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The EU ramps up soil protection but increases the use of unsustainable biofuels

Today marks World Soil Day. Since 2014, 5 December highlights the importance of healthy soil and advocates for the sustainable management of soil resources.

Healthy soil provides crucial ecosystem services and is the foundation for 95 per cent of the food we eat. It cleans water and hosts more than 25 per cent of the biodiversity on the planet, represents the largest terrestrial carbon pool and is an indispensable climate regulator due to its water storage abilities.

Yet, about 60 to 70 per cent of the soils in the European Union are unhealthy as a result of unsustainable land use and management, overexploitation and the input of pollutants. About 25 per cent of land in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe is at high or very high risk of desertification while the costs associated with soil degradation in the entire EU are estimated to exceed 50 billion euros per year.

Under the European Union’s Green Deal, however, the restoration and protection of the soil have become one of the key objectives for the EU to achieve. Through Horizon Europe which is its key funding arm for research and innovation, the Soil Deal for Europe has been launched. It aims at creating a network of 100 living laboratories and demonstration sites to co-create knowledge and solutions, develop a framework for soil monitoring in Europe and raise people’s awareness of the vital importance of soils.

In November, the European Commission proposed a new Soil Strategy, an important deliverable of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 which sets a framework for the protection, restoration and sustainable use of soils. Importantly, the strategy proposes a mix of voluntary and legally binding measures that include a new Soil Health Law which should be finalised by 2023. The law is expected to provide similar legal protection to the soil as to air and water.

“Getting soils healthy is simply a matter of our own survival”, emphasised Executive Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans who presented the new soil strategy at the press conference back in November.

“The strategy sets a number of ambitious and necessary objectives to heal our soils, such as the reduction of soil pollution to non-harmful levels by 2050. In essence, that is what climate neutrality means, beyond carbon neutrality, it also means that your environment has to be in healthy and good shape”, he added.

Focusing on the scale of the damage done to the soil in the European Union, and the threat this tendency poses to the food security, animal and nature’s health, Virginijus Sinkevičius, the Commissioner for Environment stressed that “what we really want is a level of protection like the one we currently give to water, the marine environment and air. […] So the Strategy aims to fill the gaps in soil protection and proposes actions and measures to ensure good soil health by 2050. The past decade has shown that voluntary measures – however good they are – can’t fill that gap on their own.”

Biofuels: how are they linked to the health of the soil?

The road transport emissions decreased by 4.3 per cent in the EU between the 2020 and 2019 period. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), this has happened mostly due to the increased use of biofuels. As transport is responsible for more than 25 per cent of the EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, it is believed that bioenergy will remain an important option for National Renewable Action Plans for the Member States on their quest to greening the sector.

soil

However, biofuels come with environmental costs. Intensive biofuel crop production for instance can have multiple negative impacts on land and the health of the soil. Increasing demand for biofuels can affect land use, “by displacing the production of food and feed crops and driving the conversion of lands — such as forests and wetlands — to agricultural land, leading indirectly to increased GHG emissions. This phenomenon is known as indirect land-use change (ILUC)”, warns the EEA.

Furthermore, the soil on which the biofuel crops are grown can degrade as a result of the intensive use of chemical inputs and the loss of biodiversity through monocropping.

“The effect that ILUC has on reductions in Member States’ emission intensities largely depends on the feedstocks used to produce biofuels”, suggests the EEA. Oil crops are used extensively in some Member States, including in the CEE region’s Lithuania (83 per cent). “If ILUC effects are considered, the emission intensity of these biofuels increases and is […] getting closer to the GHG emission intensity of diesel produced from fossil fuels”, states the EEA.

The European Union currently imports a considerable share of its biofuels and feedstock. The Europen Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E) informs that the union imported nearly 82 per cent of palm oil from Southeast Asian countries in 2020 and that the share of crop-based biofuels has increased significantly which has led to “the EU’s reliance on unsustainable biofuels”. Given the trend, it is important that the EU phases out “all crop-based biofuels by 2030”, concludes the federation.

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