for Sunday Herald, 02 December 2012
Scottish councillors have defied the UK government in a bid to prevent soils across Europe from being damaged by developers, farmers and pollution.
A European Union committee agreed on Friday to push for the introduction of a new law to force countries to protect their soils so they can grow more food, contain climate-wrecking carbon, control floods and limit landslides.
But the move, led by the Labour leader of Stirling Council, Corrie McChord, flies in the face of Westminster, which has long opposed a European directive on soils. “I don’t agree with the UK’s views on this,” said McChord. “There is an urgent need for action.”
With the expert help of the Scottish Environment Protect Agency (Sepa), McChord won the backing of the 350-strong Committee of the Regions in Brussels for a report urging tougher legal measures to protect soils. “I hope this will kickstart the argument, and help break the logjam,” he told the Sunday Herald.
Progress on adopting a European soil framework directive has been blocked for the last few years by a small group of member states, including the UK, Germany and France. They have argued that a Europe-wide directive would mean Brussels imposing unnecessary costs on countries that are already looking after their soil.
But because of political changes in Germany and France there are hopes that they might now view the idea more favourably. The UK, however, is still thought to oppose the directive.
The European Commission has estimated that soil degradation could be costing 25 countries a total of €38 billion every year. But only nine countries have introduced legislation to protect their soils.
According to the commission, soil – especially Scotland’s peat - stores a huge amount of carbon that, if released, would accelerate global warming. A loss of just one tenth of one per cent of the carbon in European soils is equivalent to putting 100 million extra cars on the road.
Across Europe over 1,000 square kilometres of soil is lost every year under the tarmac and concrete of new roads and buildings. According to Sepa, an area of soil the size of Dunfermline is smothered by development every year.
Sepa is keen to see stronger measures in defence of soil in Europe. “Greater efforts are needed on the part of the commission and the member states to ensure soil protection,” said Sepa’s soil specialist, Mark Aitken.
The Scottish government pointed out that soil was crucial to supporting the quality of life. “Measures to protect our soils, including investment in peatland restoration, are positive and we look forward to studying the commission's proposals when they become available,” said a government spokeswoman.