10 November 2023

For sustainable carbon cycles we need to focus on nature-based solutions

Ecomondo's 2023 General Soil States were dedicated to sustainable carbon cycles. PHOTO: Re Soil Foundation

Second edition of the General States of the Soil at Ecomondo in Rimini. Dozens of experts attended to discuss the best strategies capable of bringing organic carbon back into degraded soils and reducing CO2 in the atmosphere

by Emanuele Isonio


60-70% of European soils are unhealthy. 13% subject to erosion with losses in agricultural yields amounting to 1.25 billion euros. 25% of land in central, eastern and southern Europe is at high or very high risk of desertification. 78% of soil sealing occurs in agricultural areas. Between 200 and 800 thousand deaths per year caused by soil contamination. 390 thousand sites to be reclaimed.

These are the most up-to-date numbers on the soil emergency released by Mirco Barbero, head of the Soil Team, Unit Land Use & Management, General Directorate for Environment of the EU Commission. Occasion, the second edition of the General States of the Soil, organized in Rimini by the Re Soil Foundation in collaboration with the Joint Research Center of the European Commission and the Ecomondo Scientific Committee.

Looking for replicable best practices
An opportunity, that of the General States of the Soil, to represent with Italian and international experts the state of development of works to protect the soil, a highly underestimated and increasingly at risk resource. But the second edition was above all dedicated to analyzing which are the most effective tools for building sustainable carbon cycles. At the discussion table will be experts from the European Commission and the competent Italian ministries but also good practices implemented by farmers who are acting to spread the best innovation solutions and reverse the trend of soil degradation.

“Building sustainable carbon cycles means being able to bring organic substance and carbon back into the soil, improving its health” explains David Chiaramonti, full professor of Energy Systems and Energy Economics at the Polytechnic of Turin and member of the Technical Scientific Committee of Re Soil Foundation. “The most effective strategies to achieve the objective are different: there is no single solution but they must be based on the agroclimatic reality and the characteristics of the soils in which one operates. Well-studied crop rotations that bring organic substance and nutrients back into the soil, adoption of equally sustainable agricultural techniques such as cover crops and mulching. Or, again, technological solutions such as composting and biochar production through carbonization of agricultural residues and by-products capable of being reintroduced into the soil and contributing to the improvement of its microbiological life”.

The benefits of the European soil law

To do all this, however, it is necessary to know as much as possible the condition of continental soils. And on this front, especially in some states, there is a lot to do. It is precisely the need to fill this knowledge gap and to have homogeneous and comparable data referring to all EU countries that pushed the European Commission to present, last July, its legislative proposal on the monitoring of European soils. “The text – Barbero explained to the audience present in the room – has the aim of building a flexible and proportionate intervention system, which involves all the soils within the Union. The objective is to reach the definitive adoption of the law by 2025”.

Once approved, the law will make it necessary for member states to build a monitoring network on the various indicators of soil health. In this sense, Italy has an advantage, thanks in particular to the work carried out by ISPRA (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research): “We are in a very good position with regards to the request for monitoring of land consumption, waterproofing. The Italian system is already suitable for responding to European needs” explains Francesca Assennato, member of the Ispra Soil and Contaminated Sites Protection Unit. “We will have to equip ourselves for other soil indicators because systematic monitoring is not yet present in all regions. In particular we must work on the organic carbon content, erosion, compaction, salinisation: all degradation phenomena to be monitored to have a better idea of the quality of our soils and help us identify the best actions to adopt”.

The importance of the living lab network

To disseminate good practices on the sustainable carbon cycles front, the network of lighthouse farms and living labs envisaged by the EU Mission Soil will play a crucial role. “They will allow us to guide the transition towards healthy soils by 2030. The first living labs within the mission soil will start in 2024 and will allow us to have over 200 test sites for local experiments in urban and rural areas” explains Kerstin Rosenow, Head of Research and Innovation Unit, DG AGRI.

On the other hand, numerous initiatives are underway aimed at returning (or maintaining) carbon to the soil by removing (or preventing) it from ending up in the atmosphere, thus worsening the presence of climate-altering gases. Valuable best practices for identifying solutions that can be replicated on a large scale.

The Record case

One of these is RE-CORD, acronym for Renewable Energy Consortium for Research and Demonstration. A non-profit research body, founded in 2010 on the initiative of the University of Florence and today involved in various activities ranging from the circular economy to green chemistry to bioenergy.

“The lab has equipment worth around 2 million euros and something more in the demonstration systems department. The turnover is approximately 1.5 million euros and 25 researchers collaborate at the Center. It is currently involved in 16 projects, national and international. It is active in 6 Horizon 2020 projects, two of which as coordinator” explains Andrea Salimbeni, Head of Unit Raw materials & carbon recycling at Record. “The consortium is currently working on various projects specializing in treatments such as pyrolysis, biofuel production, and has gained great experience on hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) and hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), important for turning waste into energy. It studies, for example, how to use algae as much as used cooking oil, experimenting with production processes that enhance lignin as a precursor of aviation fuels”.