Thursday, June 12, 2008

EC hosts high-level conference on soil and climate change

Source: European Commission, Environment DG
Published Jun. 12, 2008

The European Commission this week hosted a high-level conference on the relationship between soil and climate change, and the role of soil management in climate change mitigation and adaptation. Organic matter plays a fundamental role supporting soil fertility, retaining water, sustaining biodiversity and regulating the global carbon cycle. But organic matter is in decline, and the conference heard how large amounts of carbon have been lost to the atmosphere in recent years. The Commission is convinced of the need to act at EU level to protect soil. Members of the European Parliament, the President of the Environment Council and other key players agreed that the role of soil as a repository of carbon must be enhanced. They discussed policy options for achieving this, and advocated the adoption of a Directive on the protection of soil, along the lines of the Soil Framework Directive that was blocked by Council last December.

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Seventy billion tonnes of carbon is stored in our soils, and even small losses can have huge effects on our emissions of greenhouse gases. I therefore call on the Council to acknowledge the importance of soil for the sustainability of Europe as a whole, and to reconsider the need to protect this most precious resource through European legislation.”

Declining levels of organic matter

Soils contain carbon in the form of organic matter. When organic matter is exposed to oxygen in the atmosphere, the carbon in the organic matter combines with the oxygen to produce carbon dioxide, contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming. Organic matter is being lost from soils for a number of reasons. These include long-term changes in land management practices, changing soil management techniques, and changes in rainfall patterns and rising temperatures.

The EU's soils contain more than 70 billion tonnes of organic carbon, and releasing even a small fraction of that could wipe out savings from other sectors. The UK, for example, has been losing 13 million tonnes of carbon from its soils each year for the past 25 years.

The conference also looked at the role of peatlands, which are in decline around the world. Peatlands are repositories of carbon and potential sources of methane and nitrous oxide. Urgent restoration is needed to reduce the huge greenhouse gas emissions from peat soils.

How can the situation be improved?

The Commission believes that a Soil Framework Directive would increase soil protection and safeguard crucial functions like carbon sequestration. It proposed a directive on these lines last year, inviting Member States to examine the possible decline of soil organic matter in their territories and establish approaches to redress the situation. The proposal was rejected by Council.

The soil question will also be addressed this autumn in a Commission White Paper on adaptation to climate change. The paper will stress the importance of making soil more resistant to climate change, and show how healthy, resilient soils can help society adapt to the impacts of climate change. Recent changes in the Common Agricultural Policy have also stepped up soil protection.

Why was the Soil Framework Directive not adopted?

The European Parliament adopted the proposal for a directive at first reading in November 2007, strongly emphasising the need for protecting soils against the negative effects of climate change. But the proposal was subsequently blocked at the Environment Council in December 2007, when Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom voted against the bill. The other 22 Member States had all voted in favour of the proposal. The Commission proposal is still on the table, and bilateral discussions are under way with Member States who opposed the draft legislation to try to overcome this impasse.