As the science and knowledge service of the European Commission, the Joint Research Centre's mission is to support EU policies with independent evidence throughout the whole policy cycle.
A recently published article by IES scientists finds that making alternative uses of arable land could potentially help capture significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
The article, published in Global Change Biology, investigates the potential carbon sequestration of six of the most representative agricultural management practices on arable soils, and finds that the conversion of arable land to grassland results in the highest potential soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration rates, whereas the conversion of grassland to arable land has the effect of strongly increasing the amount of carbon losses to the atmosphere.
As the largest terrestrial pool of carbon, SOC plays a key role in the carbon cycle, and can play a role in mitigating GHG emissions. While the agricultural sector is responsible for about 9% of total direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the EU, it could significantly help achieve the EU’s goals of cutting GHG emissions by carrying out best management practices (such as residue management, reduced tillage, optimal rotation schemes), which can lead to large amounts of carbon being captured in soils. As increasing SOC can also help improve the condition of agricultural land, this is ultimately a win-win situation.
The authors used a recently developed high resolution pan-European simulation platform to assess the potential impact of six management practices on SOC stock levels of arable soil under two IPCC climate change scenarios to 2100: arable to grassland conversion (and vice versa), straw incorporation, reduced tillage, straw incorporation with reduced tillage, ley cropping and cover crops. According to the results of three policy simulations carried out by the authors, the allocation of just 12% of arable land to different combinations of agricultural management practices would produce significant mitigation effects, which would be sufficient to reach the EU’s target of cutting its emissions to 20% below of the 1990 levels by 2020.
The platform attempts to create one of the most harmonised and spatially detailed simulations of carbon in arable soils. It allows for the simulation of additional management measures, and appears very promising in terms of providing data at high spatial resolution for long-term valuations.