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EU Soil policy

The EU Soil Thematic Strategy

The Thematic Strategy for Soil Protection identifies the key soil threats in the EU as erosion, floods and landslides, loss of soil organic matter, salinisation, contamination, compaction, sealing, and loss of soil biodiversity. It consists of a Communication (COM (2006) 231) from the Commission to the other European Institutions, a proposal for a framework Directive (COM(2006) 232), and an Impact Assessment (SEC(2006) 620).

In 2012, the European Commission published a policy report on the implementation of the Strategy and ongoing activities (COM(2012)046). The report provides an overview of the actions undertaken by the European Commission to implement the four pillars of the Strategy, namely awareness raising, research, integration, and legislation. It also presents soil degradation trends both in Europe and globally, as well as challenges to ensure protection.

Following the withdrawal of the legislative proposal due to the opposition of a minority of countires in the Council, in 2015 the Commission set up an Expert Group mandated by Member States to reflect on how soil quality issues could be addressed using a targeted and proportionate risk-based approach within a binding legal framework.

Given the cross-sectoral nature of soil issues and the diversity of environmental and socio-economic pressures and governance conditions across Europe, many different policy instruments at EU and Member State level exist that either explicitly reference soil threats or soil functions; or implicitly offer some form of protection for soils.

However, a report analysing existing soil protection policies and measures, and identifying key gaps in soil protection, highlighted that EU level policy instruments lack of a coherent and strategic policy framework for protecting Europe’s soils adequately.

Preparatory work for the Soil Thematic Strategy and for the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive

Existing legislation with relevance for soil protection

At EU level, there is no binding overarching framework that strategically defines policy priorities or parameters for soil protection. Soil protection outcomes in the other laws are mostly derived as a consequence of delivering environmental objectives that are not explicitly soil focused, such as reducing contamination, offsetting GHG emissions, and preventing other environmental threats.

  • Environmental Liability Directive

    Directive 2004/35/EC on environmental liability with regard to the prevention and remedying of environmental damage (ELD) establishes a framework based on the polluter pays principle to prevent and remedy environmental damage. Besides a common framework on remediation of damage to water or natural habitats, it also sets the most appropriate measures to remediate land damage (e.g. to ensure that relevant contaminants are managed in a way that the contaminated land no longer poses any significant risk of adversely affecting human health).

  • Industrial Emissions Directive

    Directive 2010/75/EU on industrial emissions (the Industrial Emissions Directive or IED) is the main EU instrument regulating pollutant emissions from industrial installations. It aims to achieve a high level of protection of human health and the environment taken as a whole by reducing harmful industrial emissions across the EU. It provides an integrated approach to prevention and control of emissions into air, water and soil, to waste management, to energy efficiency and to accident prevention, and as well ensuring that the operation of an installation does not lead to a deterioration of the quality of soil and groundwater.

  • Environmental Impact Assessment Directive

    The EIA Directive (85/337/EEC) is in force since 1985 and has been amended three times, in 1997, in 2003 and in 2009. This Directive shall apply to the assessment of the environmental effects of those public and private projects which are likely to have significant effects on the environment. The environmental impact assessment will identify, describe and assess in an appropriate manner the direct and indirect effects of a project on the following factors: human beings, fauna and flora, soil, water, air, climate and the landscape, material assets, etc.

  • Sewage Sludge Directive

    The Sewage Sludge Directive (86/278/EEC) seeks to encourage the use of sewage sludge in agriculture and to regulate its use in such a way as to prevent harmful effects on soil, vegetation, animals and people. The use of sewage sludge must not impair the quality of the soil and of agricultural products. To this end, it prohibits the use of untreated sludge on agricultural land unless it is injected or incorporated into the soil. Treated sludge is defined as having undergone "biological, chemical or heat treatment, long-term storage or any other appropriate process so as significantly to reduce its fermentability and the health hazards resulting from its use".

  • Regulation on fertilisers

    Regulation (EU) 2019/1009 sets out the definition of ‘EU fertilising products’ and lays down rules on making them available on the market. Among others, it also defines thresholds for contaminants presence in fertilising products, notably Cadmium, to minimize soil pollution.

  • Mercury Regulation

    Regulation (EU) 2017/852 covers the full life cycle of mercury. It establishes measures and conditions concerning the use, storage and trade in mercury, its compounds and mixtures, the manufacture and use of, and trade in, mercury-added products, and the management of mercury waste. The directive aims to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and its compounds.

  • Land use, land use change and forestry Regulation

    Regulation (EU) 2018/841 on the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) in the 2030 climate and energy framework, sets a binding commitment for each Member State to ensure that accounted emissions from land use are entirely compensated by an equivalent removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere through action in the sector.

  • Common Agriculture Policy

    The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and four associated regulations, sets out how the different elements of the CAP work (e.g. rules for direct payments to farmers EU regulation 1307/2013; financing, management and monitoring of the common agricultural policy EU regulation 1306/2013; etc.). The CAP is an important economic driver for farming decisions across the EU and has the potential to advance soil protection in both agriculture and forestry through Member States’ and land managers’ implementation of its measures and associated obligations. Soil is one of the basic resources for agriculture and forestry production. The CAP objective of sustainable management of natural resources and climate action, and more specifically the provision of environmental public goods and the pursuit of climate change mitigation and adaptation, are clearly relevant to the soil protection and improvement.

The European Green Deal

In December 2019, the European Commission presented the European Green Deal, which resets the Commission’s commitment to tackling climate and environmental-related challenges. The European Green Deal is a response to these challenges through a new growth strategy that aims to transform the EU into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use. It also aims to protect, conserve and enhance the EU's natural capital, and protect the health and well-being of citizens from environment-related risks and impacts. The EU Green Deal has been confirmed also at the core of the recovery plan from the Covid-19 crisis.

In line with the EU Green Deal, the Commission adopted in May 2020 the new EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030: Bringing nature back into our lives - a comprehensive and ambitious long-term plan for protecting nature and reversing the degradation of ecosystems.

Main elements for land and soil in the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030

  • A new EU Nature Restoration Plan will help improve the health of existing and new protected areas, and bring diverse and resilient nature back to all landscapes and ecosystems. This means reducing pressures on habitats and species, and ensuring all use of ecosystems is sustainable. It also means supporting the recovery of nature, limiting soil sealing and urban sprawl, and tackling pollution and invasive alien species.
  • The Commission will put forward a proposal for legally binding EU nature restoration targets in 2021 to restore degraded ecosystems, in particular those with the most potential to capture and store carbon and to prevent and reduce the impact of natural disasters. The impact assessment will also look at the possibility of an EU-wide methodology to map, assess and achieve good condition of ecosystems so they can deliver benefits such as climate regulation, water regulation, soil health, pollination and disaster prevention and protection.
  • It is essential to step up efforts to protect soil fertility, reduce soil erosion and the over use of nutrients, while increasing soil organic matter levels. This should be done by adopting sustainable soil management practices, including as part of the CAP.
  • Significant progress is also needed to identify contaminated soil sites, restoring degraded soils, defining the conditions for their good ecological status, introducing restoration objectives, and improving the monitoring of soil quality.
  • To address these issues in a comprehensive way and help to fulfil EU and international commitments on land-degradation neutrality, the Commission will update the EU Soil Thematic Strategy in 2021.
  • The Zero Pollution Action Plan for Air, Water and Soil, that the Commission will adopt in 2021, will look at a range of chemicals, including pesticides.
  • Soil sealing and rehabilitation of contaminated brownfields will be addressed in the upcoming Strategy for a Sustainable Built Environment and the Circular Economy Action Plan.