In our fight against climate change, healthy ecosystems are powerful allies. Forests, wetlands and grasslands can be fantastic “carbon sinks,” meaning they store huge amounts of carbon in their soils and vegetation. But too many ecosystems are degraded, and therefore incapable of storing carbon properly. To protect and restore our crucial sinks to their full potential, we need to act now.
The unprecedented climate and biodiversity crises we are facing today are intrinsically linked. In recent decades, agriculture has intensified; massive land use has evolved due to agriculture and urbanisation pressures. Research shows these changes have been a primary cause of widespread soil degradation all over Europe. And with degradation comes a decline in biodiversity and a sharp increase in CO2 emissions.
Carbon removals are an integral part of the EU environmental and climate policy. Recent IPCC reports stated that carbon removals will be needed to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Though these natural sinks present a lot of opportunities, their complex nature is rife with pitfalls — but that can be managed through a robust policy framework.
Harnessing ‘carbon farming’ for climate, nature, and people
Healthy forests, peatlands, wetlands and grasslands store enormous amounts of carbon in soils and vegetation. Carbon farming is the practice of managing land in a way that restores soil health. It supports productive and sustainable farming by increasing soil organic carbon, which drives nutrient cycling and provides crucial services to ecosystems. Thus, it has the potential to become a major catalyst for the just agroecological transition of the EU’s agriculture industry.
On agricultural land, drawing carbon back into the soil is crucial for functioning agro-ecosystems, as soil organic carbon feeds the multitude of invertebrates and micro-organisms that cycle nutrients for plants and ensure good soil structure and water retention. However, soil carbon is constantly cycling through our environment and can be easily lost back to the atmosphere; in some cases, this risk can be managed through the creation of high-quality removals. High-quality removals are also a crucial strategy for climate adaptation.
The duration of carbon storage in terrestrial systems is directly linked to the integrity of ecosystems. The EU should focus on practices that enhance biodiversity, with ecosystem integrity regarded as a prerequisite for a high-quality removal — not merely a co-benefit. Ecosystem integrity also vastly increases the resilience of land to the existing and future impacts of climate change, especially through increased water retention capacity, and prevented erosion.
If done properly, carbon farming can provide great benefits for climate, nature, resilience to climate change, land managers, farmers and wider society. To harness these benefits and address potential risks, the EU must:
- Urgently and rapidly cut greenhouse gas emissions as a first priority, and not allow offsetting of emissions with removals.
- Focus efforts to scale up carbon removals on ecosystem restoration, with climate, biodiversity and resilience objectives on the same footing; carbon cannot be the only metric for high-quality removals.
- Design effective and fair incentives for carbon farming, including through the Common Agricultural Policy. Voluntary carbon markets should not be promoted as they are ill-suited for the systemic changes required to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises, and will not benefit most land managers.
- Set up a robust governance system for carbon removals and require precise and long-term monitoring to ensure accurate measurements of the amount of carbon sequestered and to detect reversals.