17 November 2021

EU ready to work on soil law: “Net consumption must go to zero by 2050”

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Nel 2023 la Commissione UE finalizzerà la Nature Restoration Law con l’obiettivo di tutelare legalmente il suolo e azzerare il consumo netto entro il 2050. Foto: Gerd Altmann Creative Commons CC0 Public domain

The Commission has announced a European law for soil protection by 2023. Debora Fino (Re Soil): “An historic choice, now Member States can take a major step forward”. Concerns over France and Germany’s position

by Matteo Cavallito and Emanuele Isonio

 

The European Union will adopt specific legislation for soil protection starting with the proposed law that will be finalized by the Commission in 2023. The Wednesday 17th announcement now opens the door to the long-awaited Nature Restoration Law which, according to Brussels, will provide soil with the same legal protection already granted to water, air and sea, as already demanded by the European Parliament last April.

“Our strategy will allow the soil to become healthy, to be used in a sustainable way and to receive the legal protection it needs,” said European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans. According to the draft plan, which sits alongside programs to tackle deforestation and promote waste recycling, the EU plans to form a new, enlarged group of experts to develop some detailed proposals.

“Avoid, reuse, minimise, compensate”

Avoid” further land consumption by stopping soil sealing to reach net zero by mid-century. But also “reuse“, “minimize” and “compensate“. These are the keywords shaping the overall vision of the problem. Europe, in particular, must promote the reuse of land already occupied and, when this is not possible, minimize the impact of land consumption by choosing sites in less favorable conditions and preserving the most valuable areas (from forests to fertile land). Finally, new occupation must be compensated for in various ways – by adopting solutions such as green buildings, for example – to minimize the loss of ecosystem services.

Immagine: EU Soil Strategy for 2030. "Reaping the benefits of healthy soils for people, food, nature and climate", novembre 2021

Image: EU Soil Strategy for 2030. “Reaping the benefits of healthy soils for people, food, nature and climate”, November 2021

Soil will have its Net Zero in 2050

The process will take place in cooperation with Member States. The Commission has set three goals:

  • Join the international “4 per 1000” initiative to increase soil carbon on agricultural land.
  • Develop a long-term vision for sustainable carbon cycles (including CO2 capture, storage and use) in the direction of climate neutrality.
  • Achieving zero net soil removal by 2050.

The Soil Health Law, in short, involves several issues. It integrates with the Soil Strategy already approved and other environmental initiatives, including the promotion of circular economy, the safeguard of biodiversity, the support to bio-economy and the protection of forests.

Immagine: EU Soil Strategy for 2030. "Reaping the benefits of healthy soils for people, food, nature and climate", novembre 2021

Image: EU Soil Strategy for 2030. “Reaping the benefits of healthy soils for people, food, nature and climate”, November 2021

Member States initiatives

The real issue is the commitment of Member States. According to the draft they will have to report to the Commission on their progress in reducing soil consumption.  Moreover is always up to governments to set national targets and develop their plans for the recovery of urban soils according to the principles of EU legislation. The document drawn up by Brussels also includes the gradual elimination of subsidies and financial incentives not compliant with European targets like local tax benefits for the conversion of agricultural or natural land into a construction area.

Back in 2004, the EU had already put forward a proposal for a directive on soil protection, but the initiative was blocked by opposition from five countries, Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius said at a press conference.

“Currently, however, we are facing a completely different scenario,” he added. ” Even some countries that previously opposed a soil law are now calling for it.”

The former Lithuanian Economy Minister didn’t give further details. The general perception, however, is that there is still a lot of work to be done at diplomatic level. “Given the obstinate opposition of some key Member States such as France and Germany to any EU interference in soil management, the game’s in play,” says a source familiar with the matter.

More organic matter, less chemical fertilizers

Meanwhile, the draft provides interesting details about the European plan. As an example, the plan highlights the benefits of recycling organic matter – compost, digestate, sewage sludge, processed manure and other agricultural residues – as a basis for developing natural fertilizers. To ensure the safety of the production process and avoid soil pollution, the Commission will review directives that address the management of these elements. Moreover, Brussels “will assess the options for ensuring the reduction of nutrient losses by at least 50% (resulting in the reduction of use of fertilisers by at least 20%), with a view to making this target legally binding.” Funding for a new LIFE project on the use of high quality compost from organic waste is also expected.

(Almost) zero soil pollution in 2050

Great focus also on bioplastics, as an alternative to traditional coatings, and on tackling pollutants. Biodegradability criteria for certain polymers, such as coating agents and agricultural mulch films under the EU Fertilizer Products Regulation, are to be “adopted by July 2024,” the draft states. “The contaminant limits for EU fertilising products will be reviewed by July 2026 as part of the general review of that regulation.”

The initiatives, which include the development over the next three years of a “list for contaminants of major and/or emerging concern that pose significant risks for European soil quality, and for which vigilance and priority action at European and national level,” and which will be supported by resources provided under Horizon Europe, CAP and LIFE and by the use of other structural funds, are expected to lead to the final goal.

“By 2050,” the document states, “soil pollution should be reduced to levels which are no longer expected to pose risks and which respect the boundaries our planet can cope with, thus creating a toxic-free environment.”

Fino (Re Soil): “I paesi UE possono fare un deciso passo in avanti”

“La Soil Strategy for 2030 annunciata oggi dalla Commissione UE è una scelta epocale, che dà a tutti gli Stati europei la possibilità di fare un deciso passo in avanti a favore della cura e della tutela del suolo”, commenta Debora Fino, Presidente della Fondazione Re Soil. “Ma è anche un’occasione per avviare politiche nazionali che stimolino le strategie più efficaci per restituire salute ai terreni, partendo ovviamente da quelli agricoli”.

L’annuncio della Commissione, inoltre, è rilevante per almeno tre motivi. “La comunicazione odierna riconosce i gravi problemi connessi alla mancata adozione di un quadro legale che dia al suolo la stessa protezione riconosciuta all’acqua, all’aria e all’ambiente marino. Inoltre, annuncia per il 2023 una legge europea per la salute del suolo che offra finalmente criteri univoci per definire degradato un terreno. E, ancor più importante, fissa l’obiettivo ambizioso di avere suoli in salute entro il 2050”.

In Europa 2,8 milioni di siti contaminati

Quanto sia urgente intervenire a favore della salubrità dei terreni, lo ricordano i dati: il 60-70% dei suoli UE presenta qualche forma di degrado. In Europa abbiamo 2,8 milioni di siti contaminati. Mentre per il 65-75% dei suoli agricoli l’apporto di nutrienti raggiunge livelli tali da creare possibile eutrofizzazione e da incidere sulla biodiversità. Il 25% dei terreni nell’Europa meridionale, centrale e orientale è a rischio alto o molto alto di desertificazione. Si stima che i costi associati al degrado del suolo nell’UE superino i 50 miliardi di euro all’anno.

“Quei numeri dimostrano l’estrema urgenza di intervenire” conclude Debora Fino. “La Commissione oggi ha fatto un primo, importante passo. Questa opportunità ora deve essere colta dagli Stati membri, a partire dall’Italia, per introdurre rapidamente politiche coraggiose e innovative. Penso in primo luogo ad azioni per incentivare il sequestro del carbonio nei suoli agrari e alla legge sul consumo di suolo che giace da troppo tempo in Parlamento”.