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Soil Carbon & Climate Change: Impact & Opportunities



  May 06, 2024

Soil Carbon & Climate Change: Impact & Opportunities



⇒ The impact of human activities on the Earth's climate is becoming increasingly evident, with carbon dioxide (CO2) playing a significant role in climate change due to its substantial increase since the preindustrial era. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that atmospheric CO2 levels have risen dramatically from about 280 parts per million (ppm) before 1850 to 381.2 ppm in 2006, continuing to rise at an annual rate of approximately 0.88 ppm.

⇒ The substantial increase in CO2 is primarily attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, accounting for about two-thirds of this rise. The remainder is largely from the loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) due to extensive land use changes, notably deforestation and the expansion of agricultural practices. Specific examples such as the deforestation activities in Rio Branco, Brazil, illustrate this issue vividly. In these areas, large swathes of rainforest are cleared and often burned, leading not only to carbon emissions from the decomposition of plant matter but also from the soil itself. The removal of the forest canopy alters the local climate around the soil, increasing temperatures and reducing the rate of carbon input back into the soil from new vegetation. This results in a rapid depletion of soil carbon stocks, further exacerbating atmospheric CO2 levels.

⇒ Moreover, the role of soil in the global carbon cycle underscores its potential as a significant carbon sink. Despite the ocean's vast size and its large carbon pool, the rate of carbon exchange between the atmosphere and the soil is notably higher than that between the atmosphere and the ocean. Photosynthesis by terrestrial plants captures more carbon than is released through soil respiration, creating a net gain in soil carbon storage estimated at about 3 gigatons per year. By comparison, the oceanic carbon flux is less, with oceans storing about 2 gigatons of carbon annually despite covering a much larger surface area of the Earth. This disparity has led to increased interest in terrestrial carbon sequestration as a viable and effective approach to mitigating climate change.

⇒ The enthusiasm for enhancing soil carbon stocks is not just due to the potential for large-scale carbon sequestration. The benefits of increased soil organic carbon are manifold, enhancing not only the global climate but also local environmental conditions. Improved soil carbon levels contribute to better water retention and filtration, reducing runoff and improving water quality. Additionally, richer soil carbon improves agricultural productivity, which can enhance food security in vulnerable regions. This makes soil carbon management a preferred strategy, supported by a better understanding of its mechanisms and the direct influence that land management practices can have on enhancing these benefits. Unlike the uncertain and potentially disruptive methods proposed for increasing oceanic carbon storage, soil carbon sequestration offers a more controlled and widely beneficial solution to the dual challenges of climate change and sustainable development.



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