Participants at the recent United Nations 'Rio+20 Earth Summit' underscored the importance of soil conservation as an essential component of sustainable development, and LIFE projects continue to be at the forefront of demonstrating cost effective approaches to tackling Europe's soil management challenges.
Last month’s Rio+20 Earth Summit drew global attention to the challenges that we all face in looking after our planet’s environmental resources. The EU’s delegation at the summit presented a list of priority topics that need addressing in order to better facilitate international approaches towards the development of green economies. Among these concerns were issues associated with land and soil degradation.
In the Rio+20 outcome document 'The Future We Want', world leaders recognise the economic and social importance of good land management, including soil, and the need for urgent action to achieve a land-degradation neutral world.
Some 275 hectares of soil are lost in the EU every day due to urban and infrastructure development resulting in increasing soil sealing. Erosion caused by water is estimated to affect 1.3 million km² (an area equivalent to 2.5 times the size of France). Threats to soil biodiversity and risks associated with soil acidification or salinisation are also causes for concern. Intensive and continuous arable production may lead to a decline of soil organic matter and it is estimated that in 2009 European cropland emitted an average of 0.45 tonnes of CO2 per hectare.
At EU level, the Soil Thematic Strategy promotes a sustainable use of soils across Europe and the protection of soil functions. Three core policy pillars have been agreed under the Strategy for coordinated action involving: increasing awareness about soil conservation issues; developing new methods for improving soil conservation; and integrating soil conservation as a horizontal approach in key EU policies. A fourth pillar, covering the adoption of a Soil Framework Directive, is not yet in place because of the opposition of some Member States in the Council.
LIFE project outcomes have made beneficial contributions to the principles of these pillars and the European Commission continues to promote LIFE funding as a beneficial tool for helping Member States to establish sustainable soil management practices.
A useful selection of LIFE projects have been, and remain, active in raising awareness about soil conservation measures. In Greece for example, LIFE07 ENV/GR/000278 is completing its work that has focused on demonstrating how sustainable soil-use techniques can be applied to a Mediterranean river basin management approach. This project is also acting as a model to increase peoples’ appreciation about how the European Soil Thematic Strategy can be implemented in Mediterranean areas. Its outcomes were tested in the Municipality of Thermi and offer informative, replicable results for other parts of the EU. These have been documented in information guidelines covering topics such as a thematic guide for soil sealing prevention and a sustainable urban development action plan. Additional awareness raising tools from this LIFE project’s results provide information about how to better understand and calculate soil sealing threats.
This work supports the European Commission’s Soil Sealing Guidelines and other LIFE projects involved in raising awareness about opportunities for both mitigating soil sealing and reducing its negative effects include: LIFE08 ENV/IT/000408, which is preparing a new type of web tool for land planning that takes account for soil sealing challenges in decisions about development; and LIFE07 ENV/S/000908 where Swedish authorities are using LIFE support to help adapt urban areas to better cope with the impact of soil sealing in Malmö, as part of a wider sustainable urban development initiative.
A further example of LIFE’s involvement in improving the availability of information and awareness about effective techniques for soil conservation is found in Hungary. Here, the MEDAPHON project (LIFE08 ENV/H/000292) is raising the profile of a novel system that is capable of monitoring soil biological activity. LIFE funds are helping to generate wider interest in this system which allows cost-efficient approaches for working with very high soil sample sizes. Outcomes are improving know-how in soil conservation fields and providing more comprehensive, accurate, and thus strategically valuable, data sets for use in the planning of soil conservation operations.
Projects such as MEDAPHON illustrate LIFE’s considerable capacity for developing new knowledge about soil management in ways that contribute to another pillar of the EU’s soil conservation policy: namely developing new methods for improving soil conservation. A search of the LIFE programme’s project data base for instance presents a list of over 530 projects that have connections with soil-related outcomes and a large proportion of these projects have led to outputs that advance European expertise in looking after our soils.
One of these projects is the UK’s SOWAP initiative (LIFE03 ENV/UK/000617) which has been acknowledged for its positive outputs progressing new approaches to agricultural soil management. SOWAP was a collaborative investigation into soil and surface water protection by industry, NGOs, academic institutions and farmers. Three years of LIFE support for the project’s actions in the UK, Belgium, Hungary and the Czech Republic helped SOWAP to accumulate the knowledge needed to demonstrate the possibilities from a range of site-specific soil management methods, based on the concept of conservation tillage. SOWAP explored and documented the economics of the operations as well as effects on soil erosion and pesticide and fertiliser run-off. Birds, earthworms and aquatic invertebrates were shown to provide helpful biodiversity indicators for measuring the effects on soils of different types of agricultural activity.
Many other LIFE projects in the website’s database feature knowledge development findings about farm soils. These are typified by the likes of Spain’s ALMOND PRO-SOIL (LIFE05 ENV/E/000288) project which identified innovative opportunities for mitigating soil erosion in semi-arid agricultural landscapes.
Agriculture is of course a major influence on the quality and quantity of European soils. LIFE’s investment in projects showing ways to protect farm soils have been recognised by agricultural stakeholders and led to the integration of soil protection aspects in policies. These achievements reflect core ‘mainstreaming’ objectives for the LIFE Programme and also contribute to the EU’s soil policy pillar concerning the integration of soil protection aspects in other policies.
A policy mainstreaming area that is expected to receive more prominence in the future for LIFE is climate action (see slide 13 [and others] of this presentation about the proposal for a new LIFE Regulation). The incorporation of soil protection measures, and associated considerations, into climate action policy approaches is a goal shared by the AGRICARBON LIFE project (LIFE08 ENV/E/000129). LIFE funds are being used on this project to, among other things, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by assessing best practice approaches for optimising farm soils’ potential for producing organic matter that fixes high levels of carbon dioxide. Some 300 000 farmers and over 700 agricultural co-operatives are being targeted by this LIFE project.
More examples where soil management aspects can be integrated with good effect in other policy fields through LIFE can be seen in nature conservation policy. LIFE project support (LIFE06 NAT/P/000184) for endangered species in the Portuguese islands of Madeira for instance confirms how action to address soil erosion and strengthen soil reserves through vegetative cover in the breeding areas of rare birds has had a positive impact on the conservation status of such species, which are protected by the EU’s Birds Directive.
Areas covered by the EU Habitats Directive can also make use of soil conservation tools for nature policy purposes. This is illustrated by LIFE’s funding for improving peat moor habitats through initiatives such as the MoorLife project (LIFE08 NAT/UK/000202). Activity here is targeting win-win benefits for soil resources, protected habitats and the biodiversity that they mutually support.
LIFE’s flexibility means that Member States can harness the programme’s co-financing to facilitate a variety of approaches that strengthen legal means for safeguarding our environment. This includes the testing of new decision-making systems for authorities such as those being developed in Italy by LIFE’s SOILCONS-WEB project (LIFE08 ENV/IT/000408), which has partners from four Italian regions. Together, they are constructing and testing an online platform that is expected to ease the implementation of complex EU directives, regulations and national allocation plans concerning soil conservation objectives. The project is due to finish at the end of 2014 and, as with so many other LIFE funded activities, its results should offer excellent possibilities for replication and application elsewhere in the EU.
See LIFE thematic section featuring soils for more information about how LIFE is contributing to issues associated with land and soil degradation that were under the Rio+20 Earth Summit’s global spotlight.