18 August 2023

The solution for the 2030 climate goals lies in agricultural soils


Jacqueline McGlade, former EEA executive director and co-founder of Downforce say some easy management strategies in agricultural soils can increase the amount of carbon stock by more than 30 bn metric tons

by Matteo Cavallito


Proper management of agricultural soils would achieve nearly enough emission cuts to close the gap identified by the United Nations regarding the 2030 climate targets. This is supported by research carried out by Downforce Technologies, a company based in Oxford, U.K., that is specialized in collecting and marketing soil data.

The study, which has not yet been made public, was quoted by Jacqueline McGlade, co-founder of Downforce and former executive director of the European Environment Agency (EEA), whose declarations were reported by the Guardian.

The emission gap is almost entirely closed

According to McGlade, in particular, by applying a series of simple strategies, the amount of carbon sequestered in the top 30 centimeters of agricultural soils could increase by 1 percent. The rise may seem small, but the figure, in absolute value, is impressive: 31 billion tons.

This amount virtually equals the difference between the total planned global emissions cut between now and 2030 and the amount believed to be needed to limit global warming to 1.5°C in comparison with the pre-industrial era. This “gap” is estimated by the United Nations at 32 billion tons of carbon.

From rotation to cover crops

The strategies quoted by the Guardian to increase carbon sequestration in soils include crop rotation and the planting of cover crops, as well as the use of so-called direct drilling, which allows crops to be planted without plowing. Farmers also could improve their soils by growing more native grasses.

Also important is the role of hedgerows, which promote the proliferation of mycorrhizal fungi and microbes that contribute to element sequestration.

“Farmers have spent decades removing hedgerows to make intensive farming easier,” writes the British newspaper. “But restoring them, and maintaining existing hedgerows, would improve biodiversity, reduce the erosion of topsoil, and help to stop harmful agricultural runoff, which is a key polluter of rivers.”

Healthier and more profitable soils

Downforce’s estimate once again highlights the weight of so-called “climate smart” practices, or agricultural techniques that harness the ability of soils to help reduce emissions. “Outside the farming sector, people do not understand how important soils are to the climate,” McGlade told the British newspaper.

Changing farming practices, she added, “could make soils carbon negative (capable of generating permanent removal of CO2 from the ecosystem, ed.), making them absorb carbon, and reducing the cost of farming.”

In the short term, the study’s lead author recalls, farmers may face an initial cost increase from changing methods. “But after a transition period of two to three years their yields would improve and their soils would be much healthier,” the Guardian recalls. Finally, the increased sequestration capacity from the soils would allow farmers to earn emission credits that could be sold on the market. Thus generating additional income for the farmers.