Carbon In Soils: Why Farming For Carbon Should Be Encouraged

Written by Mike Abram

The British Society of Soil Science highlights both the benefits of farming for soil carbon, but also its limitations
to mitigate climate change

A new Science Note produced by the British Society of Soil Science suggests farmers should be encouraged and rewarded for implementing sustainable soil management or regenerative farming practices. But it also highlights some of the challenges in mitigating climate change through carbon farming. Soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere and plants combined, with the largest stocks found in peaty non-agricultural soils and uncultivated permanent pastures. In these stable ecosystems there is a balance between photosynthesis, which takes carbon dioxide from the air to be eventually converted to soil organic matter, and respiration, which releases it back to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

That means it is vital to protect these ecosystems by preventing any cultivation or other carbon-emitting land use change, the scientists say. In arable soils over time the carbon removed with harvested crops, and lost from soils through plant and microbial respiration has exceeded that added through photosynthesis and via carbon inputs, such as animal manures, composts and crop residues, leading to a gradual loss of soil organic matter. Cultivation and bare soils, in particular, have contributed to that imbalance. But this depletion can be reversed through land use change and sustainable soil management practices.

Significant long-term land use change converting arable land to grassland or woodland would have the biggest positive impact on soil organic carbon, but as the report says, it is unrealistic on a large scale because of the continued need to meet food security challenges. A more practical approach could be to include grass leys into arable rotations, which could result in a more sustainable system with healthier soil. However, the rotation’s productivity would be reduced with no human-edible crops during ley years, and, while long-term experiments at Rothamsted show there is a net increase soil organic content in arable ley rotations, there is more carbon cycling than in an all arable system, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.

Integrating livestock could displace some edible crop production, which is not as efficient from a carbon perspective, emit more methane if ruminant numbers are not reduced elsewhere, while the change in soil carbon stocks is small compared with land use change. Other sustainable soil management that would have a potential positive benefit includes reducing tillage, incorporating cover crops or increasing carbon inputs such as manures and composts. While individually the changes are small, across a large area they add up, which is why there has been so much discussion about the possibility of mitigating climate change through soil carbon sequestration. 

The scientists note that changes in soil organic carbon are slow to occur and difficult to measure, and often there is an overestimation of how much climate change mitigation is achievable – primarily because the quantity of carbon that can be stored in soil is finite. “Positive changes in soil management, or regenerative agricultural / agroecological practices, can cause soil organic carbon to increase over a period of decades until a new balance between carbon additions and carbon losses is achieved,” the science note says.

British Society of Soil Science soil
carbon recommendations

Based on the available scientific evidence, BSSS recommends that:

• The C stores in existing permanent grasslands, moorlands, peatlands, wetlands and woodlands are protected.

• SSM practices are more widely adopted to increase SOC, to help mitigate existing GHG emissions, to improve soil health and resilience, and to protect and enhance the multiple public goods and services provided by soil.

• Where financial incentives are developed to encourage SSM practices it is essential that funders provide ongoing support to these schemes. This recommendation applies equally to any scheme claiming C sequestration in soils.

• Soil C concentrations should be periodically monitored. While modelling can be used to estimate future C stocks in specific soils, it is essential that these estimates are validated through soil testing at a network of representative field sites.

• Sequestering C in soils and vegetation, although important, must not distract from the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Failure to address the latter will render the former irrelevant.

• Attempts to overcome natural soil C equilibria through application of materials such as rock dust or biochar must consider the whole life C costs of such practices as well as ensuring that they do not impact negatively on soil quality through pH change, chemical contamination or other undesirable characteristics. 

The relatively large annual rates of carbon sequestration in the early years will eventually plateau, with carbon losses matching inputs, keeping the carbon balance at a new higher level. That new balance can only be maintained by continuation of favourable management practices. Sequestration is also reversible and can have unintended consequences. “For example, long-term application of organic manures can lead to excess nutrient supply and damage the quality of rivers, lakes and coastal waters.” Equally land use changes could result in deforestation and cultivation elsewhere to grow food that would have been produced on the land now being used for carbon sequestration.

This leads the authors to conclude that soil carbon sequestration, while offering a useful tool to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, cannot provide the single answer to climate change mitigation. It’s too slow, too easy to reverse and not of a large enough scale – implementing the most extreme land use changes would only account for 2-3% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, they say. Despite these risks, they do see scope for soil carbon sequestration to contribute, particularly on low C, degraded landscapes, albeit with a stark warning: “Sequestering C in soils and vegetation, although important, must not distract from the urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. Failure to address the latter will render the former irrelevant.”

Where financial incentives are being developed to encourage sustainable soil management practices, they note the challenges of setting up robust monitoring, reporting and verification of soil carbon. It’s not just because of variations caused by climate, land use and management in different agro-climatic regions, but also because it can be difficult to determine the baseline soil carbon content against which to judge and pay for the success of sequestration. They note the different approaches being taken – some rely on soil sampling, others on sampling with process-based modelling, others on modelling and remote sensing. “Differences in the way carbon markets estimate sequestration make it difficult to be confident that climate benefits have been achieved,” the report warns.

Unfortunately, the costs associated with direct measurement of soil carbon make it impractical as a long-term monitoring option, meaning the authors suggest models and remote sensing are essential once a ground-truthed soil carbon baseline has been achieved. They also stress that the potential for future land management changes to re-release captured carbon means that monitoring must be robust for the lifetime of any payment scheme.

In conclusion, the British Society of Soil Science note says it is essential that historic soil organic carbon declines in the UK need to be addressed for soils to function effectively and be more resilient to weather events, but warns this requirement creates potential for abuse when governments, corporations and individuals are increasingly keen to offset their carbon emissions through sequestration initiatives.

Find the British Society of Soil Science note on the current understanding of research on soil carbon here: uk/education/guidance-and-science-notes/