The European soil strategy commits to unveil a dedicated legislative proposal to tackle soil degradation in a harmonised way – but not until 2023, according to a leaked draft, seen by EURACTIV.
The new EU soil strategy for 2030, which is due to be launched tomorrow (17 November), will offer an overarching policy framework for soil restoration to assess the status of European soil and take action against its degradation.
It points out that the lack of dedicated EU legislation has been singled out by many as a “major cause for the alarming state of our soils.”
The strategy adds that soil degradation has impacts that go “beyond national borders”. Member states’ uneven and fragmented response has led to disruption of the internal market and an uneven playing field for economic operators who have to go by different rules on soil protection.
A first attempt to create an EU-wide legal framework for soil protection was conducted by former environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik ten years ago but was scrapped by national governments.
In a resolution approved last 28 April, MEPs noted that, contrary to water and air, there is currently no coherent and integrated EU legal framework for protecting Europe’s soil, as measures on soil protection are among a list of policy instruments that lack coordination and are often non-binding.
For this reason, European lawmakers called on the Commission to outline an EU-wide common framework.
Likewise, ahead of the EU Agrifish Council on Monday (15 November), 10 agriculture ministers sent a letter to the Commission asking to present a new framework legislative proposal for soil protection.
Despite the gravity of the situation, the Commission is not set to unveil a dedicated legislative proposal on soil health with the strategy tomorrow – but instead, this will be pushed back to 2023.
This will “enable the objectives of this strategy to be met and good soil health to be achieved across the EU by 2050,” the strategy maintains.
Such a legislative initiative will “fulfil better regulation requirements, be based on a thorough impact assessment and fully respect the principle of subsidiarity and of the competences of Member States in this matter.”
To determine the scope and content of this proportionate and risk-based framework, the Commission will engage in a broad and inclusive consultation with member states, the European Parliament and all relevant stakeholders.
Binding measures postponed
The strategy reads that investing in prevention and restoration of soil degradation “makes sound economic sense”, pointing out that halting and reversing current trends of soil degradation could generate up to €1.2 trillion per year in economic benefits globally.
However, while the strategy is strong on vision and the need for dialogue and knowledge exchange which will “pave the way for ambitious and necessary changes,” there is little in the way of binding commitments.
Instead, according to the leak seen by EURACTIV, the strategy will piggyback other legislative proposals as a vehicle for delivering on soil protection.
Apart from the soil health legislative proposal, the strategy states the Commission will put forward legally binding objectives to halt further drainage of wetlands and organic soils and to restore managed and drained peatlands in the context of the Nature Restoration Law, expected to be unveiled mid-December.
Similarly, in the impact assessment for the Soil Health Law, the Commission will assess options for ensuring the reduction of nutrient losses by at least 50% (resulting in the decrease in the use of fertilisers by at least 20%) to make this target legally binding.
Via the same mechanism, it will also consider options for proposing legally binding provisions to identify contaminated sites, set up an inventory and register of those sites and remediate the sites that pose a significant risk to human health and the environment by 2050.
The strategy also sets out the ambition to create a “soil passport” for excavated soil.
Soils extracted from construction sites are the most significant source of waste produced in Europe every year, representing five times the amount of household waste.
Even though most of these soils are not contaminated, they are currently considered waste under EU law, meaning that they are disposed of in landfills.
According to the strategy, this passport should reflect the quantity and quality of the excavated soil to ensure that it is transported, treated or reused safely elsewhere.
The Commission also envisages the introduction of a soil health certificate for land transactions.
This is designed to provide land buyers with information on the key characteristics and health of the soils in the site they intend to purchase.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]