Soil carbon sequestration and biochar as negative emission technologies

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Despite 20 years of effort to curb emissions, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions grew faster during the 2000s than in the 1990s, which presents a major challenge for meeting the international goal of limiting warming to <2 °C relative to the preindustrial era. Most recent scenarios from integrated assessment models require large-scale deployment of negative emissions technologies (NETs) to reach the 2 °C target. A recent analysis of NETs, including direct air capture, enhanced weathering, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and afforestation/deforestation, showed that all NETs have significant limits to implementation, including economic cost, energy requirements, land use, and water use. In this paper, I assess the potential for negative emissions from soil carbon sequestration and biochar addition to land, and also the potential global impacts on land use, water, nutrients, albedo, energy and cost. Results indicate that soil carbon sequestration and biochar have useful negative emission potential (each 0.7 GtCeq. yr−1) and that they potentially have lower impact on land, water use, nutrients, albedo, energy requirement and cost, so have fewer disadvantages than many NETs. Limitations of soil carbon sequestration as a NET centre around issues of sink saturation and reversibility. Biochar could be implemented in combination with bioenergy with carbon capture and storage. Current integrated assessment models do not represent soil carbon sequestration or biochar. Given the negative emission potential of SCS and biochar and their potential advantages compared to other NETs, efforts should be made to include these options within IAMs, so that their potential can be explored further in comparison with other NETs for climate stabilization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1315-1324
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number3
Early online date6 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016

Bibliographical note


Thanks to Steve J. Davis who created the original figures from which the figures presented here were adapted. This output contributes to the Belmont Forum/FACCE-JPI funded DEVIL project (NE/M021327/1), the Global Carbon Project and the MaGNET programme (, and also contributes to the EU FP7 SmartSoil project (project number: 289694).


  • biochar
  • carbon
  • negative emission technology
  • Sequestration
  • soil


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