Germany accused of blocking EU efforts to save soil | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 16.04.2012
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Germany accused of blocking EU efforts to save soil

Spreading urban development continues to rob Europe of precious topsoil. The EU's executive is restarting efforts to regulate soils, but it faces resistance from Germany.

Parkbench in front of townhouse in Berlin

Pick says a balance between buildings and green spaces needs to be struck

Green groups say Germany is the main obstacle to fresh European efforts to curb soil-loss stemming from urban sprawl.

The European Commission, the EU's executive, last week announced new guidelines to limit "soil sealing," which happens when soils are paved for roads, paths and other developments.

The commission says this is the number one cause of soil degradation in the European Union, and that an area the size of Berlin is lost to city and transport infrastructure each year.

Its guidelines represent a renewed push to tackle the problem, after a minority of EU governments led by Germany blocked a proposed directive in 2007.

Detlef Gerdts of the Soil Alliance of European Cities and Towns said the German government's continued hostility to EU regulation remains the main obstacle to establishing European-wide rules to tackle the problem.

Recent efforts to pass EU-wide regulation were almost successful, but "failed against German resistance," Gerdts said.

Paving over nature

Green space in Hamburg

Green spaces increase the quality of life for city dwellers

The EU guidelines call for better planning on the world's most urbanized continent.

They include provisions for more green spaces, cleanup and rejuvenation of abandoned industrial sites, expansion of water harvesting and more permeable materials for roads and buildings.

About 9 percent of Europe's soil has been paved over, according to a report by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB). In the 1990s alone, Europe's paved area grew by 6 percent.

The EEB says soil deterioration costs the EU's economy 38 billion euros in damages every year.

"Every day, an area the size of 100 soccer fields is developed in Germany - and that's a problem," said Matthias Pick of the Alliance for Surface Areas in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Impermeable surfaces in cities prevent water from seeping into the ground, instead contributing to flooding. By contrast, when it rains in the countryside, water seeps into the earth, percolating into aquifers and sustaining life.

Urban sprawl has been increasing, despite Germany's flat population size. Pick attributes this in part to increased prosperity, lifestyle changes and demand for more living space.

British soil scientist John Quinton also laments the implications for Europe's share of farming land.

"If you put concrete over it, crops don't grow so well there anymore," he said.

He added that biological activity in the soil declines once it's been sealed, which decreases the area's biological diversity.

"A vast amount of the world's biodiversity is in the world's soil, it's a bank of un-described organisms."

Surprising opposition

Sandbag barrier in doorway of flooded street in York

Soil sealing was considered a major contributor to 2007 floods in England

Detlef Gerdts said Germany's opposition to EU regulatory efforts to date was a "surprise," given the country's reputation for progressive policy at managing other natural resources like air and water.

He told DW that powerful lobbies were behind the opposition. "Agricultural associations in particular were against it, also industrial groups," Gerdts said.

"No German farmer likes someone from Brussels telling them what to do," Gerdts explained.

Matthias Pick said industrial interests opposed efforts to regulate soil sealing for fear of cleanup costs associated with disused work sites.

While Gerdts thinks nothing less than a change in government can alter Germany's opposition to a soil directive, Pick thinks the solution lies with influencing local planners to consider the economic value of keeping soils uncovered.

"Then they'd have to build less drainage systems, for example."

Author: Sonya Angelica Diehn
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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