Globally, soils contain around twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and three times the amount found in vegetation, so soil is both “a source and a sink of greenhouse gases”, the report published last Thursday says.

Describing the balance between the two functions as “very delicate”, it says: “If carbon is released from soil to the atmosphere or if methane and nitrous oxide emissions increase, climate change will be exacerbated.

“On the other hand, if more carbon is accumulated in soil and the emissions decrease, climate change will be retarded.”

Europe’s soils are a massive carbon reservoir, containing between 73 and 79 billion tonnes.

A loss of just 0.1% of carbon into the atmosphere from European soils is equivalent to the carbon emissions of 100 million extra cars on the roads – an increase of about half the existing car fleet.

The commission warns poor land management can have “serious consequences”.

It says current soil degradation trends need to be reversed with better soil management practices to boost carbon retention as a means of slowing climate change.

Environment commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “Properly managed soils can absorb enormous quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, buying us valuable time to reduce emissions and move towards sustainability. But Europe’s soils urgently need better protection, and the answer must be a coordinated solution.”

Carbon is lost from soils when grasslands, forest or native ecosystems are converted to croplands.

Ever greater areas are being converted for crops as the world population grows meaning soils that are currently carbon “sinks” will become emitting “sources”, the report says.

It concludes the best strategy to prevent global soil carbon loss is to stop these land conversions.

But it fears this may conflict with growing world food demands.

Almost 50% of the Carbon in European soils is sequestered in the peat bogs of Sweden, Finland, the UK and Ireland, the report reveals.

But peatlands covering a surface area of around 310,000km2 – equivalent to half of France – have already been lost to agriculture, forestry, urbanisation or erosion with around half the remaining areas also being drained, the report notes.

This could result in potential losses of more than 30 million tonnes of carbon per year – equal to an extra 40 million cars on the roads.

Agricultural practices such as ensuring soils are covered with permanent vegetation to protect against water and rain, less intrusive ploughing practices and less machinery are among methods of minimising carbon losses and protecting the soil highlighted in the report.

To read the report, Review of existing information on the interrelations between soil and climate change, go the the following link.

David Gibbs

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