Global Sequestration Potential of Increased Organic Carbon in Cropland Soils

Authors: Deborah A. Bossio, Rolf Sommer, Louis V. Verchot & Robert J. Zomer, Published: November 14, 2017 

Historical and ongoing increase of agricultural production worldwide has profoundly impacted global carbon, water and nutrient cycles1,2,3,4. Both land-use change to agriculture and agricultural production have and continue to contribute significantly to the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for as much as 24% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions5. Almost 50% of all potentially vegetated land surface globally has been converted to croplands, pastures and rangelands1,2,3,4. This land-use change and soil cultivation have contributed 136 ± 55 petagrams of carbon (Pg C) to the atmosphere from change in biomass carbon since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, with depletion of soil organic carbon (SOC) accounting for a further contribution of 78 ± 12 Pg C. This estimated 214 ± 67 Pg C from the land-use sector compares to the estimated 270 ± 30 Pg of C contributed by fossil fuel combustion6 as a historical carbon source. More recently soil organic matter also has gotten increasing attention as a potentially large and uncertain source of carbon to the atmosphere in the future in response to predicted global temperature rises7,8.

Soils, however, can act as both sources and sinks of carbon, depending upon management, biomass input levels, micro-climatic conditions, and bioclimatic change. Substantially more carbon is stored in the world’s soils than is present in the atmosphere. The global soil carbon (C) pool to one-meter depth, estimated at 2500 Pg C, of which about 1500 Pg C is soil organic carbon (SOC), is about 3.2 times the size of the atmospheric pool and 4 times that of the biotic pool6,9,10. An extensive body of research has shown that land management practices can increase soil carbon stocks on agricultural lands with practices including addition of organic manures, cover cropping, mulching, conservation tillage, fertility management, agroforestry, and rotational grazing11,12. There is general agreement that the technical potential for sequestration of carbon in soil is significant, and some consensus on the magnitude of that potential13. On this basis, the 4p1000 initiative on Soil for Food Security and Climate14, officially launched by the French Ministry of Agriculture at the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change: Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 21) in Paris, aims to sequester approximately 3.5Gt C annually in soils. Croplands will be extremely important in this effort, as these lands are already being actively managed, and so amenable to implementation of improved practices12. Furthermore, because almost all cropped soils have lost a large percentage of their pre-cultivation SOC6,15, they potentially represent a large sink to re-absorb carbon through the introduction and adoption of improved or proper management aimed towards increased SOC. However, carbon is rarely stored in soils in its elemental form, but rather in the form of organic matter which contains significant amounts of other nutrients, above all nitrogen. Nutrients, biomass productivity, the type of vegetation and water availability, among other constraints therefore can be major limiting factors inhibiting increases in soil carbon sequestration16. Further imperative to sequester carbon in soils arises from the multiple co-benefits that are obtained from sequestration of carbon in soils that have been depleted of their organic matter17. Soil fertility, health, and functioning are immediate consequences of the amount of soil organic matter (and hence carbon) a soil contains; this is even more important for highly weathered soils, as is the case for the majority of soils in the humid lowland tropics. Increasing carbon in soils also means improving its physical properties and related ecosystems services, such as better water infiltration, water holding capacity, as well as potentially increasing agricultural productivity and ecological resilience11,12.

In this analysis, we illustrate where carbon might be sequestered, and how much, if, through improved practices and management, we could increase SOC on agricultural land by a generally accepted (as attainable) moderate to optimistic amount, based on the medium and high sequestration scenarios of Sommer and Bossio (2014). These scenarios from Sommer and Bossio (2014) resulted in an 0.27 and 0.54% increase in SOC in the top 30 cm of soils after 20 years, for the medium and high scenarios, respectively, that is, a 0.012 to 0.027% annual increase. The low scenario in Sommer and Bossio (2014) was not used because it refers to sequestration rates estimated primarily for unimproved pasture land. An implicit basic assumption is that in general, 50 to 70% of soil carbon stocks have been lost in cultivated soils6,15,17, such that the SOC status of almost all cultivated soils can be increased. It is expected that these cropped soils will be able to sequester carbon for at least 20 years before reaching saturation points and new SOC equilibriums13,18, while meta-analysis of field studies14 suggests that in some instances significant sequestration can continue for 30 or even up to 40 years before reaching new equilibriums. We used the recently released ISRIC SoilGrids250m19 global database of soil information, to identify and derive basic soil characteristics, i.e. SOC and soil bulk density, and the FAO GLC-Share Land Cover database20 to identify and calculate areal extent of the cropland landcover class. The analysis gives a spatially articulated estimate of the distribution and increase of SOC if equal sequestration is reached, within the medium and high scenarios, on all available cropland soils through improved practices. The results of this paper provide an estimate of what the potential amount of sequestered carbon would be in terms of tons of carbon per hectare, spatially articulated at 250 m resolution, and in terms of Pg C regionally and globally, allowing for a quantified discussion of the importance of this carbon pool within on-going global discussions regarding mitigation potential within the agricultural sector.


Global Soil Organic Carbon Stocks on Croplands

Estimates of global soil carbon stocks, trends and sequestration potential11,16, particularly within the context of a warming climate7,8,21,22, are now central to important discussions ongoing within various international fora, notably the discussions on including agricultural land within mitigation strategies and protocols at the UNFCCC, and are the basis for the 4p1000 Initiative14. The spatial distribution of SOC on croplands (Fig. 1), and its contribution to total carbon stock, varies with latitude, and differs substantially from that of carbon stored in above and below ground biomass23,24. Most of the world’s SOC is stored at northern latitudes, particularly in the permafrost and moist boreal regions. In contrast, large areas of cropland in India, across the Sahel, northern China, and Australia are found on low carbon density soils. An overview of 27 studies25 reports that 1500 Pg C can be regarded as a rough estimate of the global SOC pool (to one meter depth; across all the world’s soils, more than 130 million km2), however with substantial variability among both spatially- and non-spatially-explicit estimates and a range of from 500 to 3000 Pg C.

About 372,000 km2 of cropland (Supplementary Figure S1), comprised of carbon dense soils (> 400 t C/ha and/or with a bulk density <1.0 g/cm3) and which are considered likely to lose SOC under any form of cropping management, and sandy soils unlikely to sequester carbon due to high sand content (> 85%), were excluded from the analysis as “unavailable” (Table 1). In particular, it is highlighted that high SOC soils, while accounting for only 2% of total cropland area, account for almost 6% (8.48 Pg C) of total global cropland SOC stocks, and require a set of management options aimed toward conservation and maintenance of carbon stocks25. These areas are primarily peatlands in South East Asia, Russia, some in North America, South America, Europe, Australia/Pacific, and Andosols in South America. Cultivation of peat soils has been shown to contribute significantly to global emissions from agriculture26. Tropical and temperate peatlands account for a disproportionate share of terrestrial carbon stocks considering their more limited area globally27, with peatland drainage, concentrated in Europe and Indonesia, reported to account for nearly a third of all cropland emissions28.

Table 1: Soil organic carbon (SOC) for all available cropland soils globally (i.e. those not excluded from the analysis as high SOC or sandy soils), showing both the global totals and the global averages per hectare, at current status (T0), and after 20 years for both the medium and high sequestration scenarios, and their annual increment.

Globally, cropland stores more than 140 Pg C in the top 30 cm of soil, almost 10% of the total global SOC pool. About 94% of this carbon (131.81 Pg C) is stored on the 15.9 million km2 (98% of global cropland) identified as potentially available for enhanced carbon sequestration through improved soil management and farming practices11. Global distribution of SOC is strongly influenced by temperature and precipitation15,29. SOC is generally lower in the tropics where it is hotter and/or drier, and higher in the cooler, wetter, more northerly, and to a somewhat lesser extent, southerly, latitudes (Fig. 1). Lal (2002) cites several studies showing an exponential decrease in SOC with increase in temperature. This is reflected by low SOC values found across much of the equatorial belt (e.g. less than 100 t C/ha), with the highest carbon density soils (400 t C/ha or more) found in the northern croplands and farmed peat soils of the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia (see Supplementary Table S1).

The regions of North America, Eurasia (Russia) and Europe currently store the greatest amount of carbon on cropland, each with more than 21 Pg C, and all together accounting for over 50% of all SOC stocks on cropland globally (Table 1). By contrast, Central America, North Africa, and the Australian/Pacific region have very low amounts of stored SOC, together comprising 6.48 Pg C or just over 4.6% of the global total. Western Asia, South Asia, Southeast East Asia and East Asia each have moderate amount ranging from 4.38 Pg C to 9.14 Pg C, but together accounting for just less than 2% of global total. South America, even having a fairly large amount of farmland, has a moderate 9.42 Pg C. Almost 12 Pg C, more than 8.5% of the global total, is found in Africa, with the highest concentrations found in the Eastern and Central regions. Nationally, Russia with its vast northern tracts of carbon dense agricultural land has the largest total amount of SOC stored on cropland more than 21.9 Pg C (almost 17% of the global total), followed by the United States (18.9 Pg C), China (8.4 Pg C), India (6.4 Pg C), and Brazil (5.0 Pg C) (Supplementary Table S2).