Carbon sequestration in soils and climate change mitigation—Definitions and pitfalls

Axel Don, Felix Seidel, Jens Leifeld, Thomas Kätterer, Manuel Martin, Sylvain Pellerin, David Emde, Daria Seitz, Claire Chenu | Global Change Biology | 2023 | Peer Reviewed | Review |


The term carbon (C) sequestration has not just become a buzzword but is something of a siren’s call to scientific communicators and media outlets. Carbon sequestration is the removal of C from the atmosphere and the storage, for example, in soil. It has the potential to partially compensate for anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and is, therefore, an important piece in the global climate change mitigation puzzle. However, the term C sequestration is often used misleadingly and, while likely unintentional, can lead to the perpetuation of biased conclusions and exaggerated expectations about its contribution to climate change mitigation efforts. Soils have considerable potential to take up C but many are also in a state of continuous loss. In such soils, measures to build up soil C may only lead to a reduction in C losses (C loss mitigation) rather than result in real C sequestration and negative emissions. In an examination of 100 recent peer-reviewed papers on topics surrounding soil C, only 4% were found to have used the term C sequestration correctly. Furthermore, 13% of the papers equated C sequestration with C stocks. The review, further, revealed that measures leading to C sequestration will not always result in climate change mitigation when non-CO2 greenhouse gases and leakage are taken into consideration. This paper highlights potential pitfalls when using the term C sequestration incorrectly and calls for accurate usage of this term going forward. Revised and new terms are suggested to distinguish clearly between C sequestration in soils, SOC loss mitigation, negative emissions, climate change mitigation, SOC storage, and SOC accrual to avoid miscommunication among scientists and stakeholder groups in future.