- global carbon debt due to agriculture of 133 Pg C [133 Gt (billion metric tons of C) or 488 Gt CO2e] for the top 2 m of soil, with the rate of loss increasing dramatically in the past 200 years
- assuming soil organic carbon (SOM) reaches a new steady state in 20 y (35, 44), this calculation suggests that 8 Pg C to 28 Pg C [up to 28 Gt (billion metric tons of C) or 103 Gt CO2e] or can be recaptured
- there are identifiable regions which can be targeted for SOC (soil organic carbon) restoration efforts
- [Note: Hansen et al 2017 calls for 150 Pg C or ~550 Gt CO2e extraction from atmosphere globally with massive greenhouse emissions reductions of 6%/year starting in 2021 to return to 350 PPM CO2 in atmosphere and to secure a safe climate (Holocene) for human civilization by 2100]
- [Sanderman high end scenario would be 19% of CO2e extraction needed to secure safe climate by 2100 per Hansen above]
Jonathan Sanderman, Tomislav Hengl and Gregory J. Fiske. Soil carbon debt of 12,000 years of human land use. PNAS September 5, 2017 vol. 114 no. 36 9575-9580
Abstract: Human appropriation of land for agriculture has greatly altered the terrestrial carbon balance, creating a large but uncertain carbon debt in soils. Estimating the size and spatial distribution of soil organic carbon (SOC) loss due to land use and land cover change has been difficult but is a critical step in understanding whether SOC sequestration can be an effective climate mitigation strategy. In this study, a machine learning-based model was fitted using a global compilation of SOC data and the History Database of the Global Environment (HYDE) land use data in combination with climatic, landform and lithology covariates. Model results compared favorably with a global compilation of paired plot studies. Projection of this model onto a world without agriculture indicated a global carbon debt due to agriculture of 133 Pg C for the top 2 m of soil, with the rate of loss increasing dramatically in the past 200 years. The HYDE classes “grazing” and “cropland” contributed nearly equally to the loss of SOC. There were higher percent SOC losses on cropland but since more than twice as much land is grazed, slightly higher total losses were found from grazing land. Important spatial patterns of SOC loss were found: Hotspots of SOC loss coincided
with some major cropping regions as well as semiarid grazing regions, while other major agricultural zones showed small losses and even net gains in SOC. This analysis has demonstrated that there are identifiable regions which can be targeted for SOC restoration efforts.
Implications: This analysis indicates that the majority of the used portions of planet Earth have lost SOC, resulting in a cumulative loss of ∼133 Pg C due to agricultural land use. These SOC losses are on par with estimates of carbon lost from living vegetation primarily due to deforestation (40) and are nearly 100 Pg C higher than earlier estimates of land use and land use change-driven losses of SOC (41). Importantly, as Fig. 1 demonstrates, there are hotspots of SOC loss, associated with extensive cropping regions but also with highly degraded grazing land (SI Appendix, Fig. S9), suggesting that there are identifiable regions which should be targets for SOC restoration efforts.
The potential to recover lost SOC may be more limited than is often assumed. The amount of SOC that has been lost historically can be thought of as the carbon sink potential of the soil (42). Our analysis has found that this sink potential is ∼133 Pg C (SI Appendix, Table S3). A widely repeated figure is that, with adoption of best management practices, two thirds of lost SOC can be recovered (42). If the two-thirds figure is accurate, then SOC sequestration has the potential to offset 88 Pg C (322 Pg CO2) of emissions. However, bottom-up estimates of the maximum biophysical potential for carbon sequestration on cropping and grazing land range from 0.4 Pg C⋅y−1 to 1.4 Pg C⋅y−1 (20, 43). Assuming SOC reaches a new steady state in 20 y (35, 44), this calculation suggests that 8 Pg C to 28 Pg C can be recaptured. Even the range of 8 Pg C to 28 Pg C is likely overly ambitious given the various social, economic, and technical constraints on universal adoption of best management practices (45), suggesting that the amount of the carbon sink that can be filled is on the order of, at best, 10 to 30% globally and may well be <10%.
Conclusions: Our data-driven statistical analysis confirms that agricultural land use is a significant driver of SOC levels. ….This analysis also demonstrated that not all land use is associated with large losses in SOC, particularly in regions with naturally infertile soils. These results provide a basis for national and international policies to target SOC restoration efforts but also suggest that more effort needs to be put into collecting, integrating, and using legacy soil profile data, especially historic data 50+ y old, so that even more reliable models of SOC dynamics can be produced.