26 July 2023

A sustainable soil pays off as enefits exceed costs by 1.7 times, EU says


The figure is included in the Impact Assessment accompanying the proposed EU Soil Directive. Between now and 2060, the sustainable management of the continent’s land will generate a positive balance of EUR 320 billion

by Matteo Cavallito


Sustainable European soil management in EU would generate overall benefits that would exceed costs by a factor of 1.7. This is the conclusion of the Impact Assessment presented by the European Commission’s technicians. The investigation, which accompanies the proposal for a Soil Directive presented in early July, proposes a detailed analysis of the various items involved, over a period of almost four decades.

“To achieve healthy soils,” the Commission writes, “it is necessary to ensure that soils are managed in accordance with sustainable soil management principles targeting the types of degradation, by using practices that maintain or increase the soil’s capacity to provide ecosystem services on a long-term basis.” Although some initiatives in this direction are already in place, “significant efforts are still needed by all Member States to support and ensure this transition on a broad scale.” But what economic impact should we expect?

The cost-benefit analysis

According to the Commission, actions designed to halt degradation, apply sustainable management practices and regenerate healthy soils would cost between EUR 28 and 38 billion per year. The greatest benefits, at the same time, come from applying the so-called “preferred option”, which requires Member States to take action to halt degradation and restore unhealthy soils. According to estimates, the economic benefits could reach up to EUR 52 billion per year, offsetting the costs of intervention.

Particularly significant is the annual economic benefit associated with the clean-up of contaminated sites which, according to a conservative estimate, would be worth EUR 24.4 billion.

On the other hand, if sustainable management practices were not implemented, the Commission points out, Europe would face different costs related to soil degradation and the consequent loss of ecosystem services. The cost of this degradation is estimated at 68.8 billion per year, excluding the impact analysis of contaminated sites from the calculation.

A long-term estimate

The different impacts of the initiatives have a variable time profile, which is why the Commission has chosen to carry out a long-term analysis extending up to 2060. On balance, the Brussels report explains, by that date the total amount of benefits associated with non-degradation and its impacts is calculated at EUR 550 billion.

If we add to this analysis the positive spillovers associated with the decontamination of polluted sites – estimated at 230 billion – the value of the total benefits accumulated within the first decade of the second half of the century reaches 780 billion.

On the other hand, the implementation of sustainable land management practices will cost 420 billion between now and 2060. The identification and remediation of contaminated sites will require an additional EUR 38 billion in addition to other cost items of negligible magnitude. In summary: the total account shows a positive balance of about 320 billion. The benefits (780 billion) exceed the costs (about 459 bn) by 1.7 times. It is, incidentally, significant that the cost-benefit curve would be in positive territory (where benefits exceed costs) as early as the end of this decade. Then it will rise sharply in the following two decades and will stabilise by mid-century.

Il profilo temporale degli impatti. Fonte: European Commission, “Impact Assessment Report. Accompanying the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Soil Monitoring and Resilience (Soil Monitoring Law)”. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The temporal profile of impacts. SOURCE: European Commission, “Impact Assessment Report. Accompanying the proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Soil Monitoring and Resilience (Soil Monitoring Law)”. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The EU Soil Directive

EU proposed directive has started to go through the approval process involving the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers. The goal is to reach final approval before the end of the legislative period. In the meantime, the Commission has launched a 8 weeks public consultation to gather thoughts, opinions and views on the text submitted so far.

During this consultation period, a text of up to 4,000 characters can be sent to the Commission. Individuals as well as associations and organisations engaged in various capacities in the field of environmental protection and soil study can take part in the initiative, subject to registration and authentication. But technical bodies from the various national or local authorities and institutions will also have the opportunity to express their views.