Soil for climate change mitigation and adaptation
Net removals from the LULUCF (Greenhouse emissions from Land Use, Land Use Chanfe and Forestry) sector are on a worrying trend. Between 2013 and 2018, the yearly net carbon removals were reduced by 20%. Achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 relies also on carbon removals through the restoration and better management of soils to absorb the emissions that will remain at the end of an ambitious decarbonisation pathway. Targeted and continued sustainable soil management practices can significantly help in achieving climate neutrality by eliminating the anthropogenic emissions from organic soils and by increasing the carbon stocked in mineral soils.
Healthy soils will make the EU more resilient and reduce its vulnerability to climate change. Given the crucial role of soil in the water cycle, it is also an indispensable ally for climate adaptation. A high water retention capacity in soils reduces the effects of floods and decreases the negative impact of droughts.
The revision of the LULUCF Regulation that the Commission is proposing within the Fit for 55 legislative package aims to stop and reverse this trend and simplify the accounting rules.
In relation to climate change, these two main types of soils play an important role:
• Organic soils (including peatlands) have a high carbon content of more than 20% in dry weight and cover 8% of the EU. Peatlands are terrestrial wetlands in which waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing. Peatland drainage across all land categories in Europe alone emits around 5% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions from cultivated organic soils have still not decreased significantly due to the continuation of harmful cropping practices. Yet restoring drained organic soils alone could significantly reduce CO2 emissions from land, which comes with numerous co-benefits, for nature, biodiversity and water protection.
• Mineral soils feature a carbon content below 20%, although more generally it is below 5%. Every year mineral soils under cropland are losing around 7.4 million tonnes of carbon, caused i.a. by unsustainable farming practices. Yet, that carbon pool is the ‘bank account’ of farmers and foresters in terms of natural capital. It is essential not to deplete it, as the carbon content is the basis for soil’s biodiversity, health and fertility. Furthermore, carbon sequestration in mineral soils, while depending on soil type and climatic conditions, is a cost-effective emission mitigation method with significant potential to sequester between 11 to 38 MtCO2eq annually in Europe if a range of management practices which have already been identified are applied on a larger scale in arable land. Many of these practices are cost-effective. Foresters as well have significant opportunities for measures which simultaneously improve forest productivity, carbon sink function and healthy soil properties. The banking and financial sector is increasingly interested in investing in those farmers who apply sustainable practices and increase soil carbon, as well as creating market-based incentives for carbon storing. There is evidence that carbon farming can contribute significantly to the EU’s efforts to tackle climate change but also brings other co-benefits such as increased biodiversity and the preservation of ecosystems.
Actions For mineral soils:
• The Commission will consider measures, possibly in the context of the Nature Restoration Law, to enhance biodiversity in agricultural land that would contribute to conserving and increasing soil organic carbon (SOC),
• Join the international initiative ‘4 per 1000’ to increase the soil carbon in agricultural land.
• Develop a long-term vision for sustainable carbon cycles (including capture, storage, and use of CO2) in a climate-neutral EU economy. As part of this, the Commission will deliver a communication on restoring sustainable carbon cycles, in 2021 and present the EU carbon farming initiative and a legislative proposal on carbon removal certification in 2022 to promote a new green business model rewarding land managers, such as farmers and foresters, for climate–friendly practices.