The role of soil carbon in natural climate solutions

Abstract

Mitigating climate change requires clean energy and the removal of atmospheric carbon. Building soil carbon is an appealing way to increase carbon sinks and reduce emissions owing to the associated benefits to agriculture. However, the practical implementation of soil carbon climate strategies lags behind the potential, partly because we lack clarity around the magnitude of opportunity and how to capitalize on it. Here we quantify the role of soil carbon in natural (land-based) climate solutions and review some of the project design mechanisms available to tap into the potential. We show that soil carbon represents 25% of the potential of natural climate solutions (total potential, 23.8 Gt of CO2-equivalent per year), of which 40% is protection of existing soil carbon and 60% is rebuilding depleted stocks. Soil carbon comprises 9% of the mitigation potential of forests, 72% for wetlands and 47% for agriculture and grasslands. Soil carbon is important to land-based efforts to prevent carbon emissions, remove atmospheric carbon dioxide and deliver ecosystem services in addition to climate mitigation.

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Fig. 1: Additional SOC storage potential for 12 natural pathways to climate mitigation.
Fig. 2: Maximum climate mitigation potential of soil in 2030 across forest, agriculture and grassland, and wetland biome pathways with safeguards.

Data availability

A global spatial dataset of reforestation opportunities is available on Zenodo (https://zenodo.org/record/883444). Figures 1 and 2 have associated raw data that can be made available upon request.

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Acknowledgements

This study was made possible by funding from the Craig and Susan McCaw Foundation.

Author information

D.A.B. and B.W.G. designed the study. D.A.B., B.W.G., S.C.C.-P., P.W.E., J.F. and J.S. provided the data analysis. D.A.B., B.W.G., S.C.C.-P., P.W.E., J.F., J.S., P.S., S.W., R.J.Z., M.v.U. and I.M.E. interpreted the data and wrote the paper.

Correspondence to D. A. Bossio.

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Bossio, D.A., Cook-Patton, S.C., Ellis, P.W. et al. The role of soil carbon in natural climate solutions. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0491-z

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