About 80% of Europe’s land surface has been shaped by human activities: covered with buildings, roads, industrial infrastructure or used for agriculture. The way we use land constitutes one of the main drivers of environmental degradation and climate change.

Europe is one of the most intensively used landmasses on the globe, with the highest share of land used for agriculture, forests and, to a lesser extent, urban areas and infrastructure. The way we use this invaluable resource has significant impacts on the environment and climate change.

Land use remained relatively stable in the EU, except for artificial surfaces such as built areas and roads, with an increase of over 6% during 2000-2018.

The increasing land-take trend (change in agricultural, forest and other semi-natural land taken for urban and other artificial land development) puts pressure on biodiversity, degrades habitats and contributes to issues ranging from carbon sequestration to soil sealing, landscape fragmentation, increased flood risk and urban heat island effects.

Forests cover close to 40% of Europe's land area. Besides providing food, fibres and habitats for many species, they contribute to the annual net removals of greenhouse gas. Through its land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) activities, the EU currently removes a net total of 244 Mt CO2e from the atmosphere every year, equivalent to 7% of its annual greenhouse gas emissions. The sector will play a crucial role in helping the EU achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

Organic soils, including peat lands, store large quantities of carbon and they are therefore equally important for land-based mitigation efforts.

Assuring that land is used in a sustainable way requires a long-term management perspective leading to a transition to sustainably managed land.

Constant land take and intensive and unsustainable land use by human activities destroys biodiversity and makes Europe increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters. Stopping land degradation and restoring wetlands, peatlands, coastal ecosystems, forests, grasslands, and farmland is key to preventing biodiversity decline and adapting to climate change.

Our analysis shows that

  • Between 2012 and 2018, land take in the urban areas of the EU and UK increased by 3,581 km2 and soil sealing increased by an estimated 1,467 km², mostly at the expense of croplands and pastures.
  • The soil sealing caused a loss of potential carbon sequestration, estimated at 4.2 million tonnes of carbon during the monitoring period.
  • Almost 80% of land take in urban areas took place in commuting zones, which are often important for wildlife, carbon sequestration, flood protection, and the supply of food and fibres. Commuting zones have much more artificial areas per person than cities, which means that their land use is less efficient.
  • Adding to pressures on nature, habitats in urban areas get fragmented because of land take and, with an average size of 0.25 km², they are about four times smaller than in rural areas.

Currently, there is no legally binding policy target in relation to land take and soil sealing at the EU level. However, the new EU soil strategy for 2030 calls on Member States to set land take targets for 2030, with the aim of reaching land take neutrality by 2050.

EEA activities focus on monitoring, documenting and assessing the spatial pattern, extent and dynamics of land use and land cover in Europe. This is based on data from remote sensing and in situ information, facilitated through Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis and documented in the framework of land and ecosystem accounting tools.

The main EEA data source is the Copernicus land monitoring service, which includes the Corine Land Cover data set that was produced for 1990, 2000, 2006, 2012 and 2018 and is based on cooperation with EEA members and collaborating countries and the Copernicus programme.

To support the EU's climate mitigation efforts, the EEA is monitoring the EU's greenhouse gas emissions, which can be found in the EEA data viewer. The EEA indicator provides more detailed information on greenhouse gas emissions from land use, land use change and forestry activities.

What is Copernicus Land Monitoring Service?

Copernicus is the European Union's Earth observation programme. Information from this programme is provided through six thematic services: land, marine, atmosphere, climate change, emergency management and security. All information is free and openly accessible to all users. The Land Service, provided by the EEA and the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, is divided into four main components: global , pan-European, local and imagery and reference data.

Copernicus land data provides detailed information, for example, on ground motion or how urban areas, forests, snow and ice cover change over time.

Forests cover close to 40% of Europe's land area.

What happens when we cover the ground with concrete and asphalt?

European cities are growing, and with them a larger area has been covered by concrete, asphalt, buildings or other artificial surfaces. Since the mid-1950s, the total surface area of cities in the EU has increased by 78%, thus contributing greatly to soil sealing and its negative impacts.

Soil sealing can be defined as the destruction or covering of the ground by an impermeable material. It is one of the main causes of soil degradation in the EU.

Soil sealing often affects fertile agricultural land, puts biodiversity at risk, increases the risk of flooding and water scarcity and contributes to global warming.

Almost half the area of cities is sealed and about 4% of the EU's coastal regions and floodplains are impermeable, jeopardising adaptation to heatwaves and floods and decreasing carbon sequestration.

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