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Global Climate Change Digest

A Guide to Information on Greenhouse Gases and Ozone Depletion
Published July 1988 through June 1999


Carbon Sequestration in Soil

Item #d99feb40

One method proposed for reducing carbon emissions to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol is to sequester carbon in the soil. However, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to verify claims that carbon actually is being sequestered in soils. Moreover, uncertainty about the costs, benefits, and risks of new practices will make producers reluctant to adopt new technologies to increase carbon sequestration.

A workshop to explore scientific and policy problems associated with soil carbon sequestration was sponsored by the USEPA, USDA, DOE, the Monsanto Company, and NASA and reported in a press release from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. It was held at St. Michaels, Md., and attended by nearly 100 U.S. and Canadian scientists, practitioners, and policymakers representing agricultural commodity groups and industries, government agencies, universities, and the World Bank. The major conclusions of the workshop were:

  • Farms, forests, and grasslands can play an important role in combating global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil; during the next 50 to 100 years, agricultural lands alone have the potential to remove anywhere from 40 to 80 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere.
  • Practical and economically viable farming methods are available that can increase carbon storage in soil, but research is needed.
  • Changes in soil-carbon content can be monitored, but current methods are crude and expensive; technological development could provide widely applicable methods at a reasonable cost.
  • Vast areas of degraded and decertified lands exist throughout the world where improvements in rangeland management, dryland farming, and irrigation can add carbon to the soil and, at the same time, stabilize the soil against erosion and increase its fertility and productivity.

“When croplands are planted to perennial grasses under the Conservation Reserve Program, as much as a half ton or more of carbon per acre can be returned to the soil annually. And when agricultural land reverts to forest, soil carbon can accumulate at even greater rates, especially in the tropics,” said Norm Rosenberg of PNNL.

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