonment deprives the soil of the care it needs.

This loss of quantity and quality of land in Europe doesn’t just affect the environment. It has other consequences. It means increasing reliance on imports of agriculture and forestry products from third countries. As the conference on deforestation which we organised here a few weeks ago highlighted, this may have very significant impacts in terms of global land and ecosystem degradation.

What I have just described can hardly be called prudent and rational use of a natural resource. And it’s even more imprudent and irrational when we consider the broader context in which it is happening.

Climate change marches on and will affect – and be affected by – land degradation. The world population keeps growing. More and more families aspire to our standards, including more frequent meat and dairy consumption and larger living space. As known reserves of raw material and other natural resources get used up, the search for new ones is expanding into previously untouched areas, including even traditional ‘no-go’ zones like World Heritage sites.

All these factors together put extra demands on the earth’s limited land resources. I stress the word "limited" - as Mark Twain famously remarked, “Buy land, they're not making it anymore”. Which is exactly what some are resorting to, and not always in the most transparent or legitimate way, as I’m sure we will hear from some of our speakers today.

Even our efforts to resolve certain environmental problems have consequences for land use. For instance, if we want to break away from our dependency on fossil fuel, then we will need land to produce biomass or establish wind and solar farms.

If we’re to reconcile these different and often competing interests and needs for land, we absolutely need to use land more efficiently, bearing in mind that it is a limited resource. And one doesn't waste a limited resource, but ensures that it is used for as many purposes as possible, now and in the future – what is known in technical jargon as securing the ‘multi-functionality’ of land.

But going back to the Treaty and Article 191, we also need to ensure a prudent use of land; which is to say, maintaining healthy soils and the life within and on them.

This is easier said than done, especially in the face of so many trade-offs.

I’d like to highlight through a series of questions just some of the key trade-offs we’re facing:

  • Should the growth of urban areas and infrastructure be reduced or capped? Is zero land take a realistic goal? And conversely, should we do more to prevent land abandonment?

  • Can we bring back to nature, partially or totally, some of our artificial areas? Is that an appropriate way to compensate for land take in other areas?

  • What share of degraded land would we need to bring back for it to perform as many functions as possible? What are the economic, social and environmental impacts of the process?

  • What is the real potential for sustainable intensification of agriculture and forestry in Europe versus extensive forms of land management? What does it mean for our water resources, soil quality, nutrient balance, and our biodiversity?

  • What is the true potential of multi-functional land use, such as urban agriculture, green infrastructure, natural water retention measures or agro-forestry, and what would it take to make this a reality in Europe?

  • How much of the solution could come from measures to curb demand, such as reducing food waste?

These are all questions we need to address together if we want to achieve our goal of using this finite resource in an efficient way.

In my view, a prudent and rational use of the land resource should be articulated around four axes:

The first axis involves acknowledging that land is a finite resource, and using it for as many purposes as possible – environmental, economic, social.

One way of doing this could be to set targets for reducing land take at the appropriate governance level. The targets might be purely indicative, as is the case in Germany, which has an aspirational target of limiting land take to 30 hectares per day by 2020, down from around 120 hectares per day in 2004. Targets like this are a powerful tool to raise awareness that land is a finite resource, and that land trade-offs need to be carefully evaluated and balanced.

The second axis involves avoiding land wastage by preventing land degradation. We will not be able to achieve this unless we halt the degradation of the basic component of land, which is soil.

Even though the Commission has withdrawn its 2006 proposal for a Soil Framework Directive, the problem of soil degradation hasn't gone away. And let me state very clearly that, in taking this decision, the Commission at the same time underlined that it remains committed to the objective of soil protection and will examine options on how to best achieve this. Member States agreed in the 7th Environment Action Programme to reflect as soon as possible on how soil quality issues could be addressed within a binding legal framework. So, stay tuned!

Farming and forestry practices will also have to contribute to the sustainable use of natural resources. Doing so will provide benefits for our rural communities, such as local employment, income, food and timber, but also for biodiversity, our landscape, and natural and cultural heritage.

The work underway in the EU to map and assess our ecosystems and their services will increase our knowledge base of ecosystems and their services and help inform decisions about land use and planning at different levels. Meanwhile, the initiative on no net loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, where we are aware that some concerns exist, will complement the critical work already underway for areas of high biodiversity value protected as part of our Natura 2000 network of protected areas.

Let's now turn to the third axis: we actively need to restore degraded land and encourage land recycling, in particular by supporting the regeneration of brownfields.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of former industrial or commercial land lie abandoned in our cities and peri-urban areas.

In one German lander alone there are about 900 square kilometres of brownfields, a situation that is found in many other parts of Europe. While no one knows for sure how many brownfields there are in the EU as a whole, nor the regeneration potential they offer, it is clear that there is a huge amount of land that could potentially be brought back into the economic cycle, creating jobs, improving conditions in the inner cities, reducing urban sprawl, and preserving our peri-urban countryside and natural areas. There are many wonderful examples of this having been done successfully, but they need to be replicated many times over.

We need to reflect – collectively and as individual Member States and regions – on how to seize this potential, and on the tools needed to favour such development. In this context, the land target I mentioned earlier is one interesting option the European Commission will be exploring, in line with the Seventh Environment Action Programme.

The fourth and final axis concerns the impact that our domestic EU policies may have on land degradation outside the EU.

Over and above a moral duty, we need to know if we are contributing to land degradation outside the EU through our policies. Competition for land (and water) resources can heighten the risk of geopolitical imbalances, and make it more difficult for local communities to preserve their land tenure rights. Land degradation itself leads to a decrease in the amount of multi-functional land available worldwide. It is putting increased pressure on fragile ecosystems like tropical forests and peatlands.


Ladies and gentlemen,

As the American environmentalist Aldo Leopold said, “Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left”. In the face of so many challenges, arriving at a better, more sustainable use of our limited land resource may seem a daunting voyage. But every journey has a starting-point.

We have an excellent line-up of speakers to enlighten us about some of these issues and challenges, or tell us about real and potential solutions being applied in different countries and regions.

I would ask each of you present today – whether you are a government representative, an interest group representative or an individual citizen – to make your voice heard. Tell us what you think about the potential advantages and drawbacks of the different options that we will discuss during the conference and help shape the public consultation which the Commission will launch in the coming months.

Thanks in advance for your contributions, and thank you for your attention.

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