Global variation in soil carbon sequestration potential through improved cropland management

Lessmann, Malte; Ros, Gerard H.; Young, Madaline D.; Vries, Wim de


Widespread adoption of improved cropland management measures is advocated to increase soil organic carbon (SOC) levels, thereby improving soil fertility and mitigating climate change. However, spatially explicit insight on management impacts is limited, which is crucial for region-specific and climate-smart practices. To overcome these limitations, we combined global meta-analytical results on improved management practices on SOC sequestration with spatially explicit data on current management practices and potential areas for the adoption of these measures. We included (a) fertilization practices, i.e., use of organic fertilizer compared to inorganic fertilizer or no fertilizer, (b) soil tillage practices, i.e., no-tillage relative to high or intermediate intensity tillage, and (c) crop management practices, i.e., use of cover crops and enhanced crop residue incorporation. We show that the estimated global C sequestration potential varies between 0.44 and 0.68 Gt C yr−1, assuming maximum complementarity among all measures taken. A more realistic estimate, not assuming maximum complementarity, is from 0.28 to 0.43 Gt C yr−1, being on the lower end of the current range of 0.1–2 Gt C yr−1 found in the literature. One reason for the lower estimate is the limited availability of manure that has not yet been recycled. Another reason is the limited area for the adoption of improved measures, considering their current application and application limitations. We found large regional differences in carbon sequestration potential due to differences in yield gaps, SOC levels, and current practices applied. The highest potential is found in regions with low crop production, low initial SOC levels, and in regions where livestock manure and crop residues are only partially recycled. Supporting previous findings, we highlight that to encourage both soil fertility and SOC sequestration, it is best to focus on agricultural soils with large yield gaps and/or where SOC values are below levels that may limit crop production.