After the oceans, the soil is the largest CO2 reservoir on our planet. Functioning soils are therefore essential in the fight against the climate crisis. Nevertheless, in Austria alone, an area the size of 16 football fields is used up on average every day. The existing legal regulations have not succeeded in effectively protecting this valuable resource. "We urgently need the long-promised Austria-wide soil strategy and fundamental reforms in the legal field to put a stop to the further increase in land consumption," says Gerhard Schnedl, an expert in environmental law at the University of Graz. Together with his colleagues Oliver Ruppel and Miriam Hofer, the lawyer will chair the 6th Graz Environmental Law Forum on 26 April 2023 at the Meerscheinschlössl on the topic of soil protection in the face of the climate crisis.
On average, we use 11.3 hectares of soil every day in Austria. More than half of this is permanently lost through sealing, for example in the course of building industrial plants, shopping centres or roads. And the trend is rising. "Last year, soil sealing in the entire federal territory increased from 40 to 58 percent," reports Gerhard Schnedl. Styria is top in this regard. "In the existing spatial planning laws, which are the responsibility of the federal provinces, there are no quantitative guidelines on how much land may be built on," regrets the environmental lawyer. Instead, there are only vague guiding goals, such as the economical and careful use of soil or the avoidance of urban sprawl.
A soil strategy planned by the Austrian government, which aims at a strong reduction of land consumption, should have been presented at the end of 2022. But the project is delayed. "With the Graz Environmental Law Forum, we want to push the process forward so that a soil strategy is enacted as soon as possible, which can then be cast into legally binding regulations," Schnedl explains. He would like to see a Federal Soil Protection Act, just as there is a Water Act and an Air Pollution Control Act.
Pressure will soon come from the European Union as well. "In the second quarter of 2023, a directive proposal for a soil health law is to be adopted as part of the EU Soil Strategy 2030. The EU strategy envisages a reduction of land consumption to net zero by 2050," Schnedl knows.
The Graz Environmental Law Forum is organised at the University of Graz by the research centre for climate protection law "ClimLaw: Graz". This is part of the interdisciplinary profile area "Climate Change Graz", which deals with the effects of climate change and ways to a climate-neutral society.
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