Potential for carbon sequestration in European soils: Preliminary estimates for five scenarios using results from long-term experiments

Pete Smith, D S Powlson, M J Glendining, Joanne Ursula Smith

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One of the main options for carbon mitigation identified by the IPCC is the sequestration of carbon in soils. In this paper we use statistical relationships derived from European long-term experiments to explore the potential for carbon sequestration in soils in the European Union. We examine five scenarios, namely (a) the amendment of arable soils with animal manure, (b) the amendment of arable soils with sewage sludge, (c) the incorporation of cereal straw into the soils in which it was grown, (d) the afforestation of surplus arable land through natural woodland regeneration, and (e) extensification of agriculture through ley-arable farming. Our calculations suggest only limited potential to increase soil carbon stocks over the next century by addition of animal manure, sewage sludge or straw (< 15 Tg C y(-1)), but greater potential through extensification of agriculture (approximate to 40 Tg C y(-1)) or through the afforestation of surplus arable land (approximate to 50 Tg C y(-1)). We estimate that extensification could increase the total soil carbon stock of the European Union by 17%. Afforestation of 30% of present arable land would increase soil carbon stocks by about 8% over a century and would substitute up to 30 Tg C y(-1) of fossil fuel carbon if the wood were used as biofuel. However, even the afforestation scenario, with the greatest potential for carbon mitigation, can sequester only 0.8% of annual global anthropogenic CO2-carbon. Our figures suggest that, although efforts in temperate agriculture can contribute to global carbon mitigation, the potential is small compared to that available through reducing anthropogenic CO2 emissions by halting tropical and sub-tropical deforestation or by reducing fossil fuel burning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-79
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 1997


  • carbon sequestration
  • European Union
  • GCTE
  • long-term experiment
  • soil organic carbon
  • soil organic matter network (SOMNET)
  • SIZE

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