EU soil fears as carbon loss rises

The European Environment Agency (EEA) has issued a new report which highlights the need for a change in the way the countries within the European Union utilise their soil in an effort to enhance its ability to capture greenhouse gases and support the fight to mitigate climate change.

Its new briefing ‘Soil carbon’ provides an overview of carbon pools in and greenhouse gas emissions from Europe’s organic and mineral soils, based on 2019 data.

EU Member States reported loss of carbon from organic soils that corresponds to about 108 Megatonnes of carbon dioxide (Mt CO2) emissions in 2019. In the same year, mineral soils removed about 44Mt of CO2 from the atmosphere. The net greenhouse gas emissions from soils, about 64Mt of CO2 equivalent, corresponded to just under 2% of the overall EU net emissions in 2019, or about half of the EU share of emissions from international aviation.

About three quarters of EU organic soils are in just two EU member States, Sweden and Finland.

“Six Member States report not having any organic soils, and in many other member states the area of organic soil is small,” the EEA said. “Organic soils occur mainly in northern Europe, where the colder and wetter climate favours the build-up of carbon in soil. The total area of organic soils reported by member states is over 33 million hectares, of which 74% are found in Finland and Sweden. Of the area with organic soils, 15.7 million hectares are unmanaged and belong to the wetland category. These are also mostly located in Finland and Sweden.”

The briefing added the area of managed organic soils is not distributed evenly by land use category which has implications for the GHG fluxes.

“The cropland and grassland categories generally have higher GHG emissions per hectare than other land use categories, with the exception of peat extraction,” it added. “For the cropland category, the biggest areas of managed organic soils are in Germany, Finland, Poland and Sweden. In grasslands, the largest areas of organic soils are found in Germany, Poland, Ireland and the Netherlands.

“Overall emissions from organic soils are by far highest in Germany, due to the high share of its organic soils under cropland and grassland. The highest carbon losses per hectare originate from peat extraction, mainly in Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Estonia and Germany.”

The EEA added there are mitigation options, such as peatland restauration or agroforestry, to increase the carbon sequestration of soils and decrease carbon losses, which in many cases can also benefit for example biodiversity or water quality.

“Depending on the soil type, local climate and how the land is managed, however, mitigation actions can increase emissions of other greenhouse gases, such as methane (CH4) and nitrous dioxide (N2O), or have negative consequences on biodiversity or food production.”

The briefing also highlighted the importance of developing and using scientifically sound methods for estimating the climate impacts of different land management practices, as well as their impact on nature restoration.

“Overall, the EU land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector is a significant carbon sink that removes CO2 from the atmosphere. However, there are large differences between countries because of the size of the country, how the land is used and the type of soils,” the EEA said. “The EU has committed to reducing its net greenhouse emissions by 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and become carbon neutral by 2050.”