Every year in Europe, soils covering an area larger than the city of Berlin are lost to urban sprawl and transport infrastructure. A new report made public today by the European Commission recommends a three-tiered approach focused on limiting the progression of soil sealing, mitigating its effects and compensating valuable soil losses by action in other areas.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “We rely on soils for some fundamental ecosystem services, and without them life on our planet would grind to a halt. We cannot afford to continue paving them over. This does not mean halting economic development or the upgrading of our infrastructures, but it does require a more sustainable approach.”
Losing ground to concrete
Soil is sealed when it is covered over with an impermeable material such as asphalt or concrete. Between 1990 and 2000, at least 275 hectares of soil were lost per day in the EU, amounting to 1,000 km² per year. Half of this soil is permanently sealed by impermeable layers of buildings, roads and parking lots.
According to the Report, this trend has been reduced to 252 hectare per day in recent years, but the rate of land consumption is still worrying as it has only decreased by 8.4% in ten years. Between 2000 and 2006, the EU average increase in artificial areas was 3%, with increases attaining 14% in Ireland and Cyprus and 15% in Spain.
The report proposes a three-tiered approach to address the issue:
- Limiting the progression of soil sealing with improved spatial planning or by reassessing “negative” subsidies that indirectly encourage soil sealing.
- Mitigation actions to reduce damage when soil sealing cannot be avoided. These include using permeable surfaces instead of conventional asphalt or cement and building green roofs.
- Compensation measures to partially offset soil losses in one area by measures taken somewhere else. These may take the form of payments, as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or the restoration of already sealed soil. Good practices have been identified notably in Dresden and Vienna.
The results of this report will feed into a Commission technical document on soil sealing, which is being drawn up with the help of national experts. The document will provide national, regional and local authorities with guidance on best practices for limiting soil sealing and mitigating its effects, and should be finalised in early 2012.