The area of soils covered with trees and artificial surfaces is increasing in Europe, while arable land areas are declining. Sparsely vegetated areas are the most vulnerable to soil loss.
A study published in Nature Scientific Reports by scientists from the JRC, the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the University of Melbourne provides a first roadmap for country-specific accounting of soil resources.
It establishes a framework to develop a natural capital accounting structure for soil across the EU that considers the impact of policies that drive land use, climate change and pollution.
This represents a major step forward in developing an integrated soil monitoring approach, called for by the United Nations Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils.
“There is a current gap in providing a monitoring and assessment information system for soil that can inform policy, regarding progress on achieving economic, social and environmental goals. We believe this framework sets out the opportunity to address this deficiency in a way that will ultimately lead to better management of soil for food, other material resources and wider ecosystem services,” noted Dr Robinson from the CEH, the lead author of the study who undertook much of the analysis during a study visit to the JRC in Ispra, Italy.
Sparsely vegetated areas at high risk of erosion
Using land cover change data for 2000-2012, the research group identified land-cover types that were susceptible to change, and the soil resources most at risk.
It appears clear that sparsely vegetated areas and barren land are subject to highest levels of soil erosion.
Arable cropland areas are also subject to high levels of erosion, especially if the soil is left bare for long periods, for instance after harvesting. The loss of soil is even greater when the period during which the soil is bare coincides with the rainy season.
Potential soil erosion rates are also high in woody crop areas such as olive groves, which are often planted on soils that are less fertile and naturally low in soil organic carbon.
Forests and artificial surfaces expand in Europe
The study confirms that the area land covered by forests is increasing in Europe, which is good news in terms of soil organic carbon mitigation.
Excluding peatland, tree-covered soils are associated with the highest carbon stocks. As forests grow, they store more carbon, which helps to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, energy production, and transport.
According to the State of Europe's Forests report published in 2015, European forests absorb about 9% of the net greenhouse gas emissions in Europe.
However, the study also shows that artificial surfaces are on the increase as a result of urbanisation and urban sprawl, at the expense of arable lands.
Monitoring of soils as natural capital
Our economic prosperity and well-being is based on natural capital that provides our society with essential goods and services – from fertile soils to productive oceans, which produce good quality freshwater and clean air, and facilitate pollination and climate regulation.
Soil is a crucial component of this natural capital as it underpins the production of food, feed, fibre and timber for millions of people across Europe. It is also critical for Earth system functions that support the delivery of other ecosystem services – including the creation of habitats for plant and animal life.
However, the broader value of the multiple life-support functions provided by soils, from both an economic and social perspective, is largely ignored.
"Monitoring soil condition is vital to help policymakers protect soil quality, as variations in cycles of soil carbon, nutrients, soil production and erosion, and the water and energy balance have a direct impact on the economies, societies and ecosystems of European countries", said JRC soil scientist Panos Panagos.
The first priority objective of the EU’s 7th Environment Action Programme is to protect, conserve and enhance the Union’s natural capital. A key consideration is to try to account for the value of natural processes by integrating economic measures (such as national income, gross domestic product and national wealth) with environmental and social indicators so that the true value of resource degradation can be appreciated. This process is known as natural capital accounting.
However, integrating information on soil resources with other measures of natural capital and economic activity remains one of the least developed areas of the United Nations System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA).
This study aims to fill that gap by establishing a framework to develop a natural capital accounting structure for soil across the EU, which considers the impact of policies that drive land use, climate change and pollution.
The study used information derived from Earth observation satellites, modelling and data from the soil component of the EU’s Land Use/Cover Area frame statistical Survey (LUCAS), and other datasets from the European Soil Data Centre (both LUCAS Soil and ESDAC are coordinated by the JRC).