The role of soil carbon in natural climate solutions

A. D. Bossio* (Corresponding Author), S C Cook-Patton, P W Ellis, J Fargione, J Sanderman, P Smith, S Wood, R J Zomer, M von Unger, I. M. Emmer, B W Griscrom

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

624 Citations (Scopus)
72 Downloads (Pure)


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.

Diverse strategies are needed to mitigate climate change. This study finds that storing carbon in soils represents 25% of land-based potential, of which 60% must come from rebuilding depleted carbon stores.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)391-398
Number of pages8
JournalNature Sustainability
Early online date16 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - May 2020

Bibliographical note

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

Data Deposition
A global spatial dataset of reforestation opportunities is available on Zenodo ( Figures 1 and 2 have associated raw data that can be made available upon request.


  • Agriculture
  • Climate sciences
  • Ecology
  • Environmental sciences
  • Environmental social sciences


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