Evidence-based science on the mitigation and socio-economic impacts of soil carbon sequestration is needed to support commitments to sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement target. 

Given news of another year of record-high greenhouse gas emissions, negotiators at COP23 were bound to focus on increasing the pace and ambition of climate change mitigation.

We must get on track as fast as possible to meet the Agreement’s goal of limiting the global average temperature rise to well below 2 ˚C degrees and as close as possible to 1.5 ˚C. It is most important now to ensure governments, business and multilateral organizations, including the UN, coordinate their response closely to work further, faster and together for more ambitious climate action," Patricia Espinosa, Head of United Nations Climate Change, said in October.

Climate action is needed in all sectors. In agriculture, currently available technical options to reduce emissions are insufficient to mitigate the 1 gigaton of carbon dioxide equivalents per year necessary in the agriculture sector alone to meet the 2 ˚C target, according to the article “Reducing emissions from agriculture to meet the 2 °C target.” Authors point to the need for transformational technologies and widespread scaling up. 

Soil carbon sequestration, they say, “can have equal or larger impacts on mitigation.”

COP23 agriculture decision points to potential of soil carbon sequestration

Sequestering organic carbon in soils increases soil fertility while also removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Soil carbon sequestration is thus an essential component of both agricultural production and climate change mitigation strategies. But how much soil carbon sequestration is needed to increse yields? To contribute significantly to climate change?  

The global 4P1000 initiative, established at COP21, aims to increase soil carbon stocks by 0.4% annually through a transition towards sustainable agricultural production and development and promoting farming techniques which combat soil erosion and improve soil health. This amount would halth the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, according to 4P1000. In 2017, scientists published an article in the journal Geoderma that describes the scientific basis, methodology, and objectives of soil carbon sequestration as a mitigation pathway.

At COP22, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the Global Peatlands Initiative to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save thousands of lives by protecting peatlands, the world’s largest terrestrial organic soil carbon stock.

And at COP23 in November, the UNFCCC released the first official decision – the Koronivia decision – calling for joint work on agriculture and funding to support it. The decision specifically named improved soil carbon, soil health and soil fertility.

Research focuses on food security and climate benefits of soil carbon

CGIAR scientists are conducting soil carbon research in dozens of tropical, developing countries. In 2017, they met in June and November to ensure CGIAR research on soil carbon is meeting the information and decision-making needs of countries.

With colleagues in government and other research institutions, scientists are providing data and analyses needed to guide national commitments and implementation of sustainable development goals (SDGs) related to soil, especially regarding climate action (13), zero hunger (2) and life on land (15).

Scientists at the November meeting presented research quantifying and characterizing soil organic carbon stocks in tropical, developing countries; assessing the degree to which management options influence sequestration; and analyzing how soil carbon, soil health and soil fertility are connected in different ecosystems and production systems. The following presentations are available online:


World Soil Day 

On World Soil Day, we all – scientists, policy-makers, farmers, citizens – publicly recognize the importance of soils; a resource absolutely critical to our future food security and to climate change mitigation. The 2017 theme "Caring for the planet starts from the ground" speaks to the need for increased climate action to slow climate change mitigation. Rolf Sommer, soil scientist, published a recent blog encouraging further action. 

All soils have the potential to sequester carbon if we can establish the right practices to do so within a given context," Sommer said.

Recent literature on soil carbon sequestration

Online resources


The meeting was hosted by the CGIAR Research Programs (CRPs) on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA).

Julianna White is program manager for low emissions development research at CCAFS.