What if the solution is under our feet?
Soils are an enormous natural reservoir of carbon; they contain nearly twice as much carbon as the atmosphere (Quèrè et al., 2015). Moreover, agricultural soils represent an important surface and land area, and most importantly, they naturally carry a large potential for carbon sequestration in the form of soil organic carbon (SOC), especially in degraded soils (Paustian et al., 2016) that once contained significant amounts of carbon. Through stabilisation mechanisms in soil organic matter (SOM), the SOC contained can remain stored in the soil for thousands of years. In this sense, enabling and enhancing SOC sequestration appears to be a real nature-based and no-regret solution to mitigate climate change. Both preserving and enhancing SOC has further benefits for the environment, people, and livelihoods. It contributes to improved soil quality, agricultural productivity, biodiversity, and water protection and thus increased resilience against climate change as shown by the IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land. Furthermore, it is by far the cheapest option for climate change mitigation.
How to get there?
Unfortunately, modern agriculture and the intense use of harmful chemicals are turning our soils into dirt. This is why implementing specific soil management practices that support healthy soils and preserve soil organic matter is so important. Cover crop planting, refrain from deep tilling, and perennial planting are just some examples of this ‘negative-emission technology’. Without carbon sequestration, it would be practically impossible to stay within +2° C for 2030 as targeted by the Paris Agreements (Wollenberg et al., 2016, GCB). Carbon sequestration is also crucial for several of the planned actions within the European Green Deal, especially the “Farm to Fork Strategy”. Other EU missions like the Soil and Health Food Mission Board proposed the “Caring for soil is caring for life” mission to ensure that 75 percent of soils are healthy by 2030. This is a big step to advance towards the implementation of the UNFCCC Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Soil carbon sequestration can help to take steps towards achieving at least five of the 15 SDGs such as zero hunger, healthy lives, clean water, climate action, and protecting life on Earth.
The CIRCASA project (Coordination of International Research Cooperation on Soil Carbon Sequestration in Agriculture) aims to develop international synergies concerning research and knowledge exchange in the field of carbon sequestration in agricultural soils at the European Union and global levels. This H2020 project was launched in 2017 with a duration of three years and has 22 partners from 17 countries all around the world who bring a uniquely dense network of scientific expertise. The project also benefits from the close participation and collaboration with the research secretariats of the “4 per 1000” initiative, Global Research Alliance (GRA), the Joint Programming Initiative on Sustainable Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change (FACCE-JPI), and the FAO Global Soil Partnership.
Needs for research and innovation alignment
Scaling up climate-smart soil management requires a range of barriers to be addressed, especially the availability of knowledge. It is crucial to empower farmers and other stakeholders through effective knowledge creation and exchange—evidenced by our interactions with stakeholders. They also required information on financing options, benefits, policy measures, and mechanisms and monitoring, as well as reporting and verification (MRV) methods. The accessibility and applicability of existing knowledge is a key area of concern, as shown by the CIRCASA project studies on stakeholder’s needs.
The CIRCASA project has developed a strategic research agenda (SRA) grounded on scientific evidence (CIRCASA, 2019) to take these insights forward. It identifies research and innovation needs and supports the demands expressed by stakeholders (CIRCASA, 2020b) in ten world regions.
The ultimate goal of the SRA is to inform widely relevant priority goals and measures that align with broader European and international research in the area of SOC and to allow partners to promote the generation of new relevant knowledge jointly.
The SRA underlines the increasing need to develop an international research consortium (IRC) on SOC in agriculture to coordinate international collaborative efforts, facilitate and align research and innovation activities both in the EU and in other world regions. An IRC would enable a structured approach and improved international coordination to create breakthroughs, avoid duplication of activities and develop innovation on a large scale. To achieve this, the CIRCASA project’s SRA is structured in four pillars resulting from the agreed priorities for the IRC:
Pillar 1 - Frontiers research: unlocking the potential of soil carbon
Research collaboration and cross disciplines have the potential to deliver a renewed understanding of soil functions, dynamics, and biodiversity, which together govern soil carbon, soil health, and ecosystem services.
Pillar 2 - Soil carbon monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) system
Develop and scale up rapid cost-effective assessment methods for SOC monitoring, reporting and verification. This may involve remote and proximal sensing technologies, but equally important in this context are farm-level monitoring tools and mechanisms, and the potential of crowd-sourcing farm-level data, (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: The innovative vision developed by CIRCASA for a global framework for MRV of SOC change.
(Image modified from original https://www.circasa-project.eu/Document-library/Scientific-Articles/
How-to-measure-report-and-verify-soil-carbon-change paper, Smith, Soussana et al. 2019, Global
Why is an IRC needed?
Imagine if farmers and their direct advisers would know exactly how much carbon is stored in their soils and as the main actors of climate change, they could be rewarded for their efforts and actions to secure and enhance this carbon stock. Using an integrated MRV system, satellites, soil surveys and long-term field experiments, CO2 flux measurements, agricultural innovation could help farmers to keep their soils healthy and the data gathered could be used at different scales for different purposes.
International cooperation can stimulate the creation of advisory infrastructures; provide an impulse for different ways of working through the co-creation method or more transdisciplinary approaches. This will address identified barriers such as costs and benefits analysis, from farm level to societal scale.
The SRA is the support of CIRCASA’s IRC, necessary to implement a plan for the identified priorities through institutional and investment arrangements as shown on CIRCASA video.
What would an international research consortium on agricultural soil carbon sequestration look like?
To create an international and interdisciplinary community implies mobilising different sectors and stakeholders, including scientists, public agencies, and the private sector, farmers associations, industries, or even space agencies. The four pillars of the SRA are pursued in interaction with the different categories of IRC members and maneuvered by consortium governance; each topic may require specific consortia and institutional arrangements.
For the needs of this SRA to be met, funders have to be able to see why they should invest in research and innovation activities within the IRC. End-users need to see how specific activities will create desirable outcomes and researchers need to find funding and an attractive environment. International cooperation for research and innovation can generate a large range of outputs for national and local stakeholders, including access to knowledge and innovation, demonstration of new technologies and new assessment methods, training, and capacity building.
Figure 2: Vision of an international research consortium on agricultural soil carbon, showing the
four pillars of the strategic research agenda, the activities of the IRC, the potential partners and
their roles as funders, users and developers of IRC activities.
Are you interested in participating in this IRC?
The IRC will programme the development of these research priorities in close collaboration with the European Commission, with research organisations, public agencies, and the private sector. To this end, CIRCASA has started to take stock of the interest of organisations considering the categories of potential partners of the IRC. For each category, a task force led by CIRCASA partners has been organised to broker interest, develop use cases, customer stories, and seek expressions of interest for this strategic research agenda. Taskforce meetings are organised to discuss the level of commitment via in-kind or cash contributions required to become a member of the Consortium.
After three years, the H2020 CIRCASA project will come to an end, and a final virtual high-level conference took place on February 10th, 2021. This was an opportunity to gather more than 220 participants from the 5 continents, relevant stakeholders, global regions, and global initiatives expressed their interest in the pillars of the IRC
After the project, both the international research consortium and our open collaborative platform (OCP) will be CIRCASA’s legacy. This OCP tool structures and integrates existing knowledge on soil organic carbon sequestration in agriculture and it hosts the knowledge information system (KIS). The (pilot) KIS serves as a structured knowledge repository as well as an international exchange forum for researchers and all stakeholders to complement and collaboratively validate the available knowledge usefully. If you would like to contribute to the KIS with your data, please contact us.