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Ecosystem services in the fight against overbuilding

Some catastrophic events occur relentlessly and with a minimum of fuss; this is the reason why in twenty years two million hectares of Italian farmland have disappeared under concrete. The recent report by ISPRA estimated – according to the effects of environmental and economic damages – the social cost of this alarming phenomenon. Agriculture needs to be protected due to its positive externalities and policy has a duty to perform this way quickly and well

by Matteo Monni
October - November 2016 | Back

ISPRA – Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research – is continuing to monitor the process of overbuilding in our country. From the recent report entitled “Soil consumption, territorial dynamics and ecosystem services” emerges the impressive figure according to which in Italy – in the years 2014-2015 – disappeared four square metres of soil per second under a stream of cement. It means that we inexorably lose about 35 hectares of farmland a day (equal to 35 football fields); a real unnatural disaster that in the past two years has quietly compromised 250 square kilometers of natural areas of our territory. The above-mentioned period has not even been the worst, whereas the economic crisis has significantly reduced the pace. In fact, if we take into account the last twenty years, the situation has even got worse, highlighting overbuilding aggression on over 2 million hectares of cultivated land, equal to 16% of our country, with a rate of 55 hectares per day (corresponding to 350 square metres of farmland per person a year). In this dynamic is also involved the sector of mechanization that, on the one hand – with heavy-duty vehicles – is linked to the performance of construction, while on the other hand is affected by the decline of rural areas for the sale of agricultural machinery. Within the possibility of a significant reduction of new works of construction, earth-moving machinery could, as already happens, find a widespread use, both for the redevelopment of already existing industrial and residential properties – with energy efficiency measures – and for the operations of land reclamation and arrangement for environmental and agricultural purposes. The sector of mechanization is therefore technically ready to follow the most responsible and strategic paths for a sustainable development. This is absoultely necessary considering that, in addition to the directly involved areas, the generated environmental impact also affects nearby areas, i.e. more than the half of the national territory, thus causing the loss of valuable ecosystem services provided by soil for free. In order to better understand the concept of ecosystem services, we can refer to the most recent CICES (Common International Classification of Ecosystem Services), which divides them into: provisioning services – can be summarised in goods and raw materials such as water, fibres, genetic materials, the production of food and fuels such as wood; regulating and maintenance services – governing physical, biological and ecological processes, such as climate, carbon sequestration, air and water quality, with the result of mitigating natural hazards such as erosion, landslides or climate change; cultural services – are less tangible than those described above and include non-material benefits, such as spiritual and intellectual enrichment, recreational and aesthetic values.

According to the estimated “hidden costs” - i.e. those not immediately perceived and therefore difficult to calculate – each hectare of land consumed would cost to the community up to 55,000 euro. Obviously, these values are closely related to the type of soil and its relative utility for the ecosystem. By the way, from widely conservative estimates made on a national scale, emerged the following reference values: agricultural production (400 million), carbon storage (about 150 million), erosion control failure (over 120 million), damages caused by the failure of soil under water infiltration (almost 100 million), absence of pollinating insects (3 million).

From the table below it is clear that farmers associations have repeatedly highlighted that the phenomenon, in addition to limiting the ability to meet domestic food demand, causes serious environmental imbalances determining a negative impact on climate, water, slope stability, biodiversity, etc. In this regard, CIA (Italian General Confederation of Agriculture) National President Dino Scanavino said that “farmland consumption is likely to affect the figures of food supply in Italy, where today we get to cover food requirements of three out of four citizens and therefore we need to recur to imports in order to cover this production deficit”.

Coldiretti also invites to reflect on the fact that Italian municipalities now at risk of landslides and floods arrived to be 7,145 (88.3% of total) and that the regions with 100% of hydrogeological risk are Valle d’Aosta, Li­guria, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Marche, Molise and Basilicata.

Less virtuous regions, with more than 10% of consumed territory in 2015 are Lombardy, Veneto and Campania, followed by Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Liguria, Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany and Marche, with values between 7 and 10%. The only positive value emerges from Valle d’Aosta, which has consumed only 3% of its territory. This phenomenon curiously regards both big towns, which recorded an increase in population and small towns, with negative population growth.

At a time when the alarm on climate change has reached the highest level and put together all the countries of the world on the need to start policies of drastic containment, another disturbing element of the Report lies in the correspondence between detected overbuilding and increased temperature. It appears that, in the annual average of the analysed towns, to an increase of 20 hectares per 2 Km2 of consumed soil corresponds an increase of 0.6 °C of surface temperature. In addition, says the report, the negative impacts of land consumption not only occur in the directly involved areas, but up to a distance of 100 meters.

This fact determines substantial costs, which are particularly high in Milan (45 million), Rome (39 million) and Venice (27 million).

Based on the detailed analysis included in the ISPRA Report, it appears urgently necessary to ensure an effective and consistent reduction of land consumption, providing clear guidance and useful tools to municipalities in order to reexamine housebuilding forecasts included in already approved urban and territorial plans. The Law Decree on land consumption in course of approval at the Senate will be a crucial opportunity to ensure cohesion on these objectives, by promoting construction quality, efficiency in energy consumption and use of environmental resources (including soil), favouring the necessary urban requalification and regeneration, as well as the reuse of contaminated or abandoned areas, thus avoiding the overbuilding of not yet built-up areas. From this point of view, a great result would be the achievement of an effective strategy to counteract this phenomenon by even imagining a trend reversal which could facilitate the entry of agro-ecosystems in the urban fabric, realizing and protecting buffer strips, parks, orchards, vertical gardens, interventions of natural engineering, etc. These, as well as other initiatives, in addition to reactivate ecosystem services in urban areas would strengthen the concept of modern agriculture open to multifuctionality, that – through the use of efficient and innovative machinery – can be developed from the suburbs to the historic centres of our wonderful but still undervalued towns. 


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