Initiative to boost soil carbon

Cultivated soils have lost  50–70 per cent of their original carbon stores. / DammitKarissa cc-by

In Paris an initiative called “4 per 1000” was signed by 25 countries, with the aim to protect and increase carbon stocks in soil and to develop accounting and safeguard criteria.

About one quarter of all human-induced GHG emissions come from agriculture, forestry and other land use (AFOLU), mainly from land use change, fertiliser use, livestock and peatland degradation. Regeneration International reports that a new initiative called “4 per 1000”1, aims to protect and increase carbon stocks in soil. The initiative, signed in Paris in 2015 by 25 countries including France, Germany, the UK, Mexico and Australia, as well as 75 research and NGO partners, is aimed at combatting climate change by recognising the ability of soil to act as a sink for greenhouse-gas emissions. The “4 per 1000,” which refers to a voluntary pledge of a 0.4 per cent annual growth rate in soil carbon content, “is a game-changer”, says Andre Leu from the  International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM)2. “This is revolutionary, since carbon sequestration in soils is now central to how the world tackles climate change. It is one of the most exciting pieces of news to come out of the Paris climate conference, COP21. With this initiative the French government has recognised the work done by researchers and farmers to demonstrate the ability of regenerative agriculture to restore the natural ability of soil to store carbon.”

Carbon is an important component of soil, representing 58 per cent of organic matter. Through photosynthesis, a plant draws down atmospheric carbon to form carbon compounds, or sugars. Some of this is exuded through the roots to feed soil microorganisms. But when soil is exposed to the air, through tillage or the absence of plant cover, the carbon oxidizes to form CO2. The world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 per cent of their original carbon stores, according to scientists.

The French-led plan promotes practices, adapted to local conditions,  that shift agricultural soil from a carbon source to a carbon sink. Since soil carbon is central to soil fertility and water-holding capacity, CO2 emissions may be curbed while enhancing food security as the world population rises toward an expected 9.5 billion in 2050. Practices to build soil carbon include agroecology, agroforestry, conservation agriculture and landscape management. Placing an emphasis on the accumulation of soil carbon will inevitably call attention to the climate implications of the use of nitrogen fertilisers and other industrial agriculture practices that tend to reduce soil carbon reserves.

According to Climate Action Network (CAN), the potential for both reducing emissions and increasing removals in the AFOLU sector is large, although it must be ensured that AFOLU mitigation does not compromise adaptation, food security or other social and environmental safeguards. Several key points are crucial for CAN for the discussions on accounting rules3:

  • “It is vital that all countries account for emissions and removals from AFOLU in a comparable and transparent way as part of their national climate plans.
  • The Climate Convention employs a land-based system of reporting and this should be used in the new Paris agreement and should also be applied to accounting, based on the methodologies provided in the 2006 IPCC Guidelines.
  • Parties with economy-wide plans, including absolute emission reduction targets, should comprehensively account for “what the atmosphere sees” in terms of emissions and removals, when they occur.
  • Parties with plans that do not contain economy-wide absolute targets should explain why other emissions and removals are excluded and commit to overcome the deficit through capacity building on comprehensive AFOLU accounting.
  • The base year or period used for reporting and accounting for AFOLU should be consistent with a Party’s overall plan to facilitate comparability, i.e., baseline periods should be the same for the AFOLU sector as for other sectors and be historical rather than projected. Furthermore, the AFOLU base year or period should be measured using agreed methodologies to estimate the emissions, removals, and stocks of the sector. It may be advisable to use a base period rather than a base year.”

Compiled by Reinhold Pape



In this issue