Soil degradation - Environment in EU at the turn of the century (Chapter 3.6)

Damage to Europe’s soils from modern human activities is increasing and leads to irreversible losses due to soil erosion, local and diffuse contamination and the sealing of soil surfaces. Population growth coupled with urbanisation is putting soils under pressure, while agricultural intensification is making soils more prone to erosion. Sealing of soil surfaces due to an increased urbanisation and new infrastructures is the main cause of soil degradation in the most industrialised and populated countries of western and northern Europe.

Soil loss by erosion is the main cause of soil degradation in the Mediterranean region. In some areas, soil erosion cannot be reversed, while in others nearly complete removal of soil has been observed. Soil deterioration by contamination is an important issue in central, western and northern Europe. For 12 of EU countries, the estimated number of potentially contaminated sites adds up to 1,500,000, of which more than 300,000 have been identified. This number sites is not expected to increase, due to national policies already in place and the commitment to the precautionary principle. But, the huge number of existing contaminated sites is an enormous challenge for the next decades and will need appropriate legal instruments, innovative remediation technologies and practical financial instruments.

In the Accession countries, there is a threat that the number of contaminated sites increases, if economical growth is not combined with appropriate environmental standards.

Sustainable management of soil as a natural resource, together with air and water, is one of the environmental challenges and priorities in the 5 th <Environmental Action Programme. But unlikely to the other two media, soil is not explicitly considered when specific objectives and targets are defined. Soil protection is addressed indirectly through measures to protect air and water, or developed within sectoral policies (secondary protection). Moreover, measures developed for specific sectors without considering theeffects on soil may lead to its further damage. At the national level, many Member States have produced legislation, policies or guidelines to ameliorate or prevent soils from further degradation. But, in general the policy measures are primarily aimed at combating pollution in other areas, and affect soils indirectly. Statutory soil monitoring is carried out as well in a number of Member States, but rarely for the purposes of soil protection per se; and comparability at the EU level remains weak. The development of an EU policy framework which recognises the role of soil, which takes account of the problems arising from the competition among its concurrent uses (ecological and socio-economic), and which is aimed towards the maintenance of its multiple function, would have multiple benefits and achieve a consistent improvement of Europe’s environment as a whole.

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