Are the Paris soil carbon sequestration goals unrealistic?

The goal to offset rises in atmospheric greenhouse gasGreenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Emissions include CO2, fluoridated gases, methane which are emitted by human activity such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, and water vapour. concentrations by increasing soil carbon storageA process consisting of separation of carbon dioxide from industrial and energy-related sources, transport to a storage location, and long-term isolation from the atmosphere. (IPCC)An integrated process in which CO2 is separated from a mixture of gases (e.g. the fl ue gases from a power station ... by 4 per mille (0.4%) per year is unrealistic, say scientists from The Netherlands, The United Kingdom and the United States in an opinion piece in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The plans to store more carbon in the soil (“4P1000″) were launched at the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate ChangeThe United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an international environmental treaty that resulted from the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Their aim is to limit GHG emissions to levels that will not threaten the environment and livleyhoods. (UNFCC) in Paris. The soils of the world contain approximately three times the amount of carbon in organic matter as currently held in carbon dioxideCarbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted in several ways. Naturally through the carbon cycle and through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. These human activities have increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution and these high ... in the atmosphere.” Increasing this soil organic matter stock at a rate of 4 per mille per year could, in theory, fully compensate the rise in atmospheric CO2Carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted in several ways. Naturally through the carbon cycle and through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. These human activities have increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution and these high .... Such an increase could come about by e.g. changes in land management, or by using different crop rotations.

“In principle, the 4P1000 goal is great,” says Jan Willem van Groenigen, Professor at Wageningen University & Research and lead author of the paper. “Generally speaking, more carbon is good for almost any soil. If we could combine that with slowing climate changeClimate change is a lasting change in weather patterns over long periods of time. It can be a natural phenomena and and has occurred on Earth even before people inhabited it. Quite different is a current situation that is also referred to as climate change, anthropogenic climate change, or ..., that would be a double win. The problem is that the numbers don’t add up.”

Extra nitrogen needed

To store additional carbon in the soil, you need other nutrients, such as nitrogen. “You cannot build a house with only a pile of bricks but no mortar. Similarly, you cannot produce soil organic matter with only carbon,” explains Kees Jan van Groenigen, co-author of the paper and senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. “You need enormous amounts of nitrogen, and it is unclear where that nitrogen would come from. For example, to store the quantity of carbon mentioned in the 4p1000 goals, you would need extra nitrogen equivalent to 75% of current nitrogen fertilizer production, and for it to be in the right places. Practically speaking, that is just impossible.”

Does that mean that we should abandon the 4p1000 goals? “Absolutely not,” says Jan Willem van Groenigen: “Let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater. The 4p1000 goals are a great inspiration to do everything we can as farmers, soil scientists, agronomists and policy makers to help fight global warmingHuman activities are adding greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, to the atmosphere, which are enhancing the natural greenhouse effect. While the natural greenhouse effect is keeping average temperature on earth at about +15°C, this enhanced greenhouse ... and at the same time improve our soils.” Instead, the authors appeal to the scientific community to think about the role of nutrients in reaching the 4p1000 goals. “For instance, this could mean that additional soil carbon should be stored in areas where nutrients are also available,” van Groenigen explains. “In other soils the best approach might be to focus on minimizing emissionsEmissions of greenhouse gases, greenhouse gas precursors, and aerosols associated with human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, land-use changes, livestock, fertilisation, etc. (IPCC) of other greenhouse gasesGreenhouse gas emissions cause dangerous anthropogenic climate change. Emissions include CO2, fluoridated gases, methane which are emitted by human activity such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels, and water vapour. such as nitrous oxideOne of the six types of greenhouse gases to be curbed under the Kyoto Protocol. The main anthropogenic source of nitrous oxide is agriculture (soil and animal manure management), but important contributions also come from sewage treatment, combustion of fossil fuel, and chemical industrial ... and methaneMethane is one of the six greenhouse gases to be mitigated under the Kyoto Protocol and is the major component of natural gas and associated with all hydrocarbon fuels, animal husbandry and agriculture. Coal-bed methane is the gas found in coal seams. (IPCC).”

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Materials provided by Wageningen University & Research. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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