A report from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) finds that carbon soil sequestration holds huge potential both to improve soil health and create carbon sinks that reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and combat climate change.
Soil carbon sequestration is the process of storing atmospheric carbon in soil through regenerative land-use and agricultural practices. This accomplishes the dual aims of reducing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide—which is directly linked to the rising of global temperatures—and improving soil health, leading to higher yields, nutrient density, and other agroecological benefits.
Industrial agricultural practices have typically produced higher yields, but have also contributed to negative environmental effects including biodiversity loss, freshwater pollution, and soil erosion. Current agricultural practices lead to losses of 20 billion tons of fertile topsoil each year—roughly equivalent to the land area of Greece. Agriculture carries a high carbon footprint, as well: according to the report, the sector is responsible for 25 percent of worldwide anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
Soil carbon storage can help address these challenges by revitalizing soil fertility and storing more atmospheric carbon dioxide in the process. The main pathways to soil carbon storage are changes in land-use practices: reduced tillage, reforestation, and intercropping (where two or more crops are grown in proximity) are key methods of increasing soil carbon sequestration, according to the report.
The report calls for supporting campaigns and efforts to increase soil carbon sequestration, both on a policy level and through programs which incentivize farmers to adopt more regenerative agricultural practices. The 4p1000 Initiative is one of the largest movements to collaborate on increasing soil carbon sequestration, involving 320 institutions from 40 countries. Expanding support for these programs, as well as research and policy changes, will be important to the success of soil carbon sequestration.
The report also urges moving away from focusing solely on “yield per hectare” to “ecosystem services” farmers can provide such as climate regulation, water storage, and filtering, and fostering biodiversity.
Photo courtesy of Roman Synkevych.