04 Mar 2014: Analysis

Soil as Carbon Storehouse:
New Weapon in Climate Fight?

The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change.

by judith d. schwartz

In the 19th century, as land-hungry pioneers steered their wagon trains westward across the United States, they encountered a vast landscape of towering grasses that nurtured deep, fertile soils.

Today, just three percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains. Its disappearance has had a dramatic impact on the landscape and ecology of
The world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original carbon stock.
the U.S., but a key consequence of that transformation has largely been overlooked: a massive loss of soil carbon into the atmosphere. The importance of soil carbon — how it is leached from the earth and how that process can be reversed — is the subject of intensifying scientific investigation, with important implications for the effort to slow the rapid rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air to become CO2. Now, armed with rapidly expanding knowledge about carbon sequestration in soils, researchers are studying how land restoration programs in places like the
polar jet stream
Rattan Lal
Soil in a long-term experiment appears red when depleted of carbon (left) and dark brown when carbon content is high (right).
former North American prairie, the North China Plain, and even the parched interior of Australia might help put carbon back into the soil.

Absent carbon and critical microbes, soil becomes mere dirt, a process of deterioration that’s been rampant around the globe. Many scientists say that regenerative agricultural practices can turn back the carbon clock, reducing atmospheric CO2 while also boosting soil productivity and increasing resilience to floods and drought. Such regenerative techniques include planting fields year-round in crops or other cover, and agroforestry that combines crops, trees, and animal husbandry.

Recognition of the vital role played by soil carbon could mark an important if subtle shift in the discussion about global warming, which has been
A look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks.
heavily focused on curbing emissions of fossil fuels. But a look at soil brings a sharper focus on potential carbon sinks. Reducing emissions is crucial, but soil carbon sequestration needs to be part of the picture as well, says Lal. The top priorities, he says, are restoring degraded and eroded lands, as well as avoiding deforestation and the farming of peatlands, which are a major reservoir of carbon and are easily decomposed upon drainage and cultivation.

He adds that bringing carbon back into soils has to be done not only to offset fossil fuels, but also to feed our growing global population. "We cannot feed people if soil is degraded," he says.

"Supply-side approaches, centered on CO2 sources, amount to reshuffling the Titanic deck chairs if we overlook demand-side solutions: where that carbon can and should go," says Thomas J. Goreau, a biogeochemist and expert on carbon and nitrogen cycles who now serves as president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance. Goreau says we need to seek opportunities to increase soil carbon in all ecosystems — from tropical forests to pasture to wetlands — by replanting degraded areas, increased mulching of biomass instead of burning, large-scale use of biochar, improved pasture management, effective erosion control, and restoration of mangroves, salt marshes, and sea grasses.

"CO2 cannot be reduced to safe levels in time to avoid serious long-term impacts unless the other side of atmospheric CO2 balance is included," Goreau says.

Scientists say that more carbon resides in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined; there are 2,500 billion tons of carbon in soil, compared with 800 billion tons in the atmosphere and 560 billion tons in plant and animal life. And compared to many proposed geoengineering fixes, storing carbon in soil is simple: It’s a matter of returning carbon where it belongs.

Through photosynthesis, a plant draws carbon out of the air to form carbon compounds. What the plant doesn’t need for growth is exuded through the roots to feed soil organisms, whereby the carbon is humified, or rendered stable. Carbon is the main component of soil organic matter and helps give soil its water-retention capacity, its structure, and its fertility. According to Lal, some pools of carbon housed in soil aggregates are so stable that they can last thousands of years. This is in contrast to "active" soil carbon,
'If we treat soil carbon as a renewable resource, we can change the dynamics,' says an expert.
which resides in topsoil and is in continual flux between microbial hosts and the atmosphere.

"If we treat soil carbon as a renewable resource, we can change the dynamics," says Goreau. "When we have erosion, we lose soil, which carries with it organic carbon, into waterways. When soil is exposed, it oxidizes, essentially burning the soil carbon. We can take an alternate trajectory."

As basic as soil carbon is, there’s much scientists are just learning about it, including how to make the most of its CO2 sequestration capacity. One promising strategy, says Goreau, is bolstering soil microbiology by adding beneficial microbes to stimulate the soil cycles where they have been interrupted by use of insecticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. As for agroforestry, programs with greater species diversity are better able to maximize the storage of carbon than monocultures. Many researchers are looking to biochar — produced when plant matter, manure, or other organic material is heated in a zero- or low-oxygen environment — for its ability to turn problem areas into productive sites while building soil carbon. Says Goreau, "Vast areas of deforested land that have been abandoned after soil degradation are excellent candidates for replanting and reforestation using biochar from the weeds now growing there."

An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root, or mycorrhizal, fungi, which govern the give-and-take between plants and soil. According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, plants with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to 15 percent more carbon to soil than their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. The most common mycorrhizal fungi are marked by threadlike filaments called hyphae that extend the reach of a plant, increasing access to nutrients and water. These hyphae are coated with a sticky substance called glomalin, discovered only in 1996, which is instrumental in soil structure and carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises land managers to protect glomalin by minimizing tillage and chemical inputs and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil.

In research published in Nature in January, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Boston University assessed the carbon and nitrogen cycles under different mycorrhizal regimens and found that plants linked with fruiting, or mushroom-type, fungi stored 70 percent more carbon per unit of nitrogen in soil. Lead author Colin Averill, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Texas, explains that the fungi take up organic nitrogen on behalf of the plant, out-competing soil microorganisms that decompose organic matter and release carbon. He says this points to soil biology as a
Our understanding of how soil life affects the carbon cycle is poised for tremendous growth.
driver of carbon storage, particularly "the mechanisms by which carbon can stay in the ground rather than going into the atmosphere."

One implication of this research, says Goreau, is that "the effect of most landscape alterations is to convert them from systems that store carbon efficiently ... toward ones that are inefficient in the use of nitrogen, and as a result are losing carbon storage." By landscape alterations, he means from forest to cropland, or from small farms to industrial agriculture operations that use the chemicals that inhibit the mycorrhizal and microbial interactions that store carbon.

Our understanding of soil microbiology and how soil life affects the carbon cycle is poised for tremendous growth, says Goreau. This, he says, is thanks to the burgeoning field of metagenomics, the study of genetic material from specimens taken directly from the environment rather than cultured in a lab. "For the first time," says Goreau, "we can identify all major soil biogeochemical pathways from the genetic information in the microbes."

Even at our current level of knowledge, many see great potential for storing carbon in soil. Lal of Ohio State says that restoring soils of degraded and desertified ecosystems has the potential to store in world soils an additional 1 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equivalent to roughly 3.5 billion to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. (Annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning are roughly 32 billion tons.)

Many call Lal’s carbon soil storage figures low. This could reflect the fact that soil carbon is generally measured in the top 15 to 30 centimeters, whereas soil at depth may store carbon at much higher rates. For example, in land with deep-rooted grasses the soil can go down five meters or more. Research by Australian and British scientists published last year in the journal Plant and Soil examined soils in five southwestern Australia sites


As Uses of Biochar Expand,
Climate Benefits Still Uncertain

Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.
at depths as great as nearly 40 meters. These findings add impetus to explore strategies such as working with deep-rooted perennial grasses to secure carbon at depth.

Those who champion soil carbon for climate mitigation frequently look to grasslands, which cover more than a quarter of the world’s land. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, grasslands also hold 20 percent of the world’s soil carbon stock. Much of this land is degraded, as evidenced in the U.S. Great Plains and places like northern Mexico, Africa’s Sahel, and Mongolia.

Seth Itzkan — founder of Massachusetts-based Planet-TECH Associates, a consulting firm specializing in restoration ecology — advocates Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG), a model developed by Zimbabwean wildlife biologist Allan Savory. In this practice, livestock are managed as a tool for large-scale land restoration, mimicking the herding and grazing patterns of wild ruminants that coevolved with grassland ecosystems. Animals are moved so that no plants are overgrazed, and grazing stimulates biological activity in the soil. Their waste adds fertility, and as they move in a herd their trampling aerates soil, presses in seeds, and pushes down dead plant matter so it can be acted upon by soil microorganisms. All of this generates soil carbon, plant carbon, and water retention. Savory says HPG doesn’t require more land — in fact it generally supports greater animal density — so it can be applied wherever livestock are raised.

In Australia, which has been suffering extreme heat and wildfires, policy-makers are taking seriously programs that build and stabilize soil carbon. The action plan Regenerate Australia outlines a strategy to restore up to 300 million hectares (740 million acres). A core goal is attaining previous soil carbon levels by introducing more sustainable grazing, farming, and water-retention practices.

Says Rattan Lal: "Soils of the world must be part of any agenda to address climate change, as well as food and water security. I think there is now a general awareness of soil carbon, an awareness that soil isn’t just a medium for plant growth."

POSTED ON 04 Mar 2014 IN Business & Innovation Climate Science & Technology Science & Technology Sustainability Water North America 


It's so nice to understand.
Posted by roopashree.s on 04 Mar 2014

Ms. Schwartz is my new hero. Dr. Rattan Lal, as the most cited soil scientist in the "universe" [:) an inside joke/compliment I heard from a USDA researcher] has been a hero for years. Double blessings to Ms. Schwartz for gluing it all together with glomalin, showcasing the USDA discovery and elucidations.

Soils save seas. Way to go, Dr. Goreau: "For the first time," says Goreau, "we can identify all major soil biogeochemical pathways from the genetic information in the microbes."

The world's climate, oceans, food, and energy solutions wrapped up in a single soil basket. Complexity made elegant!
Posted by Erich J. Knight on 04 Mar 2014

It is great to see permaculture being brought up in Yale e360. I have been working to incorporate this practice in Connecticut through every organization and institution I can possibly think of for the past 5 years.

I have shared this article with all I can think of. Thank you!

Sven Pihl
CT Edible Ecosystems (on FB)
Connecticut Permaculture Guild (on FB)
Posted by Sven Pihl on 04 Mar 2014

What a great article. The U.S. needs a "Soil Restoration Act" that would drive us to a more sustainable approach to agriculture and how we it can affect climate change in a positive manner.
Posted by Frank Franciosi on 05 Mar 2014

Soil Carbon Sequestration works. That's for sure. There are various options of doing this and some of the options even improve the soil.

The only problem with this solution is the scale. Imagine what it means to use soil carbon sequestration techniques on 10% of all arable land: Millions of farmers must change their way of doing agriculture to make it happen.
Posted by Martin Holzherr on 06 Mar 2014

Here is a link to a very promising on-the-ground operation in Marin County, CA. Plenty of good information and additional links.


Posted by Kyle Gardner on 06 Mar 2014

Fans of Judith Schwartz's article and book may also want to read Dan Dagget's two books: Beyond Rangeland Conflict — Toward a West that Works, and Gardeners of Eden. They explain the historic and archeological basis of Alan Savory's work, and reintroduce biological reality to the soil debates.
Posted by Eric Burr on 07 Mar 2014

A Soil Restoration Act — what a GREAT idea!
Posted by Lisa on 07 Mar 2014

A model for this type of agriculture already exists in the hills of southwest Wisconsin thanks to the forward-thinking efforts of one farm family.


In permaculture, the problem is often the solution. And as this great article makes clear, and Martin Holzherr points out above, "Millions of farmers must change their way of doing agriculture to make it happen."

This is not to say that it will be easy to completely revamp an intrenched agro-industrial complex, and shift deeply ingrained social consumption norms. But the alternative — staying the course of ecological ruin — is not very appealing.
Posted by Adam Gundlach on 07 Mar 2014

A great article. In the UK the Soil Association has worked to identify and quantify the impact that some farming systems, like organic farming (cropping as well as livestock), can have on soil carbon. We published a report on this several years ago, but more recently the Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL), based in Switzerland, did a major review of all research in this area. In data from 74 comparisons of organic and non-organic farming, they found more soil organic carbon in organic farming systems, which sequestered up to 450 kg more atmospheric carbon per hectare and year, through CO2 bound into soil organic matter. It has always seemed to me that farming should celebrate its ability (if done right) simultaneously to produce food and reduce the threat of climate change.
Posted by Peter Melchett on 09 Mar 2014

Great article and nice to see soils highlighted here, we need to see more on the role of soils in the sustainability of our species as there is so much more to soils than carbon storage.

Importantly, soil restoration is a laudable goal, but let's be real about the relative impact of soil carbon sequesteration in offsetting our gross consumption of fossil fuels. Even if we went full out in the restoration of the Great Plains Prairies, we will only soak up about 1/2 of one year of fossil fuel emissions for the US. And, that process of sequesteration will take years.

First and foremost we need keep our focus on weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels. We should improve carbon storage in soils for myriad reasons (soil health, productivity, nutrient delivery, water holding capacity, ...), atmospheric carbon loading being just one benefit. At our current carbon emission rates we need to be more concerned about how much carbon we might lose from soils. Yes, soils are a carbon storehouse, and warming is going to increase net loss without a significant change in management. There are 1,7000 Pg of C in circumpolar soils (wetland and permafrost soils), should these drain or thaw with warming conditions, we will lose far, far more C than can be stored in agricultural soils via modified management.

So, let's keep touting the values and benefits of soil in carbon storage, but lets be realistic about its capacity and be really concerned about that reservoir being released.
Posted by Tom DeLuca on 13 Mar 2014

The CEOs of CoolPlanet Biofuels, guided by Google's Ethos and funding, along with GE, BP and Conoco, are now beyond pilot scale, building the reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75 gallons of bio–gasoline and 1/3 ton biochar. The price of production, from field to tank, is $1.50 per gallon. Their time line commercial production of 30 million gallons and 200,000 tons of char by 2016 and mass-production of 400 farm scale reactors over the next 10 years.

If CoolPlanet Biofuels processed the entire projected US biomass harvest in 2030 1.6 Billion Tons, the yields would be 120 Billion Gallons of tank ready fuel. The US uses 150 Billion gallons per year, and 0.3 Billion Tons of Biochar. It would require just 12,000 distributed refineries, each producing 10 Million gallons. Building 1000 plants per year is quite realistic.

If it's good enough for Google… It's good enough for me!

If I May be so bold,… As I speak for Biologic Carbon… I speak for the very center of life itself. We have been burning it for well over one million years, exploiting it out of the soil for 10,000 years, combusting fossil carbon for 150 years. Now, we can grow nano-structured fossil carbons into an unprecedented varieties of material and even human tissues.

The Stone Age did not end for a lack of stones, as well, the Combustion Age will not end for lack of fossil fuels. Nanotechnology and Terra Preta Technology has thrust The Diamond Age upon us, with it, the rectification of the Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles, Restoring Soil Ecology, in turn rectifying the Hydrologic and Climate Cycle, this train is leaving the station, either get on board or be left in the combusted soot and CO2 pollution of history!

Since we have filled the air, filling the seas too full, soil is the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it. Thank you for your efforts.
Posted by Erich J. Knight on 14 Mar 2014

Other commenters here have mentioned permaculture and I want to reinforce how important the principles of permaculture are to a stable future for us. They certainly address the matter of soil quality and many other aspects vital to repairing our planet and preserving goodness. Thank you for the great article here.
Posted by Mike Brunt on 17 Mar 2014

Thanks for sharing this very valuable info on carbon sequestration of the soil which is vital to climate change mitigation all over the world. Asian countries including the Philippines could benefit from this info thru research and policy direction on sustainable management of their natural resources.
Posted by Romie D. Cadiz on 17 Mar 2014


Very good, thorough writing about a vital subject.
Posted by Rick Laughlin on 21 Mar 2014

It was very interesting and helpful information for
better understanding of soils.

I have never thought about that how soils
functioned as significant carbon storages before. the
most interesting information i learned from this
article was that soil is the greatest storage of
carbon. I believed that atmosphere contains most of
carbon particles on the Earth, but i found out it

I really hope there should be good policies and
organizations founded to support and stabilizing soil
carbon things in close future.
Posted by Jiwoong Kim on 30 Mar 2014

The best solution is to grow CAM Plants. Crassulacean acid metabolism, also known as CAM photosynthesis, is a carbon fixation pathway that evolved in some plants as an adaptation to arid conditions. In a plant using full CAM, the stomata in the leaves remain shut during the day to reduce evapotranspiration, but open at night to collect carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is stored as the four-carbon acid malate, and then used during photosynthesis during the day. The pre-collected CO2 is concentrated around the enzyme RuBisCO, increasing photosynthetic efficiency.

Agave and Opuntia are Care free growth plants and regenerative besides CAM. They act as Carbon Sink. Biofuel/biogas and subsequent power generation can be done with these plants. These can be grown on a massive scale in wastelands especially in developing countries.

Dr. A. Jagadeesh, Nellore (AP), India
Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 08 Apr 2014

Abe Collins in Vermont has been promoting and practicing this for 10 years. He is seeking to establish managing carbon with soil as a means to earn carbon credits.
Posted by Carol on 15 Apr 2014

A key point that needs to be determined is figuring out weather soil sequestration of carbon will produce a big enough hiccup in the commonly advertised "perfectly balanced" carbon cycle and whether that hiccup will last for long enough to make a difference for the existence of humans on the planet Earth over a period of the next 30-100-200 years. The key statistic that needs to be determined is the Mean Residence Time (MRT) for carbon in the soil. Also, the realistic long term sequestration rate (metric tons per hectare per year) needs to be determined. And then make sure that your "organic agriculture" method doesn't inadvertently need nitrogen sources from, say, grazing cattle which in ordinary circumstances could require using more land area than is available on the planet to supply both the N input as well as the area needed to sequester enough C by growing crops to significantly offset the industrial CO2 output. So far, my little bit of reading on the subject has failed to turn up a consensus on what the MRT for C might be. The EPA report on composting suggests that for the top few inches of soil the MRT for C is 5 years or less. One of the references in the www.rodaleinstitute.org white paper suggests the figure is 35 years. Still another random reference suggests that MRT for C varies by hundreds of years. 35 years is just long enough to make a small difference for humans' existence on Earth. What I really want is for a system to be discovered where the MRT for C is 100 years or more. At that point we will as they say be cooking with fire. At this point we seem to be still eating our meat raw.
Posted by John Thielking on 03 May 2014

Chemtrail ecology — GeoengineeringWatch.org

Isn't there a bull in the China closet?

Posted by Crystal Sparkowich on 07 May 2014

Very nicely done article on a very important subject. Lack of water in many agricultural producing areas is worrying conventional farmers. Practices that sequester carbon in the soil will gain traction with farmers as they allow more food produced per unit of water. Being paid for sequestration wouldn't hurt either but the sequestration must be long term.

Interesting work in Australia TEDxDubbo: Guy Webb, Terra Carbonicum Maxima: Soil Carbon Sequestration in Broad-acre Farming.
Posted by Henry Swayze on 06 Sep 2014

I'm not a farmer and I'm not a soil scientist. My
introduction to sustainable agriculture came by way
of my interest in nutrition.

Naturally raised plants and animals are the
healthiest food money can buy. Jo Robinson, a self-
described investigative journalist, has written two
books about the nutritional superiority of naturally
raised plants and animals. I've learned a lot from
her website and I've read her two books.

Her first book is titled, "Pasture Perfect" focuses on
pasture raised meat, eggs and dairy. Her recent
book, "Eating on the Wild Side" focuses on fruits
and vegetables.

Sustainable agriculture is a win-win-win-win
situation. Good for animal welfare, good for human
nutrition, good for the environment on many levels,
and good for farmers.

Posted by Jim Seko on 09 Dec 2014


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judith d. schwartzABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judith D. Schwartz is a freelance writer based in southern Vermont who has written on ecology and economics for Scientific American, Conservation, Time, and Pacific Standard. Her most recent book is Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth.



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