Soil Carbon Sequestration: Benefits, Obstacles, and Prospects

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Jailene Santana | June 6, 2016

Implementing innovative soil management techniques is a winning strategy in the fight against climate change and global food insecurity. These practices are becoming more widespread across the globe, but significant barriers to implementation remain.


The Many Benefits of Soil Carbon Sequestration


Soils naturally act as carbon sinks. While the plant is alive, it transfers carbon to the soil, increasing the soil carbon pool. When the plant dies and decomposes, the carbon that made up the plant’s tissues also help to increase the soil carbon pool. [1]


Although soils can help to reduce the concentration of atmospheric CO2, its capacity to absorb carbon is dependent upon its management. Much of the world’s arable land has been degraded by conventional farming techniques; consequently, much of the soil’s carbon storage potential remains untapped. If the carbon storage potential of this land is to be realized, innovative and environmentally sound soil management techniques must be used. These include “leaving crop residues in the field, choosing crop rotations that include high-residue plants, using optimal nutrient and water management practices to grow healthy plants with large amounts of roots and residues, growing cover crops, applying manure or compost, using low-or no-till…systems, and mulching to help conserve the soil.” [2, pg. 946]


The benefits of using such techniques extend far beyond increasing the soil’s carbon sequestration potential.  In addition, such techniques decrease soil erosion, help to conserve water and reduce the need for excessive irrigation by reducing evapotranspiration, and–perhaps most importantly, given the exponential rates at which both the population and, consequently, demand for food are currently increasing–they increase the productivity of croplands. [3, 4]  Better managing arable land thus appears to be a winning strategy for simultaneously addressing several important problems.


Social Obstacles to Soil Carbon Sequestration


Unfortunately, several obstacles stand in the way of implementing these techniques.  These obstacles are not technical but rather what we might call social or institutional barriers in the form of government and institutional structures that discourage change:  farmers have significant incentives to continue doing things the way they always have.   These incentives stem from several sources at various levels, including the short term benefits of conventional farming at the farmer’s level, weak governance at the national level, and conflicting geopolitical interest at the global level. [5] What we therefore need is what some researchers have called “social innovation” (as opposed to technical innovation), governmental and institutional changes at the highest levels designed to incentivize action at lower levels.  [5, pg. 54]  Without social innovation at the global and national levels, farmers are unlikely to adopt more ecologically beneficial soil management practices.


Fortunately, there have been recent developments at both the national levels and at the global level to incentivise farmers towards ecologically beneficial farming practices.


National Efforts at Social Innovation


At the end of 2014, France passed legislation that helps to facilitate training for farmers in agroecology and encourages divestment from companies that conduct intensive farming practices, including factory farming. [6] In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a research initiative called GRACEnet that will aim to identify and develop agricultural practices that enable and improve the carbon sequestering capabilities of soils for carbon credit and trading. [7] The U.S. Department of Agriculture has also facilitated collaboration between environmental groups, the car company Chevrolet (a division of General Motors), and ranchers in North Dakota to sell the carbon stored in the rancher’s soils to offset the company’s CO2 emissions. [7] This type of collaboration is successful due to the built-in incentives for the farmers, the environmental groups, the government, and the company.


In Mexico, the Multilateral Investment Fund is working with an ecological group in the country, called the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, to implement a long-term project that will train, educate and assist farmers as well as establish a monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) system to strengthen the methodological framework towards improving the carbon sequestering capacity in soils and to ensure that the methodology is being implemented by the farmers. Once the farmers’ changed practices are verified by the MRV they will be compensated by a subnational mechanism that generates financial resources from either environmental taxes (possibly a carbon tax) or through a carbon trading platform. [8]


Global Efforts at Social Innovation


At the multinational level there is a movement called 4 per 1000 that aims to improve both overall soil quality and carbon sequestration capacity by improving the organic matter content of soils using agricultural practices adapted to local situations, including agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture, and landscape management. [9] 4 per 1000 plans to achieve these goals by bringing together states, companies, local authorities, NGOs, non-profit research institutions, and universities for two purposes:  first, so that they may commit to a voluntary action plan to enable and incentivize the implementation of relevant farming practices, and second, that they might be educated about how best to achieve the movement’s goals. [10, 11]


In addition, several notable programs to provide a financing mechanism for farmers in developing countries have been established.  For example, the Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Program aims to provide climate financing to smallholder farmers in developing countries worldwide, and the 15 West-African Countries Transitioning to Agroecology Initiative is meant to enable the development of similar economic incentives in West Africa. [12]


All of these actions reflect a recognition of the many benefits of transitioning to agricultural practices that benefit the planet. Though there needs to be an incentive creating mechanism that is more widespread in order to engage, train, and incentivise farmers, momentum is picking up and it is evident that some important players are on the right track.





[1], (2016). Carbon Sequestration in Soils. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jan. 2016].


[2] Lal, R., Follett, R.F., Stewart, B.A. and Kimble, J.M., 2007. Soil carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change and advance food security. Soil science, 172(12), pp.943-956.


[3] America, E. (2008). Soil carbon sequestration fact sheet. Retrieved from


[4] Lal, R., 2010. Beyond Copenhagen: mitigating climate change and achieving food security through soil carbon sequestration. Food Security, 2(2), pp.169-177.


[5] Funk, R., Pascual, U., Joosten, H., Duffy, C., Pan, G., la Scala, N., Gottschalk, P., Banwart, S.A., Batjes, N., Cai, Z. and Six, J., 2015. From potential to implementation: An innovation framework to realize the benefits of soil carbon. In Soil Carbon: Science, Management and Policy for Multiple Benefits (pp. 47-59). CAB International.


[6] Resilience, (2015). Writing Agroecology into Law. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 Feb. 2016].


[7], (2016). Climate Change | USDA. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jan. 2016].


[8] Multilateral Investment Fund, (2015). The MIF and GESGIAP will implement a mechanism to compensate Mexican producers for soil carbon capture and to mitigate climate change. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jan. 2016].


[9] Gliessman, S. (2016). Definition. [online] Available at: [Accessed 15 Jan. 2016].


[10], (2016). 4 pour 1000. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Jan. 2016].


[11] Join the 4% Initiative. Soils for Food Security and Climate. (2016). 1st ed. [PDF] French ministry of agriculture, agrifood and forestry, p.6. Available at: [Accessed 25 Jan. 2016].


[12] Lima Paris Action Agenda, (2015). Global Agricultural Transition Underway to Boost Resilience to Climate Change and Reduce Emissions. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Jan. 2016].

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