Soils and Climate Change

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Soils are the largest store of terrestrial carbon on Earth. Conserving and improving carbon (held in soil organic matter) through judicious soil use and land management can help to mitigate climate change, combat degradation of soil and water quality, and address food security. Many of the benefits of soil carbon arising from multiple ecosystem services are not recognised or are external to the existing markets. Farmers and other stakeholders can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the soil by practices such as conservation tillage, residue management, and multiple cropping. Such interventions increase the input of organic matter into the soil and reduce the decomposition of soil organic matter. However, how can land managers and planners determine consistently the net effect of specific land use practices? Policy makers and other stakeholders require reliable data and tools to support informed decisions concerning possible actions aimed at mitigation and adaptation.




The recent historical Paris Agreement (COP21, 2015) aims to limit global warming to well below 2 °C, ideally below 1.5 °C. In order to achieve this, emissions reductions need to be accompanied by mitigation activities. The potential role of agriculture and land use in emissions reduction and mitigation has now gained recognition. Land based emissions are to be increasingly included in countries Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC's). In addition, initiatives such as the French ‘4 pour mille’ initiative —which advocates an (aspirational) annual increase of organic carbon in soils of 0.4%, highlight the potential role of soils in mitigation activities. Changes in SOC stocks are also an important indicator to assess Land Degradation Neutrality under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Increasingly, new land management projects are required to report the impact they have on greenhouse gas emissions. However, it is difficult to compare consistently the net carbon (C) benefits of these projects. Equally, it has been difficult for sustainable land management activities to gain the financial rewards they deserve from carbon-offset markets (e.g. post-Kyoto arrangements). Such requirements and arrangements call for standardized tools to assess the benefits of ‘climate smart’ agriculture and land use, as well as standardised 'Measurement/Monitoring, Reporting and Verification' (MRV) frameworks (url).

ISRIC contributes to land management and capacity building projects aimed at mitigating climate change, respectively provisioning of ecosystem services through sustainable land management. We have participated in a range of (inter)national projects that have developed tools to assess the benefits of such activities. Soil data are one of the input layers needed to run the web-based tools. How much carbon a specific soil will store depends on various factors including soil type, regional climate, land use (history) and management.

ISRIC compiles, generates and analyses soil data that can be used to assess carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas release at various scale levels. Such derived products can be used as input in global modelling, IPCC-related Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use ( AFOLU) assessments,  as well as reporting for UNCCD land degradation neutrality (UNCCD LDN).

For a global impression of historic and future changes in soil carbon stocks you may consult the collaborative SoisRevealed platform;  using that tool, you can see the areas where action can make the biggest impact.

Further, the ISRIC World Soil Museum features a theme station on 'soils and climate change' which can be viewed online

The following examples of collaborative projects serve to show how ISRIC may help you to address some soil carbon-related studies.


Examples of collaborative projects


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