Soils and Climate: From Hidden Depths to Center Stage?

Headshot of Deborah Bossio.
Deborah Bossio Lead Scientist, Food and Water Systems


"Soils offer a major chunk of the world’s actual and potential carbon storage. Globally the top 30 cm of soil holds about double the carbon of the atmosphere, and more than all the forests and sunlit ocean layer combined. Increasing carbon in soils is potentially an effective means of removing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and in oceans,while providing positive co-benefits, particularly for food security. How do we make soil carbon ‘investible’ and incentivize ways to scale up actions and outcomes for soil health and climate change mitigation in managed soils."

- Meeting report from the Chatham House forum “Soils & Climate: Matching Promise with Action

I have spent much of my professional life talking about and studying soil which clearly indicates a deep affection for what many people dismiss as "dirt." Over the last few years there has been a growing appreciation for soil among conservation, food security and sustainability professionals– along with new programs and a growing political momentum to look at soil as a climate and conservation solution.

Investors in both the public and private sectors, however, face challenges in allocating resources to actions that address soil carbon, particularly in agriculture. A recent event at Chatham House in London looked at key barriers, potential solutions and the contributions that science and research communities can make to these solutions.

Why is this a hot topic? Put simply, increasing carbon in soils is an effective means of removing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as well as providing benefits such as increased and more resilient food production.

There is growing recognition that soil carbon can help tackle climate change, and quality soil helps various goals for food security, sustainable development, conservation, economic growth and equity. But despite this, investment and action to conserve and increase soil carbon are not accelerating as fast as might be hoped.

Cross section of soil
Cross Section of Soil Soils host a quarter of our planet’s biodiversity. © Courtesy of USDA NRCS

For example, only a handful of projects that address soil organic carbon in croplands, pasture, peatlands, wetlands or forests are currently registered under compliance or voluntary carbon markets, providing only small potential impacts on mitigation, globally less than 20 or so thousand tonnes of carbon per year (full results of the study forthcoming from Silvestrum).

This meeting at Chatham House was an important gathering for soil, demonstrating that people with the ability to act across a spectrum of different sectors share similar constraints, that once identified can be overcome, including finding ways to incentivize farmers to optimize their soil and ideally be rewarded for doing so.

As we integrate thinking around soil into climate, sustainability and food security strategies, momentum is building to bring soil out of the realm of dirty and mysterious and onto the stage as part of land based solutions to climate change.

The full report can be read at Chatham House.

Headshot of Deborah Bossio.

Deborah Bossio is the Lead Scientist for Food and Water Systems. In this role, she leads TNC's work on Foodscape science—a new framework for understanding and implementing food system transitions. The work of her team and partners supports an ambitious agenda around food system change, employing the power of nature-based solutions in food production systems worldwide.

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