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The sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) Assessment for the Pan-European region

The sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) Assessment for the Pan-European region ( published in 2016) paints a comprehensive picture of the environmental factors contributing to human health and well-being at the regional level. Backed by a large body of recent, credible scientific evidence, regional-wide consultations and a robust intergovernmental process, the assessment demonstrates that regional and global multilateral environmental agreements have improved environmental conditions in the Pan-European region. It also highlights the complexity of the interlinked environmental, social and economic challenges now confronting decision makers.

Desertification and soil degradation: Although the level of desertification is lower in much of the pan-European region than in neighbouring regions, in Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, approximately 14 million ha (8 per cent of the territory) has a very high or high sensitivity to desertification, and more than 40 million ha have moderate sensitivity.
This impacts on soil productivity and hence biodiversity and agriculture. Extensive areas of European soils are affected by natural and man-made salinity, with Spain topping the list with 3.4 million hectares of saline and sodic soils (Zdruli 2014). An extreme form of land degradation is desertification, that results in serious impairment of all soil functions and currently affects about 33 per cent of the territory of the Mediterranean semiarid drylands. However, the most critical threat to European soils is sealing, as described in Section 2.8.3.

Land use change is leading to the deterioration of the physical and chemical properties of soils causing land degradation, water and air pollution, followed by losses of biodiversity. Soil sealing is considered the major threat in Europe. Across the EU until 2015, more than 20 per cent of Natura 2000 (protected) territories, 32 per cent of wetlands and 45 per cent of agriculture land have already been lost to sealing and land take. Forty per cent of the Mediterranean coast has been already sealed.

• Competing interests on land resources is widespread across the region. Every day, EU Member States lose 275 hectares of agriculture land to soil sealing and land take. New forms of land take include implementation of solar panels and in many cases replacing cultivated crops.
• Urbanization is a well-known cause of land-use change, reflected mostly by the loss of arable land, natural habitats and biodiversity. Urban sprawl is driven by population growth, increased incomes, demand for housing and transport connectivity, while it is constrained by the cost of commuting, agricultural land values and rent and the amenity values of agricultural land and green space areas
• In Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, land abandonment has been a major driver. Abandonment mostly occurs in marginal areas with limited natural productivity and in sporadic cases also in productive ones due to migration and socio-economic factors.
• Europe (EU-28) is a net food importer as 40 per cent of the food needs and derived food products are imported. This externalization of European land demands is leading to a significant and detrimental European Global footprint.

• Soil water erosion still affects more than 25 per cent of Europe, especially the Mediterranean and the Alps regions and to a lesser extent wind erosion is also a problem. The total area affected by water erosion in Central Asia is more than 30 million hectares, and by wind erosion – about 67 million hectares. There the main challenge to soil productivity is also soil salinization caused by improper management.
• The lack of green areas reduce air quality and living conditions to city dwellers. The loss of green areas in cities with 100,000 inhabitants was accompanied with a temperature increase on average by 5°C compared with the surrounding rural areas.
• About half of the land-take for urban development and infrastructure in the EU comes at the expense of arable farmland. This is a very significant figure since for every hectare of fertile arable land lost in the pan-Europe region, it would be necessary to bring a much larger area into production elsewhere. This could also accelerate the process of large-scale land acquisition beyond the region, mostly - but not exclusively - in Africa.

• Compared to other environmental domains, land and soils are not well covered by international, EU and national environmental laws. Sustainable land management including practices such as organic farming, conservation agriculture, agro-ecology and integrated soil fertility management have the capacity to harmonize sustained crop production systems with environmental protection.
• Given the rate of land consumption, the sustainability of the EU’s environment and ecosystems is questionable and, without radical policy implementation, dependency on external  resources may become permanent. It is for these reasons that the EU has endorsed the no-netland- take-by-2050 policy.
• Other ambitious targets are: 1) by 2020, the area of land in the EU that is subject to soil erosion of more than 10 tonnes per hectare per year should be reduced by at least 25 per cent compared to 2000; 2) soil organic matter levels should not be decreasing overall and should increase for soils with currently less than 3.5 per cent organic matter.