Soil

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Page Last modified 04 Dec 2019
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Soil underpins 90 % of all food, feed, fibre and fuel production, and it provides raw material for activities from horticulture to the construction sector. Soil is also essential for ecosystem health: it purifies and regulates water, it is the engine for nutrient cycles and a reservoir for genes and species, supporting biodiversity. It is a global carbon sink, playing an important role in the potential slowing of climate change and its impacts. Moreover, by conserving traces of our past, it is an important element of our cultural heritage.

However, soil is subject to ongoing, often conflicting demands from our society. The ability of soil to deliver ecosystem services — in terms of food production, as a biodiversity pool and as a regulator of gasses, water and nutrients — is thus under pressure. Observed rates of soil sealing, erosion, decline in organic matter and contamination all reduce soil resilience or its capability to absorb the changes it is exposed to.

Within the time frame of a human life, soil can be considered a non-renewable resource. As a society we need to manage it sustainably to enjoy its benefits. Despite the range of activities that ultimately depend on soil, there is no specific EU legislation on soil. To date, and unlike water and air, soil protection is addressed indirectly or within sectoral policies: agriculture and forestry, energy, water, climate change, nature protection, waste and chemicals. The lack of a coherent soil policy at EU level is also reflected in the scarcity of harmonised soil data.

Nevertheless, the past ten years have seen progress in policy development and coordinated data efforts. The European Commission's Soil Thematic Strategy from 2006 highlights the need to protect soil functioning as an essential element of sustainable development. At the global level, soil issues are being addressed under the wider concept of land degradation (so far limited to dryland areas) by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). More recently, the notion of preserving soil functions has been embedded in the land-degradation-neutrality concept as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The SDGs also include targets on soil quality, soil contamination, the management of chemicals and waste. Implementation of the SDGs can provide an important vehicle for soil protection measures in Europe. Efforts to harmonise and standardise soil information for public use are proceeding accordingly, both at global and European level.

The EEA produces indicator-based assessments on a range of land-use and soil topics under the thematic cluster of land-use and soil indicators (LSI set). The LSI set comprises indicators on land take, imperviousness, management of contaminated sites, soil moisture, soil erosion and soil organic carbon. Indicators on fragmentation and land recycling are planned. Copernicus land monitoring services facilitate regular updates of several of these indicators. The EEA equally publishes ad-hoc assessments on specific soil-related topics, such as soil resource efficiency in urbanised areas, or soil nutrient and metal loads to the environment.

EEA's work on soils has been supported by the Eionet National Reference Centres Soil (NRC Soil; with currently two working groups, on soil contamination and on soil monitoring), and by the European Topic Centre on Urban, Land and Soil Systems (ETC/ULS). EEA closely cooperates with the European Commission (in particular the Joint Research Centre (JRC) and DG Environment). Other partners include the UNCCD Secretariat, FAO, the Global and European Soil Partnerships, and the Common Forum on Contaminated Land.

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Related indicators

Land take Land take as a result of the expansion of residential areas and construction sites is the main cause of the increase in urban land coverage in Europe. Agricultural zones and, to a lesser extent, forests and semi-natural and natural areas are disappearing in favour of the development of artificial surfaces. This affects biodiversity since it decreases habitats and fragments the landscapes that support and connect them. Between 2006 and 2012, the annual land take in the European countries (EEA-39) assessed in the 2012 Corine land cover (CLC) project was approximately 107 000 ha/year. The figure for the 2000-2006 period was approximately 118 000 ha/year. In the 28 countries 1 covered by all three CLC assessment periods (1990-2000, 2000-2006 and 2006-2012), annual land take decreased by 10.5 % between 2000 and 2006, and by 13.5 % between 2006 and 2012. In absolute values, the annual land take in these 28 countries was 114 000 ha/year (1990-2000), 102 000 ha/year (2000-2006) and 98 500 ha/year (2006-2012). Between 2000 and 2006, more arable land and permanent crops were taken by artificial development than between 1990 and 2000, while fewer pastures and less mosaic farmland were taken over the same period. In fact, between 2006 and 2012, the types of land most taken for artificial development were arable land and permanent crops, followed by pastures and mixed agricultural areas.   1 The 28 countries covered by all three CLC assessment periods are AT, BE, BG, CZ, DE, DK, ES, EE, FR, GR, HR, HU, IE, IT, LT, LU, LV, ME, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, RS, SI, SK, TR and UK.
Progress in management of contaminated sites Local soil contamination in 2011 was estimated at 2.5 million potentially contaminated sites in the EEA-39, of which about 45 % have been identified to date. About one third of an estimated total of 342 000 contaminated sites in the EEA-39 have already been identified and about 15 % of these 342 000 sites have been remediated. However, there are substantial differences in the underlying site definitions and interpretations that are used in different countries.   Four management steps are defined for the management and control of local soil contamination, namely site identification (or preliminary studies), preliminary investigations, main site investigations, and implementation of risk reduction measures. Progress with each of these steps provides evidence that countries are identifying potentially contaminated sites, verifying if these sites are actually contaminated and implementing remediation measures where these are required. Some countries have defined targets for the different steps.   Thirty of the 39 countries surveyed maintain comprehensive inventories for contaminated sites: 24 countries have central national data inventories, while six countries, namely Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Germany, Greece, Italy and Sweden, manage their inventories at the regional level. Almost all of the inventories include information on polluting activities, potentially contaminated sites and contaminated sites.   Contaminated soil continues to be commonly managed using “traditional” techniques, e.g. excavation and off-site disposal, which accounts for about one third of management practices. In-situ and ex-situ remediation techniques for contaminated soil are applied more or less equally.   Overall, the production sectors contribute more to local soil contamination than the service sectors, while mining activities are important sources of soil contamination in some countries. In the production sector, metal industries are reported as most polluting whereas the textile, leather, wood and paper industries are minor contributors to local soil contamination. Gasoline stations are the most frequently reported sources of contamination for the service sector.   The relative importance of different contaminants is similar for both liquid and solid matrices. The most frequent contaminants are mineral oils and heavy metals. Generally, phenols and cyanides make a negligible overall contribution to total contamination.   On average, 42 % of the total expenditure on the management of contaminated sites comes from public budgets. Annual national expenditures for the management of contaminated sites are on average about EUR 10.7 per capita. This corresponds to an average of 0.041 % of the national GDP. Around 81 % of the annual national expenditures for the management of contaminated sites is spent on remediation measures, while only 15 % is spent on site investigations. It should be noted that all results derive from data provided by 27 (out of 39) countries that returned the questionnaire, and not all countries answered all questions.

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