Agricultural soils as a sink to mitigate CO2 emissions

K Paustian, O Andren, H.H Janzen, R Lal, Pete Smith, G Tian, H Tiessen, M van Noordwijk, P.L Woomer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

751 Citations (Scopus)


Abstract. Agricultural soils, having been depleted of much of their native carbon stocks, have a significant CO2 sink capacity. Global estimates of this sink capacity are in the order of 20-30 Pg C over the next 50-100 years. Management practices to build up soil C must increase the input of organic matter to soil and/or decrease soil organic matter decomposition rates. The most appropriate management practices to increase soil C vary regionally, dependent on both environmental and socioeconomic factors.

In temperate regions, key strategies involve increasing cropping frequency and reducing bare fallow, increasing the use of perennial forages (including N-fixing species) in crop rotations, retaining crop residues and reducing or eliminating tillage (i.e. no-till). In North America and Europe, conversion of marginal arable land to permanent perennial vegetation, to protect fragile soils and landscapes and/or reduce agricultural surpluses, provides additional opportunities for C sequestration.

In the tropics, increasing C inputs to soil through improving the fertility and productivity of cropland and pastures is essential. In extensive systems with vegetated fallow periods (e.g. shifting cultivation), planted fallows and cover crops can increase C levels over the cropping cycle. Use of no-till, green manures and agroforestry are other beneficial practices. Overall, improving the productivity and sustainability of existing agricultural lands is crucial to help reduce the rate of new land clearing, from which large amounts of CO2 from biomass and soil are emitted to the atmosphere.

Some regional analyses of soil C sequestration and sequestration potential have been performed, mainly for temperate industrialized countries. More are needed, especially for the tropics, to capture region-specific interactions between climate, soil and management resources that are lost in global level assessments.

By itself, C sequestration in agricultural soils can make only modest contributions (e.g. 3-6% of total fossil C emissions) to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. However, effective mitigation policies will not be based on any single ‘magic bullet’ solutions, but rather on many modest reductions which are economically efficient and which confer additional benefits to society. In this context, soil C sequestration is a significant mitigation option. Additional advantages of pursuing strategies to increase soil C are the added benefits of improved soil quality for improving agricultural productivity and sustainability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)229-244
Number of pages16
JournalSoil Use & Management
Issue numberS4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1997


  • Carbon
  • retention
  • carbon dioxide
  • emission
  • agricultural soils


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