The European Commission recently hosted a high-level conference on the relationship between soil and climate change, and the role of soil management in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Organic matter plays a fundamental role supporting soil fertility, retaining water, sustaining biodiversity and regulating the global carbon cycle. But organic matter is in decline, and the conference heard how large amounts of carbon have been lost to the atmosphere in recent years. The Commission states it is convinced of the need to act at EU level to protect soil. Members of the European Parliament, the President of the Environment Council and other key players reportedly agreed that the role of soil as a repository of carbon must be enhanced. They discussed policy options for achieving this, and advocated the adoption of a directive on the protection of soil, along the lines of the Soil Framework Directive that was blocked by European Council last December.
The conference also looked at the role of peatlands, which are in decline around the world. Peatlands are repositories of carbon and potential sources of methane and nitrous oxide. Urgent restoration is thought to be needed to reduce the huge greenhouse gas emissions from peat soils.
Declining levels of organic matter soils contain carbon in the form of organic matter. When organic matter is exposed to oxygen in the atmosphere, the carbon in the organic matter combines with the oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Organic matter is being lost from soils for a number of reasons. These include long-term changes in land management practices, changing soil management techniques, and changes in rainfall patterns and rising temperatures.
Soil is defined as the top layer of the earth’s crust. It is formed by mineral particles, organic matter, water, air and living organisms. It is in fact an extremely complex, variable and living medium. The interface between the earth, the air and the water, soil is a non-renewable resource which performs many vital functions: food and other biomass production, storage, filtration and transformation of many substances including water, carbon and nitrogen. Soil has a role as a habitat and gene pool, serves as a platform for human activities, landscape, and heritage and acts as a provider of raw materials. These functions are worthy of protection because of their socio-economic as well as environmental importance. Soil degradation is said to be accelerating, with negative effects on human health, natural ecosystems and climate change, as well as on the EU economy. At the moment, only nine EU member states have specific legislation on soil protection (especially on contamination).
The EU’s soils contain more than 70 billion tons of organic carbon, and releasing even a small fraction of that could wipe out savings from other sectors. The UK, for example, has been losing 13 million tons of carbon from its soils each year for the past 25 years.
Different EU policies (for instance on water, waste, chemicals, industrial pollution prevention, nature protection, pesticides, agriculture) are contributing to soil protection. But as these policies have other aims and other scopes of action, they are not sufficient to ensure an adequate level of protection for all soil in Europe.
For all these reasons, the Commission adopted a Soil Thematic Strategy (COM(2006) 231) and a proposal for a Soil Framework Directive (COM(2006) 232) on 22 September 2006 with the objective to protect soils across the EU. The strategy and the proposal have been sent to the other European institutions for further steps in the decision-making process.
The strategy is one of seven Thematic Strategies that the Commission has presented. The other strategies cover air pollution, the marine environment, waste prevention and recycling, natural resources, the urban environment and pesticides.
The Commission believes that a Soil Framework Directive would increase soil protection and safeguard crucial functions like carbon sequestration. It proposed a directive on these lines last year, inviting member states to examine the possible decline of soil organic matter in their territories and establish approaches to redress the situation. The proposal was rejected by the Council.
The soil question is expected to be addressed this autumn in a Commission White Paper on adaptation to climate change. The paper intends to stress the importance of making soil more resistant to climate change, and show how healthy, resilient soils can help society adapt to the impacts of climate change. Recent changes in the Common Agricultural Policy have also stepped up soil protection.