Climate change mitigation through soil carbon management

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THE VALUE of ecosystem services associated with conservation agriculture must be more clearly understood and quantified. A policy framework is needed to address the economic, social and technical issues related to environmental quality and sustainability. To some, excess carbon in the atmosphere is a problem because of its contribution to global warming; to some limited carbon in the soils is a problem leading to environmental degradation. Soil carbon sequestration in conservation agriculture offers the opportunity to bring these two concerns together and provide a mutually beneficial solution. New integrated policies are required to encourage acceptance and application of new technology related to soil carbon benefits.

No-tillage based cropping systems like conservation agriculture are not currently eligible for carbon credits under mechanisms like the Kyoto Protocol for a number of reasons. Soil carbon is considered a nonpoint source and spatially variable in the field, requiring a large number of samples for a field average. Being very dynamic, soil carbon can change drastically as a result of inversion tillage and low-diversity cropping systems. While technology is improving, the total carbon changes may be relatively small for many agricultural management practices and thus long periods may be required to quantify small differences in carbon accumulation.

The European Commissions effort, “Can Soil Make a Difference?” on decreasing soil degradation and the change in attitude toward soil carbon is the type of forum that needs to be implemented globally. The forum, attended by the European Ministers of Environments, encouraged a strong dialogue between soil scientists and policy makers. These noble actions require some form of economic support to gain rapid acceptance and application to the land.


Considering the above, the delegates of the Conservation Agriculture Carbon Offset Consultation arrived at the following proposed action plan:


To address social, environmental and economic incentives for promotion of conservation agriculture by identifying specific enabling policies, strategies and mechanisms that governments and international institutions can implement to leverage carbon investments, support suitable soil management concepts for agricultural land and provide encouragement to broaden the adoption of conservation agriculture technologies.

Strategic Issues

No-till farming, an integral component of conservation agriculture, is presently practiced on about 100 million hectares (Mha), or about 6% to 7% of the worlds cropland area. Since the 1960s, however, researchers have proven conservation agricultures positive economic and environmental benefits in temperate regions; in the 1970s, similar benefits were proven in the tropics, including West Africa. The slow adoption of this important technology is attributed to a range of biophysical, social, economic and policy factors including land tenure. Furthermore, some soils and environments are not conducive to adoption of no-till farming without additional steps to improve edaphological conditions. No single management system can be universally applied to diverse soils and ecoregional environments. Therefore, it is important to prepare a soil/ecosystem guide to adoption of no-till farming and other recommended management practices for sustainable management of soil and water resources in a changing environment.

Conditions for Trading

In the European Union, carbon markets are developing for industrial sources with minimal emphasis on agricultural sources. In the U.S. and Canada, voluntary public markets and a few private markets have evolved and appear to be working. These markets will struggle until a new national policy is adopted and coordinated with an international policy (yet to be developed). The combined efforts of the UNFCCC and the ICCP to identify and define benefits of carbon management and soil carbon sequestration supported by solid scientific evidence are critical in the development of the stewardship incentives. At this point, the financial and economic institutions will be required to “polish” a comprehensive global system with stewardship incentives for promoting carbon and environmental benefits. Processes for carbon trading must be simple, transparent, consistent, comparable, complete, verifiable and efficient. Agreement about carbon gains under clearly defined management and climatic conditions must be sought and means of verification established. Protocols defining field practices as well as verification and monitoring for carbon markets need to be developed in a harmonized and standardized way with local adaptation to specific agro ecological conditions.


Methods and procedures need to be developed and introduced to aggregate areas and activities, particularly in regions dominated by smallholder farming. This could include harnessing of satellite-based GIS technologies for verification. The program must cover several scientific protocols and follow the approved government process providing security to both buyers and sellers.

Policy Issues

Some elements of existing carbon markets are not conducive to facilitating the integration of good agricultural practices into these markets. One of these elements is “additionality,” which might give to perverse incentives. For this reason the concept, or at least its application, should be reconsidered for carbon credits to conservation agriculture. This is particularly the case were conservation agriculture is already practiced for many years without any recognition yet of the carbon stored in the soil.

A key challenge that exists is how to encourage a change in practice that leads to a wider environmental benefit. Policy instruments such as subsidies, technology standards, educational programs and other such tools may be used to bring about change. Governments must enact appropriate policies and measures that effectively decrease CO2 emissions, enhance carbon sequestration and reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere.

Policymakers should understand that including cropping agriculture and biomass production for bioenergy into carbon trading and investment would result in much greater impact than only related to climate change. Greater adoption of conservation agriculture as means for sustainable intensification of agricultural production has significant potential to stimulate rural development and contribute to poverty alleviation. The recent increase in the use of biomass for bioenergy places additional emphasis on carbon management for maintaining soil quality. Removal of crop biomass for bioenergy must not destroy the protective layer that prevents soil erosion and provides carbon return to the soil to maintain nutrient cycling and biological activity.

Priority Actions

1. Prepare a science-based synthesis documentation on how conservation agriculture and soil carbon management provide ecosystem services. This should include identifying optimized measurement methodologies and determining the potential of soil carbon sequestration for defined crop management systems and ecoregions of the world.

2. Develop standardized protocols for applying science-based information to conservation agriculture projects that provide ecological goods and services using internationally accepted guidance, such as ISO 14064 for greenhouse gas emission reductions.

3. Enable conservation agriculture to be recognized within any renegotiated Clean Development Mechanism formed by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change after the current expiration in 2012.

4. Promote closer interaction between government agencies, farmers, private sector, technology generators and disseminators, and non-government organizations in policy reform, as well as for the design and application of stewardship incentives for broad acceptance of conservation agriculture.

By Kamran Rasool, Dr. Imran Khan and Ahmad Waqas


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