Will France lead on soil as a carbon sink?

Sensemaking / Will France lead on soil as a carbon sink?

Soil can sequester carbon, and so enrich the nutrients in our food. Will France take the lead in developing a promising solution for soil-based carbon sequestration?

By Alise Perepjolkina / 01 Dec 2015

Will France announce an international programme at COP21 in Paris this week to promote increases in soil carbon sequestration, having proposed the ambitious target of increasing the amount of carbon in French soils by 0.4% year-on-year at a conference on Climate Smart Agriculture back in March?

The French Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll hopes that protecting carbon-rich soils, better use of organic manures, and farming techniques that return more plant biomass to the soil, can contribute towards a 40% reduction in France’s COemissions by 2030 [1].

The plans are not only significant in mitigating climate risk, but in the potential benefits for agriculture and nutrition.

If France takes a lead, will other nations follow?  

Carbon sequestration is the long-term storage of carbon in oceans, soils, vegetation, and geologic formations. Although oceans contain most of the Earth’s carbon, soils account for 75% of the carbon sink on land. In the UK alone, soils store near 10 billion tonnes of carbon that is about 65 times the country’s annual carbon emissions [2].

Not only can soil carbon sequestration mitigate, at least in part, global climate change, but it can also increase the health and fertility of soils. Carbon serves as the building block of soil organic matter, helping ecosystems function by protecting against soil degradation and increasing their water-holding capacity. This enhances the provision of nutritious food [3]. 

How is carbon captured in soils? Plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. When the plant dies, plant material is decomposed, and much of the carbon in the plant material is released back to the atmosphere through respiration (the chemical process by which organic compounds release energy). However, as organic materials decay and leave behind organic residues some of carbon remains in the soil.

There is already a range of low-tech and proven carbon sequestration methods, such as composting, no-till farming, as well as employing more climate-friendly approaches to livestock production. These include a reduction in numbers and rotational grazing that implies moving cattle to fresh paddocks to allow vegetation in previously grazed pastures to regenerate [4].

Le Foll suggests that using bioenergy crops, such as short rotation willow coppice (SRCW), can also enhance the potential of soils to store more carbon. Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences researchers found that SRCW can act as a temporary carbon sink and therefore has a mitigating effect on climate change.

What role can governments play in promoting these techniques?

The Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance is convening governments, NGOs and other key stakeholders to introduce new solutions to food production that would prevent soil degradation by increasing carbon-rich soil organic matter [5]. It encourages soil management practices, such as direct seeding under no or reduced-tillage, improved protective soil cover through cover crops, crop residues, as well as crop diversification through rotations [6].

There are also early signs of leadership coming from business and industries, in proposals to cut their carbon emissions and promote organic farming.  General Mills - the sixth-largest food company in the world - announced an investment of $100 million to cut its greenhouse gas emissions throughout its entire supply chain by 28 percent by 2025. The company’s new climate plan includes sourcing products from an additional 250,000 acres of organic production by 2020. The company recognizes that organic farming’s focus on healthy soils can enhance the potential of soils to store more carbon.

Jerry Lynch, the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer, stated that organic agriculture promotes soil that helps farms better endure droughts, heavy rainfall and pests, while locking more carbon from the atmosphere into the ground. It can restore the world’s degraded soils and make the transition to a low carbon economy more politically achievable.

And what role can civil society play in promoting carbon-rich soil? One of the objectives of the UN International Year of Soils 2015 was to “create full awareness of civil society and decision makers about the fundamental roles of soils for human's life.”  

According to the Center for Food Safety, the only barrier to realizing the potential of soil for long-term carbon sequestration is a greater awareness of the opportunity and the political will to make it happen.

Image credits: Arnaud DG / Flickr 

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