Pia Bucella, Director for Nature, Environment Directorate-General, European Commission
Soil is the interface between earth, air and water, and hosts most of the biosphere. As soil formation is an extremely slow process, soil can be considered as a non-renewable resource. It provides us with food, biomass and raw materials, as well as storing, filtering and transforming many substances, including water, nutrients and carbon. In fact, it is the biggest carbon store in the world (1,500 billion tonnes).
The world's area of fertile soils is limited and is increasingly under pressure from competing land uses for cropping, forestry, and pasture/rangeland, as well as for energy production, settlement and infrastructure, and raw materials extraction. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), due to growing population and land degradation, only 0.20 hectares of arable land will be available per person in 2020, less than half than that available in 1960 (0.43 hectares). By 2050, only 0.10 hectares will be available.
Soil is important for mitigating climate change. Waterlogged and permafrost soils hold major stocks of carbon, but due to lowering of the water table and thawing of permafrost, may instead become major emitters of greenhouse gases. In addition, proper management of soils can reduce disaster risks by contributing to resilience against floods and drought through exploiting soil water retention capacity.
At the same time, soils are home to over one fourth of all living species on earth. Soil biodiversity influences the regulation of atmospheric composition and climate, water quantity and quality, pest and disease incidence in agricultural and natural ecosystems, as well as human diseases. Soil organisms may also control, or reduce environmental pollution, and can be used for developing new pharmaceuticals.
According to UNEP's 2012 Year Book, as a result of unsustainable land-use, 24% of global land has already suffered health and productivity decline over the past quarter century; certain types of conventional and intensive agriculture are triggering soil erosion at rates some 100 times greater than those at which soil can form naturally. Since the 19th century, an estimated 60% of the carbon stored in soils and vegetation has been lost as a result of land use changes, such as clearing land for agriculture and cities. The draining of peatlands is currently producing more than two billion tonnes of CO2 annually – equivalent to around 6% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. According to projections by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (USA), urban land cover in more-developed countries could grow by 63% between 2000 and 2030, and by 113% between 2000 and 2050. The situation is likely to be even more critical in less-developed countries, where urban land cover could grow by 170% between 2000 and 2030, and by 326% between 2000 and 2050.
In discussions on targets for the Rio+20 Outcome Document, the European Union (EU) has underlined the importance of the social dimension, as well as horizontal issues, in line with its broader position on an inclusive green economy. The initial EU proposal for soil at Rio is to restore land and soil quality to good condition, and manage land and soil resources sustainably, ensuring that food production can meet growing demand, with the target to arrive at a 'zero net rate of land and soil degradation' within an internationally agreed timeframe. This target could be made operational by minimising erosion, maintaining and possibly increasing soil organic matter, and preventing uncontrolled urban expansion. This could be facilitated by enhancing the implementation of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification through its 10 Year Strategy, using FAO's Global Soil Partnership, and strengthening the scientific basis for soil, land and desertification policy decisions, in particular through the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative.
Over and above specific wording, the EU is seeking a concrete outcome in Rio, to help address global soil and land degradation, protect the crucial ecosystem services that soil and land provide, and feed the growing world population.