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Climate change: is soil the missing link?

07/20/2018, JRC

Speakers at last week's high-level stakeholder consultation conference on the EU’s long-term strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions lamented the fact that the importance of soil in climate change, global warming and prosperity is severely underestimated in EU policy.
Soil is increasingly being recognised as a source and sink of greenhouse gases. ©Fotolia, Author: ComZeal zoom

Andrea Kohl, Programme Director at the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) and speaker at the conference, is quoted as saying “Soil is a completely underestimated issue when we talk about climate change”*.

Kohl reminded the audience that “Soil is essential in the debate on how we tackle climate change,” underlining that “the release of just a small fraction of the soil carbon stock can offset savings achieved elsewhere.”

The EU’s vision for a modern, clean and competitive economy - Stakeholder event

Up to 1 000 stakeholders from business, research and civil society attended the conference, which was organised by the European Commission to gather input to a strategy proposal for the EU’s long-term strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and building a prosperous, modern, clean and competitive economy.

Hosted by Miguel Arias Cañete, Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, other speakers included Commission Vice- Jyrki Katainen, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska as well as ministers and high-level representatives from countries, organisations and stakeholders in and outside Europe.

The Commission aims to put forward its proposal for a long-term strategy for long-term EU GHG emissions reduction ahead of the next UN climate conference (COP24), which takes place in Katowice, Poland in December 2018.

All interested citizens and stakeholders are encouraged to contribute to a public consultation on this, by 9 October 2018.

Soil in EU policies

While the proposal for a Soil Framework Directive was blocked by a minority of EU Member States, and was finally withdrawn in April 2014, soil is increasingly important in a range of EU policy areas.

Through the EU Soil Thematic Strategy and the 7th Environment Action Programme (2014-20), the Commission remains committed to soil protection. In reality, soil is reflected in over thirty policy documents, although many of them lack formal targets or obligations. Until very recently, soils have received comparatively little attention in international climate policy.

However, there has been an increased realisation in recent years of the role of soil in climate regulation through its capacity as a source and a sink of GHGs. This is recognised in the recently published Regulation on Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry which covers the use of soils in accounting of emissions and sinks.

JRC soil activities in relation to climate change

The JRC has a long history of promoting the importance of soil through policy documents and awareness-raising initiatives and publications. It has always stressed that soil is a limited and non-renewable (in human life spans) resource that performs a variety of vital social, economic and environmental functions – it provides food and other biomass, and stores, filters and transforms water, carbon, nitrogen and other key nutrients.

  • The JRC has setup a comprehensive biogeochemistry modelling framework to calculate the fluxes associated with representative carbon sequestering agricultural practices. The model confirms that agricultural land, if managed appropriately, can be used to sequester carbon dioxide (CO2) and mitigate GHG emissions. Such management could be achieved under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The model shows that the conversion of arable land to grassland results in the greatest increase in soil organic carbon stocks and that, while other practices also resulted in increased carbon stocks, these were at lower levels. The model quantitatively assess the regional variation in the effectiveness of different measures, reflecting the interaction between carbon management, local climatic conditions and soil characteristics.
  • However, the carbon cycle is only part of the story when considering the mitigation capacity of agroecosystems. Nitrogen (N) in the soil, primarily from fertilisers, manure or nitrogen-fixing crops, can be broken down and released as nitrous oxide (N2O) – a major GHG. The JRC model framework showed that that some carbon sequestering practices tend not to increase N2O emissions as long as carbon accumulation continues. However, as soil organic carbon increases, so do emissions of N2O. This means that the climate change benefits provided by soil carbon accumulation is moderately offset by increasing N2O emissions in the long term. Other carbon sequestration practices, such as the introduction of nitrogen-fixing cover crops, allowed higher carbon accumulation over the initial 20 years, but this gain was also progressively offset by higher N2O emissions over time.
  • Other research looked in to quantifying annual estimates of GHG (CO2) emissions and removals from changes in soil organic carbon stocks as a result of land use and land use change in the Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU) sector. The study showed that soil organic carbon stocks gradually increased from 2005 to 2015, with distinct regional differences in land-use trends and hence GHG emission and removals. The study also found that the continuous emissions from managed organic soils greatly offset the sequestration of the mineral soil, although the area of these soils only accounts for 4.5 % of the managed grassland areas and 2.8% of arable land, with very distinct regional restrictions.
  • The JRC coordinates the soil component of the LUCAS Survey, which is carried out every three years by Eurostat to assess land use and land cover changes across the EU. Analyses of soil organic carbon content for around 25 000 locations are used to establish a baseline and assess trends in soil organic carbon levels. Data from the LUCAS survey are being used to populate a range of indicators, including the EU's Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Core Indicator Topsoil Organic Carbon.
  • The JRC participates in several H2020 projects that look at the role of soil, land management and climate change mitigation. These include CIRCASA, LANDMARK, iSQAPER and VERIFY. The JRC is also contributing to the scientific evaluation of the French “4 per 1000" initiative, which aims to increase soil organic matter content and carbon sequestration through the implementation of agricultural practices.
  • Finally, as part of its contribution to the Global Soil Partnership initiative and the associated Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), the JRC contributed to the publication of the Global Soil Organic Carbon Map (GSOCmap).

The JRC also provides scientific support to current Commission initiatives to simplify and modernise the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the regulation of Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). It is an active member of the Global Soil Partnership for Food Security and Global Change, chairing the Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, and regularly publishes scientific articles and publications, including its Soil Atlas series. It monitors and assesses the state of soil biodiversity, carries out LUCAS soil surveys, and manages and maintains the European Soil Bureau Network and the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC).

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