Climate-smart soils

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Soils are integral to the function of all terrestrial ecosystems and to food and fibre production. An overlooked aspect of soils is their potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Although proven practices exist, the implementation of soil-based greenhouse gas mitigation activities are at an early stage and accurately quantifying emissions and reductions remains a substantial challenge. Emerging research and information technology developments provide the potential for a broader inclusion of soils in greenhouse gas policies. Here we highlight ‘state of the art’ soil greenhouse gas research, summarize mitigation practices and potentials, identify gaps in data and understanding and suggest ways to close such gaps through new research, technology and collaboration.

At a glance


  1. Decision tree for cropland GHG mitigating practices.
    Figure 1: Decision tree for cropland GHG mitigating practices.

    (Rice is not included.) For degraded, marginal lands, the most productive mitigation option is conversion to perennial vegetation either left unmanaged or sustainably harvested to offset fossil energy use (cellulosic biofuels). Histosol is soil with very high organic matter content, such as from peat bog. For more arable lands, multiple options could be implemented sequentially or in combination, depending on management objectives, cost and other constraints (see Table 1). The practices shown (see Table 1 and text for more discussion) are roughly ordered from lower-cost or higher-feasibility options towards more costly interventions (bottom of figure).

  2. Global potential for agricultural-based GHG mitigation practices.
    Figure 2: Global potential for agricultural-based GHG mitigation practices.

    Management categories are arranged according to average per hectare net GHG reduction rates and potential area (in millions of hectares) of adoption (note log-scales). Unless otherwise noted, estimates are from ref. 19, based on cropland and grassland area projections for 2030. Ranges given in units of total Pg CO2(eq) yr−1 represent varying adoption rates as a function of C pricing (US$20, US$50 and US$100 per Mg CO2(eq)), to a maximum technical potential—that is, the full implementation of practices on the available land base. Multiple practices are aggregated for cropland (for example, improved crop rotations and nutrient management, reduced tillage) and grazing land (for example, grazing management, nutrient and fire management, species introduction) categories. Practices that increase net soil C stocks or reduce emissions of N2O and CH4 are combined in each practice category. The portion of projected mitigation from soil C stock increase (about 90% of the total technical potential) would have a limited time span of 20–30 years, whereas non-CO2 emission reduction could, in principle, continue indefinitely19. Estimates for biochar application67 represent a technical potential only, but it is based on a full life-cycle analysis applicable over a 100-year time span. Although global estimates of the potential impact of enhanced root phenotypes for crops have not been published, a first-order estimate of about 1 Pg CO2(eq) yr−1 is shown, using the global average C accrual rates (0.23 Mg C ha−1 yr−1) for cover crops25, applied to 50% of the cropland land area used by ref. 19. ‘Setaside’ land is arable land, usually for annual crops, that is taken out of production and converted to perennial vegetation (often grassland) and not actively managed for agricultural production, such as conservation reserves.

  3. Expanding the role of agricultural soil GHG mitigation will require an integrated research support and implementation platform.
    Figure 3: Expanding the role of agricultural soil GHG mitigation will require an integrated research support and implementation platform.

    Targeted basic research on soil processes, expanding measurement and monitoring networks, and further developing global geospatial soils data can improve predictive models and reduce uncertainties. Ongoing advances in information technology and complex system and ‘Big Data’ integration offer the potential to engage a broad-range of stakeholders, including land managers, to ‘crowd-source’ local knowledge of agricultural management practices through web-based computer and mobile apps, and help drive advanced model-based GHG metrics. This will facilitate the implementation of climate-smart soil management policies, via cap-and-trade systems, product supply-chain initiatives for ‘low-carbon’ consumer products, and national and international GHG mitigation policies; it will also promote more sustainable and climate-resilient agricultural systems, globally.


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Author information


  1. Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

    • Keith Paustian
  2. Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

    • Keith Paustian &
    • Stephen Ogle
  3. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

    • Johannes Lehmann
  4. Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

    • Stephen Ogle
  5. School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

    • David Reay
  6. W. K. Kellogg Biological Station and Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA

    • G. Philip Robertson
  7. Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK

    • Pete Smith


K.P. led the development of the manuscript and the integration of content. All authors contributed equally to drafting sections of the manuscript and making revisions.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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  1. Report this comment #67871

    Vincent Gutschick said:

    The coverage is global and many amelioration methods are covered. In practice, there are additional limitations over those cited here. Over and above the use of models, the direct measurement of emissions (and their amelioration) the most reliable way, by eddy covariance, is costly and thus spotty in coverage. The measurement of annual or even decadal changes in soil C is challenging, as they are very small compared to extant C stocks. Confirmation of implementation of amelioration methods would involve high-resolution satellite imagery to attain coverage of large areas; this is possible, as shown by rapid resolution of Amazonian deforestation (the DETER program in Brazil); a large-scale commitment of resources for detection would be necessary.

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