Soil is a vital component of natural capital, hosting rich biodiversity and providing critical ecosystem services, such as food production, water purification and carbon storage. However, the majority of EU soils are considered unhealthy, with potentially 2.8 million sites being contaminated.

Soil is one of the essential components of land, playing a crucial role in nature’s cycles, particularly water and nutrient cycles. Soil is the source of 90% of all food, feed, fibre and fuel production in the EU — and it also provides valuable raw material for the horticulture and construction sectors.

Even a small patch of soil can teem with life, ranging from tiny organisms to fungi and earthworms, all playing a vital role in the functioning of the soil ecosystem. In this space, nutrients are also turned into forms that plants can take up, allowing biomass to form and store carbon. It is here that drinking water starts its natural purification process.

These natural processes are under threat from pollutants released by industry, transport and other economic activities. Unsustainable farming practices, fertilisers and pesticides also contaminate the soil. Eventually, this pollution affects plants, animals and human health. Soil degradation in the EU also comes with an economic cost of more than EUR 50 billion per year.

The way we use soil is also linked to climate change. Soil contains carbon and nitrogen, which can be released into the atmosphere depending on how we use the land. Clearing rainforests for cattle grazing or planting forests can tilt the global greenhouse gas emission balance one way or the other. The melting of permafrost — soil meant to be permanently frozen — due to rising global temperatures can also release greenhouse gases and accelerate temperature rise. Climate change can also substantially alter what European farmers can produce and where.

In the EU, soils are overall a source of greenhouse gas emissions, but through management, it is possible to reduce these emissions and instead enhance the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Our assessments highlight that:

  • Around 2.8 million contaminated sites are found in Europe. Industrial activities and waste disposal are primary sources of contamination. 
  • 60-75% of EU agricultural soils have excessive nutrient inputs
  • 80,000 sites have been cleaned up in countries where data is available. 
  • Heavy metals and mineral oil are the most frequent contaminants at European investigated sites. 
  • Over 80% of soils tested in one study contained pesticide residues, with 58% containing two or more types of residues.
  • Soil degradation in the EU costs more than EUR 50 billion per year.
  • In 2019, EU Member States reported net greenhouse gas emissions of 64 MtCO2e from soils to the atmosphere, which is equivalent to just under 2% of the total net emissions reported in that year.

Given soil’s vital importance, many EU and global policy frameworks directly and indirectly address land and soil. European policies aim to protect and restore soils and ensure that they are used sustainably. Soil-related EU policies include:

  • The EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 is a long-term plan to protect nature and reverse ecosystem degradation. The soil strategy is a crucial element of this.
  • The EU soil strategy for 2030 provides the framework and concrete steps towards protecting and restoring soils, and ensuring that they are used sustainably.
  • As a deliverable under the soil strategy, the European Commission proposed in July 2023 a new Soil Monitoring Law to protect and restore soils and ensure that they are used sustainably.

Some of these policies fall short of setting targets and commitments. This is especially true when it comes to protecting the condition of the soil. In other areas where targets do exist, including those related to protecting nature and biodiversity, the EU is not achieving policy goals.

How can Copernicus help? 

The Copernicus Land Monitoring Service offers several free-to-use data products related to soil monitoring. Soil moisture data layers—including Surface Soil Moisture, which provides information on the relative water content of the top few centimeters soil, and the Soil Water Index, which quantifies the moisture condition at various depths in the soil—can be used for applications in agriculture, water management, weather forecasting, ecological modeling, and conservation efforts.

Land cover datasets like the High Resolution Layer Imperviousness, Urban Atlas, and CORINE Land Cover provide comprehensive details on soil sealing throughout Europe.

Picture of a cracked barren land with small bushy orange-coloured plants in the top centre.

Soil moisture deficit: nature’s warning system

Soil moisture is essential for plant development. It regulates soil temperature, salinity, nutrient availability, and the presence of toxic substances. Soil moisture also gives soil structure, prevents soil erosion, and helps determine land use suitability.

From 2000-2019, soil moisture in the growing season was several times below the long-term average in EEA member countries plus the United Kingdom.

2019 was a particularly difficult year, with over 1.45 million km2 affected by soil moisture deficit. Moisture content was also low in 2012, 2015 and 2018, contributing to increasingly frequent and intense drought pressure.

The soil sealed under roads and pavements

Europe’s urban areas are growing, often at the expense of fertile agricultural land. As a result, concrete and asphalt surfaces can seal soil, preventing it from performing its functions such as storing water, producing food and biomass, regulating climate, buffering harmful chemicals, and providing habitats.

Rain on sealed surfaces also runs off rather than seeping into the soil, where it can be filtered by and can replenish the groundwater.

Image from above a street view showing people standing on sidewalks or crossing the street.

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