In a Nutshell
The proposal for a Soil Monitoring Law introduces a monitoring framework for all soils across the European Union. The proposed directive establishes a definition of what constitutes healthy soil. The law aims to present the information necessary to monitor European soils’ health and provide incentives for sustainable soil management.
In the proposal, soil health is defined as ‘the physical, chemical and biological condition of the soil determining its capacity to function as a vital living system and to provide ecosystem services’. Healthy soils have the potential to draw significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. However, EU soils are losing their ability to retain carbon and are actually emitting CO2, exacerbating climate change. Peatland drainage and soil erosion linked to agriculture and human settlements are just some of the reasons behind this carbon loss and associated emissions. In turn, the declining quality of EU soils might impact future food production.
The proposal’s most important feature is the introduction of a harmonised methodology and rules for soil health monitoring across the EU. Although some room is left for member states to decide how to implement the directive, it establishes common Union-wide criteria to assess whether a soil body is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. The framework would create a common database integrating data from EU-level, member state and private sources. Member states will be required to regularly and accurately measure soil health using the framework.
The law significantly lacks a legally binding objective to achieve soil health across EU territory by 2050. If monitoring shows that EU soils are unhealthy, there is no obligation for member states to restore soil health. Thus, this law does nothing to ensure that soil health is achieved.
What's on the Horizon?
The EU Commission published its legislative proposal on 5 July 2023.
The proposal will be subject to interinstitutional negotiations in European Parliament and Council.
A public feedback period on the European Commission’s proposal is open until 3 November 2023, which is likely to be extended.
A study to support the impact assessment of the Proposal is expected to be finalised in September 2023.
Context of the law
In 2021, the European Parliament requested that the Commission develop an EU-wide common legal framework for the protection and sustainable use of soil. The 2023 Framework proposal followed up on this request. Soil health also plays a key role in delivering existing EU strategies and targets, including the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, the EU Soil Strategy for 2030 and the 8th Environment Action Programme.
Reaching the new climate objectives set under the European Green Deal, as well as ensuring a stable food supply, relies on healthy soils. In the proposal, the Commission reports that an estimated 61% to 73% of agricultural soils in the EU are affected by erosion, loss of organic carbon, nutrient exceedances, compaction or secondary salinisation, or a combination of these threats, which not only impacts soil carbon sequestration but also food production capacities. For example, crop yields can be reduced by 2.5-15% by soil compaction. It is estimated that around 75 billion tonnes of organic carbon are stored in EU soil. As a point of reference, the EU’s total CO2 emissions were about 4.5 billion tonnes in 2017.
What does it look like in practice?
The proposal for a directive applies to all soils in the territory of member states. Under the Framework, member states are required to delineate their territories in ‘soil districts’, which is a newly defined governable unit introduced in the directive. Some loosely defined parameters to determine soil districts are laid out in the proposal. A competent authority designated by each member state will be assigned for each soil district. Member states are then required to establish a monitoring framework based on a set of criteria laid out in the directive, ensuring comparability of measurement across soil districts and member states. Most importantly, the European Union now has a measurable definition of soil health. Using this framework, member states are required to accurately and regularly measure soil health. The Directive lays out methodologies to do so and an obligation to measure soils at least every five years.
Under this proposed directive, member states would also be required to set up a mechanism for voluntary soil health certification, viewed as a way to incentivise the uptake of sustainable soil management practices by land owners. As per the current proposal, this certification would be complementary to the Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF). This linkage is still unclear and needs to be further clarified by the Commission.
Room for improvement
The Commission’s plan to create a strong soil health monitoring framework is a positive move for Europe. It will help foster healthier soils, potentially leading to greater quantities of carbon being absorbed. Carbon Gap especially welcomes the establishment of measurable common thresholds for soil health across a wide range of variables, minimum criteria for determining sampling points, an EU-wide soil health assessment and reporting system, and a digital portal to make soil data publicly accessible as important steps towards boosting Europe’s soils through a harmonised framework.
However, it is important to recognise that monitoring soil health does not necessarily mean that soil health will be improved. The proposed directive would better serve its purpose if it included a legally-binding target for soil health by 2050 holding member states accountable for their stated goal. Another concern is that the proposed frequency of measurement and the timelines for reporting cycles is insufficient. Effectively, if the law enters into force as it stands today, the first soil measurements would only be required within four years. New soil measurements would then be required every five years, meaning that it would take close to a decade before a clear view is established of whether EU soils are recovering, protected or enhanced.
While the Commission’s desire to incentivise sustainable soil management principles is welcome, its proposed mechanism of soil health certification for land owners and managers raises concerns. The suggested link to the CRCF warrants scrutiny as soil health and soil carbon are not interchangeable, soil carbon fluxes are difficult to measure accurately at scale, and the durability of soil carbon storage is low. Therefore, soil health certificates should not be sold as carbon credits or used to contribute toward net-zero targets. Rather, these certificates might be supported by entities wanting to make contribution claims or do good for the environment and society.
Directive Of The European Parliament And Of The Council on Soil Monitoring and Resilience (Soil Monitoring Law)
Soil Monitoring Law