Thursday, April 19, 2012

Your 200 square meters of concrete and asphalt

One of our environmental footprints is the sealed area of the planet:

Uppsala from the south, highways and shopping malls spread on fertile plain, Photo: Kolbjörn Örjavik

The total sealed soil surface of the EU area in 2006 was estimated to be around 100 000 km² or 2.3 % of the EU’s territory, with an average of 200 m² per citizen. Member States with high sealing rates (exceeding 5 % of the national territory) are Malta, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and Luxembourg. Furthermore, high sealing rates exist across the EU and include all major urban agglomerations, and most of the Mediterranean coast. The latter experienced a 10 % increase in soil sealing during the 1990s alone.  Assuming an unabated linear trend, we would convert, within a historically very short time frame of just 100 years, an amount of land comparable to the territory of France and Spain combined. Moreover, it is not only the absolute land take figure that matters but the spatial distribution and the value and availability of the land taken. For example, settlement areas cover 5 % of Austria’s total territory, but this figure soars to around 14 % when Alpine areas unsuited to urban or infrastructure development are excluded. When looking at the conversion of agricultural land, land take matters even more as the share of arable land in Austria is about 16 % only. In the case of the Italian Emilia-Romagna Region, some 95 % of the land take between 2003 and 2008 occurred in the fertile plain soils that cover only half of the Region. (from the Guidelines on best practice to limit, mitigate or compensate soil sealing from the EU)
I wrote about this in a post just a few days ago:

Paving the land - and taking it back again

The EU report above has some good recommendations. 

Limiting soil sealing means preventing the conversion of green areas and the subsequent sealing of (part of) their surface. The re-use of already built-up areas, e.g. brownfield sites, can also be included in this concept. Targets have been used as a tool for monitoring as well as spurring progress. Creating incentives to rent unoccupied houses has also helped in limiting soil sealing. Where soil sealing does occur, appropriate mitigation measures have been taken in order to maintain some of the soil functions and to reduce any significant direct or indirect negative effects on the environment and human well-being. These include using, where appropriate, permeable materials instead of cement or asphalt, supporting ‘green infrastructure’, and making wider use of natural water harvesting systems.

But it also introduce another version of of the idea that we can "compensate" or "offset" the effects of our behaviours. So, in a similar way as we can 'offset' our carbon emissions by planting trees in Africa, we can 'compensate' soil sealing: 

"The eco-account system is based on determining the ‘ecological costs’ of development projects involving soil sealing through the attribution of eco-points. Developers have to ensure that compensation measures of equal value are being carried out somewhere else. Ecopoints are acquired at officially authorised compensation agencies, which are responsible for their attribution and redemption and for overseeing the system."

So next step is that we can pay for re-claiming land in Africa for us to continue building high-ways. A strange world indeed.  

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