The Green Deal
Within the last decade, EU Member States have increasingly put more emphasis on the need to develop and implement policies that address the climate crisis. A concrete example of this is the European Green Deal that was presented by the European Commission in December 2019. A key characteristic of the Green Deal is that it is a holistic approach to tackling climate and environmental-related challenges by developing a growth strategy that attempts to decouple economic growth from environmental impact. At the core of the European Green Deal lies the urgency to protect the EU’s natural capital. Yet, the European Green Deal in itself fails to address the crisis that one of the EU’s most valuable assets in its efforts to reduce environmental impact, soil, awaits.
The Soil Crisis
At the root of the consequences that will prevail if no actions are taken to tackle the climate crisis, lies the global soil crisis. The global soil crisis often fails to be put on the political agenda of European countries. If the global soil crisis fails to be addressed by legislation, this will lead to a series of severe consequences. First of all, poor soil quality is likely to lead to a decrease in the nutritional value of food. Taking into account population growth and the need to feed more and more mouths, an increased number of people will suffer from nutritional deficiencies and associated diseases. Secondly, one of the main characteristics of soil is its ability to absorb and hold water. The depletion of soil can result in floods, droughts, and water scarcity which, in turn, can lead to climate-related mass migrations. Thirdly, according to scientists, the degradation of soil is intertwined with a loss of biodiversity, which, in turn, will put in motion a snowball effect that accelerates both processes. Fourth, the role soil plays in the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere should not be overlooked. One of the key features of soil is that soil can absorb about 25% of human emissions every year. In other words, the soil functions as a carbon sink and helps to reduce carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Peatlands and permafrost are examples of two types of soil that can contain a high concentration of carbon. Therefore, further degradation of soil is likely to be detrimental to humanity’s efforts to combat climate change. Finally, the socioeconomic implications of soil degradation must not be underestimated as it could negatively impact the livelihoods of farmers.
The EU Soil Strategy
In the last decade, more and more EU initiatives were developed to tackle sustainability related issues, the main example being the European Green Deal. Other initiatives stemmed from the European Green Deal, such as the EU Farm to Fork Strategy and the EU Biodiversity Strategy. Both initiatives are based on one of the core principles of the European Green Deal, which is, the protection of the EU’s natural capital. Soil is an example of natural capital. Even though the EU Biodiversity Strategy is not focused on soil specifically, it does touch upon strategies for the preservation of the soil. Further examples of European initiatives that address soil are the Adaptation to Climate Change Strategy and the Zero Pollution Action Plan. The European Commission recently replaced the outdated Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection by introducing the EU Soil Strategy, which is an initiative that bundles together soil-related policies deriving from the aforementioned European initiatives, and builds on them.
The EU acknowledges that around 60-70% of current European soils are not healthy. According to scientists, in order to reverse the degradation of soil, at least 3%-6% of organic content should be brought back into the soil. Therefore, the European soil strategy stresses the need to increase organic carbon in soil to improve European soil health and calls for a sustainable way of managing soil in the long term. The European Commission proposes to join an international initiative that demands a 0.4% increase of organic content in soil per year. This, however, may not be realistic as soils in different EU member-states might demand different approaches. Besides increasing organic content in soil, the European Commission calls for a European reporting and monitoring programme to track progress concerning soil health. Recently, the EU Soil Observatory (EUSO) was created to increase the legitimacy of the policies mentioned in the EU soil strategy as well as to enhance compliance, which, in turn, is a positive step forward in restoring the health of Europe’s soils.
Soil Health Law
One of the main advantages of the EU Soil Strategy is that it shapes the foundation of improved soil regulations in the EU. Yet, this does not ensure that EU member-states will implement or adjust their soil policies as the EU Soil Strategy is not legally binding. The European Commission, therefore, is preparing a proposal to introduce a soil health law by 2023 that pushes the development of soil health indicators to create a level-playing field concerning the tracking and reporting of soil health in different Member States. In 2014, the EU already attempted to establish a legal framework concerning soil management but this failed due to a lack of support from Member States. The European Commission, however, believes that a change in the political landscape and the need for legally binding targets for sustainable soil management will result in a different outcome this time around.
The future of European soil
The European Commission acknowledging the severity of the soil crisis, as embodied by the Commission’s initiatives addressing soil health, is certainly a positive development. Yet, it remains to be seen whether an effective legal framework will be implemented that allows all Member States to mobilise their efforts in bringing organic content back in European soil
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Posthuma, J. (2022) The Soil Crisis: The EU soil strategy explained, IDRN, 05 August. Available at: https://idrn.eu/the-soil-crisis-the-eu-soil-strategy-explained [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].