The European Commission last week presented guidelines on ways to restrict soil sealing, the main cause of soil degradation throughout Europe.
Soil sealing (the covering of land by impermeable material) puts considerable pressure on water resources and leads to changes in the state of catchments, which in turn affects ecosystems and water-related services. It also affects agricultural land and puts biodiversity at risk.
Soil that is fully functioning can store up to 400 millimeters of precipitation, or 3,750 tons of water per hectare, according to the guidelines, which were presented at a high-level conference hosted by the Environment Directorate-General of the European Commission in Brussels on May 10-11.
Soil sealing reduces the amount of rainwater that can be absorbed by the soil and prevents complete absorption. Infiltration of rainwater into soil increases time that it takes for it to reach rivers, thus reducing peak flow amount and flooding. In cities with high degree of soil sealing, the sewage systems may not cope with the water overflow.
The guidelines are based on best practices and available options across all EU member states, along with examples of policy, legislation and funding mechanisms.
Since soil sealing is almost irreversible process, the European Commission said limiting it should take priority over compensation measures or mitigation.
The key drivers that lead to soil sealing are the need for new housing, transport infrastructure and industry.
To limit the problem in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and the Lombardy Region of Italy, those who wish to convert agricultural soil to other uses must pay a fee based on the quality of soil, the capacity for irrigation and the way the area in question has been categorized.
Polish law allows local authorities to demand topsoil removal in cases when agricultural land is converted over to a different use, in order to increase the fertility of soil in other places. Penalties may also be imposed.
EU Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potocnik said urbanization and landscape conversion were "the major environmental challenges Europe is facing."
Europe cannot afford to pave over its "chances for a sustainable future," he said.