Soil Conservation Key to Carbon Sequestration

Soil's role as a long-term carbon reservoir is increasingly being recognized even as agriculture and land use continue to reduce and degrade it, a trend that urgently needs to, and can, be reversed, according to a new European Commission report.

A new report released March 5 by the European Commission emphasizes the need to facilitate and foster soil conservation efforts as a means of improving and sustaining agriculture and sequestering carbon.

Soil Conservation Key to Carbon Sequestration

Europe's soils have undergone degradation for decades, a trend that needs to be reversed, the Commission urges in the report.

The potential to capture and permanently store carbon in soils is as great or greater than in any other economic sector. A synthesis of best available information on soils and climate change, soil enhancement, carbon capture and sequestration methods and technology are readily available and cost-effective, according to the report.

Soils: A Huge, but Shrinking, Carbon Reservoir

Soils are a huge carbon reservoir: they contain about 2x the amount of carbon that's in the atmosphere and 3x the amount in vegetation. In Europe, soils contain the equivalent of about 75 billion metric tons of carbon.

Poor management can have serious consequences, the report authors point out. "A failure to protect Europe's remaining peat bogs, for example, would release the same amount of carbon as an additional 40 million cars on Europe's roads."

“Properly managed soils can absorb enormous quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, buying us valuable time to reduce emissions and move towards sustainability. But Europe's soils urgently need better protection, and the answer must be a coordinated solution. I welcome this report, which reinforces the message of the June 2008 Commission conference on Soil and Climate change, and gives a clear indication of the direction we need to take,” EC environment commissioner Stavros Dimas stated.

Europe's Shrinking Peatlands

Nearly half the carbon sequestered in Europe's soils resides in the peat bogs of Sweden, Finland, Ireland and the United Kingdom, the report authors note. Melting permafrost in these areas now poses a significant threat of massive amounts of methane being released into the atmosphere, as as noted in Angelique Engelen's March 9 GWIR post, "Permafrost in Swedish Peatlands is Thawing."

"Even a tiny loss of 0.1% of carbon emitted into the atmosphere from European soils is the equivalent to the carbon emission of 100 million extra cars on our roads – an increase of about half of the existing car fleet. Conversely, at today's prices, an increase in soil carbon of the same small amount would be worth some €200 million," according to the report.

Whereas grassland and forest soils are net carbon sinks, sequestering up to 100 million metric tons of carbon each year, farmland soils are net carbon emitters, releasing between 10 and 40 million metric tons per annum. This poses societies around the world with a vexing problem. The pressure to clear and plow grassland and forest soils is growing as population increases, turning what were carbon sinks into carbon sources. Halting this process may prove impossible given growing demand for food.

Drainage and conversion of peatlands in Europe and around the world are ongoing. More than half Europe's remaining peatlands are being drained, the report says, which could result in carbon emissions of more than 30 million metric tons per year as they are converted into cropland.

Soil and agricultural management practices that can 'minimize carbon losses at the level of crop and crop residues and by ensuring that soils are protected against water and rain with a permanent vegetation cover, less intrusive plowing techniques and less machinery...could sequester between 50 and 100 million metric tons of carbon each year in Europe alone,' according to the report authors.

Further complicating such efforts is the lack of sufficient data on soil carbon and soil carbon trends across the EU. There's an "urgent need to improve monitoring of soil carbon stock and trends to ensure that soils play a more prominent role in a future climate change mitigation agreement," they write.

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