A long-dead proposal for an EU directive on soil may resurface in the coming year, as Germany's resistance eases. Fresh impetus will come next week when the European Commission publishes a disturbing progress report on the state of Europe's soil.
The Commission had envisaged a directive on protecting soil as a key component of its 2006 ‘soil thematic strategy'. But Germany led a blocking minority against the plans in 2007, and again in 2009, citing concerns over subsidiarity, cost, and the likely overlap with national legislation.
The upcoming progress report on the strategy will steer clear of dissecting the political impasse, but it will note that this central feature of the strategy is still missing. It will highlight some of the more recent statistics on Europe's soil.
Campaign groups say the move is long overdue. “Since the strategy came out in 2006 we have much more scientific evidence about the importance of soil,” said Sarolta Tripolszky of green group the European Environmental Bureau.
She pointed in particular to soil's role in combating climate change because of its ability to store carbon. Soil has been recognised as the largest carbon store on the planet, capable of storing twice as much as the atmosphere and three times as much as vegetation. It is also important for biodiversity and water purification.
Soil deterioration is estimated to cost €38 billion a year in Europe, with 9% of Europe's surface now sealed over in urban areas – which also increases the risk of flooding. Germany is among the member states that have brought in robust laws to protect soil. But many others have little protection in place, and Tripolszky says only a soil directive can ensure soil protection throughout the EU.
Shifts in German thinking on a directive are suggested by political changes in the Bundesrat (the upper chamber of parliament made up of state representatives). It was at the heart of objections because of subsidiarity, but Socialist-Green coalitions have since come to power, notably in North Rhine-Westphalia. The Green party has proposed three resolutions – the most recent earlier this month – demanding that negotiations be restarted at EU-level.
Helmut Röscheisen, the secretary-general of the German League for Nature and Environment, said that the majority of German states now support an EU directive. He expects a Bundesrat resolution asking the federal government to comply, supported by the opposition Social Democrats.
Röscheisen said a serious accident last year in northern Germany caused by soil erosion has affected the debate. Several people died when strong winds blew dry soil onto a motorway in Rostock, causing a mass pile-up. In November, the Bundesrat endorsed a proposal in the Commission's resource efficiency roadmap that called for member states to reduce their net ‘land take' – buildings or roads over soil – to zero by 2050. The German states even called for the target date to be brought forward to 2030.
Denmark, which holds the presidency of the EU's Council of Ministers, has not put the item on its agenda. But without the support of Germany, the remaining blocking states – Austria, France, the Netherlands and the UK – would not be able to prevent the adoption of a directive. France might drop its opposition if Germany does the same, and a new French government could also change the equation (the French parliamentary elections are in June).