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Kwiatkowski, C.A.; Pawłowska, M.; Harasim, E.; Pawłowski, L. Carbon Sequestration as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 29 November 2023).
Kwiatkowski CA, Pawłowska M, Harasim E, Pawłowski L. Carbon Sequestration as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed November 29, 2023.
Kwiatkowski, Cezary A., Małgorzata Pawłowska, Elżbieta Harasim, Lucjan Pawłowski. "Carbon Sequestration as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy" Encyclopedia, (accessed November 29, 2023).
Kwiatkowski, C.A., Pawłowska, M., Harasim, E., & Pawłowski, L.(2023, June 09). Carbon Sequestration as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy. In Encyclopedia.
Kwiatkowski, Cezary A., et al. "Carbon Sequestration as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy." Encyclopedia. Web. 09 June, 2023.
Carbon Sequestration as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy

Agriculture is the second-highest, after energy use, source of greenhouse gas emissions, which are released from soils and animal digestion processes and as a result of energy consumption at various stages of agricultural production. However, changes in the management of agricultural systems may mitigate the negative impact of this sector on the atmosphere and climate. Carbon farming, which focuses on carbon sequestration, is closely linked to soil quality. Carbon converted to organic form in the soil stimulates the activity of soil enzymes, promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms and improves chemical and physicochemical properties, including pH, sorption capacity and water retention.

: energy consumption plant production main crops catch crops carbon farming climate change carbon sequestration soil

1. Catch and Cover Crops as an Important Carbon Sequestration Factor in Agricultural Sector

One of the barriers to the development of a low-carbon economy in many rural areas is the inadequate selection of crops in rotation, as well as the insufficient use of catch and cover crops (C&C crops), which leave a large amount of biomass in the form of crop residues. An important opportunity for the development of carbon farming may be the projected increase in the importance of these catch crops, cover crops and nitrogen-fixing crops as a result of the new system of direct payments from European Union funds and the promotion of a sustainable farming system and the prevention of soil organic matter (SOM) loss.
The crops with high potential for SOM formation include, among others, legumes: faba bean (Vicia faba), narrowleaf lupin (Lupinus angustifolius), yellow lupin (Lupinus luteus L.), pea (Pisum sativum L.); small-seeded legumes: red clover (Trifolium pratense L.), alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.), vetches (Vicia sativa ssp.), serradella (Ornithopus L.); grasses: perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne L.), orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata L.) and mixtures of the mentioned plants, as well as Brassicaceae: white mustard (Sinapis alba); Boraginaceae: blue phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia).
Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) are one of the three new greening measures of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). These areas should be beneficial for the climate and the environment. According to the CAP, farmers having more than 15 ha of arable land must ensure that at least 5% of this land belongs to an EFA. Areas subjected to catch or cover crop cultivation are included in an EFA [1][2]. Therefore, in plant production, efforts should be focused on using the crops with a high capacity for the production of SOM, which can be obtained by plowing in biomass, as well as by using post-harvest residues remaining on the field [3][4][5].
Studies on nutrient cycling in the agroecosystem and nutrient losses, some initiated as early as the 1990s [6][7] and continuing today [8][9][10], have shown the need to increase the area of catch and cover crop cultivation, which is becoming an essential component in the system of integrated and ecological agriculture. Catch crops are plants cultivated in pure sowing or in mixtures, in rotation between two main crops [11][12]. Its general role is the prevention of nitrogen leaching, while the main role of cover crops is to protect soils from erosion, the decrease of organic matter and weed suppression. Leguminous crops are mainly used as green manure, in order to improve the N supply for succeeding crops [13]. Catch crops are mainly plants with a short growing seasons, used during the vegetative or in the initial period of generative plant growth. Their biomass can be also used as fodder or as a source of SOM and nutrients [14][15].
In the past, catch crops were viewed mainly as a source of additional fodder for animals, and their species were selected for their forage values. Nowadays, catch crops are considered in multiple terms, with their main importance being their phytosanitary, fertilizer, structure-building and conservation values [9][16], as well as, more recently, their contribution to mitigating the negative effects of climate warming [17][18][19]. Cerda et al. [20] showed that the farming community in Spain considers catch crops more in terms of their benefit to the environment and society than their yield-forming benefit.
Depending on the sowing date, three types of C&C crops are distinguished in Europe:
1. Stubble crops—seeds are sown in summer, and the plants are harvested in autumn for green fodder and mowed and plowed, or plowed without mowing. Plants can also be left as mulch after mowing for the winter. The most commonly grown species in stubble crops include white mustard, black mustard, rapeseed, oil radish, faba bean, yellow lupine, narrow-leaved lupine, field pea, spring vetch, serradella, blue phacelia, sunflower and oats [11][21]. When selecting mixtures, no more than 2–4 plant species should be included in their composition. The mix should include species with a similar length of growing season and similar uses [22][23].
2. Undersown crops—sown in spring into spring cereals or sown together with them, and (less often) sown into winter cereals. They are used similarly to stubble crops in autumn (i.e., forage, biomass for plowing and mulch). The most commonly grown undersown crops include red clover, white clover, alfalfa and serradella, with grasses such as Westerwold ryegrass, cocksfoot grass, perennial ryegrass, Italian ryegrass and bromegrass, and mixtures of the mentioned plants.
3. Winter cover crops—sown in late summer or autumn and harvested the following spring. Winter cover crops include, inter alia, Brassica rapa, winter rape, winter rye in pure and mixed stands with hairy vetch, a mixed stand of winter rye with hairy vetch and Italian clover (crimson clover), and a pure stand of Westerwold ryegrass or Italian clover, as well as mixed stands or perennial ryegrass with winter vetch and Italian clover [24][25].
Due to their beneficial environmental impact, catch and cover crops have now become an instrumental for creating environmentally friendly agriculture [12][14].
Under the conditions of good soil and moist habitats, growing a white mustard catch crop increases spring cereal yields by 8–10%. The productivity of catch crops depends largely on weather factors, so it is expedient to determine which species are best-suited to a particular region of the country [5][26][27]. The disadvantage of catch crops is the unreliability of yields, resulting especially from their vulnerability in the first weeks after sowing the seeds [9].
Kwiatkowski et al. [5] and Harasim et al. [9] note that the introduction of conservation tillage (without the use of a plow) did not translate into a difference related to the productivity of stubble crops compared to plow tillage. The yield of air-dry matter of stubble crops on the sites with conservation tillage was, on average, lower only by 0.1–0.2 t (about 3.5%) than that obtained with the technology using a share plow. Considering the final yield (after mowing) of catch crop biomass, the authors found that white mustard had the highest productivity, regardless of tillage method. An equally high yield of air-dried biomass (yield of air-dried biomass, lower by only 2.7% than white mustard) was obtained from cultivation of the blue phacelia stubble crop. A legume mixture proved to be an unreliable catch crop, yielding about 60% less than the other species. This was mainly due to the very small share of the faba bean component in the total yield, which accounted for only about 28% of the yield of the whole mixture.
The yield of intercrops varies significantly (Table 1) and is highly dependent on soil quality and initial nutrient abundance [5][27]. The subsequent beneficial impact of crop residues depends mainly on the rate of decomposition and the amount of nutrients released from them, and this is directly related to biomass quality, i.e., C/N ratio and lignin content [21].
The subsequent beneficial impact of crop residues depends mainly on the rate of decomposition and the amount of nutrients released from them, and this is directly related to biomass quality, i.e., C/N ratio and lignin content [28][29].
According to a study by Kwiatkowski et al. [17], catch crops represent a significant added value (+25–30%) of carbon sequestration in relation to the cultivation of the main crops in the crop structure in Poland. In fact, catch crops are primarily grown in-between cereals in the main crop. Thus, they are an important factor in CO2 sequestration in agriculture.
Pawlowski et al. [36] showed that, in Poland, the area of intercrops amounts to 1177 mln ha. According to calculations, the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by these catch crops amounts to 6.85 mln tonnes of CO2 yr−1. If it is assumed that the interest of farmers in the cultivation of catch crops will continue, the authors conclude that the area of sown catch crops will be increased by approximately one-third within the next decade. This will expand the current area to roughly 1530 mln ha, whereas the yearly CO2 sequestration will be increased to 8.88 mln tonnes of CO2 yr−1. This forecast is feasible, especially when such activities are promoted to a greater extent. To compare, in 2018, the total yearly CO2 emissions in Poland amounted to 305.75 mln tonnes of CO2 [37], and the total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, expressed as CO2 equivalent, reached 30.05 mln tonnes [38][39]. Therefore, catch crops are capable of mitigating about 6% of Poland’s annual CO2 emissions and can offset over 50% of agricultural GHG emissions in the country. Moreover, the carbon absorption in catch crops is equivalent to one-fifth of the carbon in the cereal biomass (e.g., triticale, oats, barley, rye and wheat) that constitute the dominant crops cultivated in Poland [19]. Previous studies [19][36] have shown that the cereals grown in Poland absorb 23.8 million tons of carbon per year, equivalent to 87.3 million tonnes of CO2.
The potential increase in the area available for catch crops cultivation in Poland is higher than in France, Spain or Romania, but lower than in Denmark. For example, the value of this parameter, estimated on the basis of the total area under cereal, protein and industrial crops in the Overijssel region of Denmark is 90%, but in some regions of Spain, Romania and France it is below 20% [40]. Such variation results from highly prevalent cultivation of catch crops in the considered regions. For instance, catch crops cultivation enjoys great popularity in France [40]; therefore, the potential for expanding the area of catch crops cultivation is lower than in the countries in which such practices are employed less frequently. The projected scale of CO2 sequestration as a result of catch crops cultivation can be even greater when focusing on growing the species characterized by highest productivity, namely tansy phacelia, white mustard, oats, winter rye, and a mixture of spring vetch and pea (which attain the highest CO2 sequestration parameters) [19][41].
It should be emphasized that, in addition to yield-forming functions and climate protection, cultivation of catch crops can also have economic effects. Farmers choosing to grow catch crops can benefit from direct subsidies from EU funds for growing these crops. In addition, the use of catch or cover crops improves soil quality, which is associated with increased yields of the main crops and leads to increased economic efficiency on the farm.
Pawlowski et al. [18] found that the use of catch crops significantly increased the yield and economic value of spring wheat grain. In addition, the economic profitability of monoculture spring wheat cultivation with catch crops increased due to direct subsidies for catch crops from EU funds under the RDP. Consequently, the highest gross margin (657.1 € ha−1) was obtained by cultivation with the white mustard catch crop, followed by the blue phacelia catch crop (622.7 € ha−1).
According to a study by Pawlowska et al. [42], another possibility for additional use of catch crop biomass, increasing the profitability of its use, is the production of green energy. Underground biomass and some of the above-ground catch crop biomass is deposited in the soil as a source of carbon sequestration, while some of the above-ground biomass may be employed for biogas or syngas production. The use of biomass for energy production is environmentally beneficial, as it provides fuel with low environmental impact, and the residue from the process in the form of digestate or biochar can be returned to the soil to act as a fertilizer or soil quality improver. The yield of biomethane production from catch crops grown in Poland ranges from 965 m3 ha−1 (narrow-leafed lupine) to 1762 m3 ha−1 (winter rye and spring vetch with field pea). The potential for biomethane production from individual catch crops grown in Poland, taking into account the area of their sowing, ranges from 61 (narrow-leafed lupine) to 328 million m3 yr−1 (white mustard) [19].

2. Carbon Sequestration in Soil as a Climate Change Mitigation Strategy

Soil’s organic carbon (SOC) plays an important role in achieving sustainable agroecosystems by increasing crop productivity and sequestering atmospheric carbon. SOC promotes crop productivity by improving nutrient retention and water holding capacity, facilitating efficient drainage and aeration, minimizing topsoil loss through erosion and providing substrates for soil microbiomes [43][44]. SOC can be sequestered in permanent pools, such as by conversion to biochar or through organo-mineral and organometallic interactions [45][46]. The a ddition of biochar changes the physicochemical parameters of the soil. Significantly, though, the direction and range of these changes depend on the properties of the biochar, which are related to the chemical composition of substrate used in biochar production and technological conditions of thermochemical conversion [47]. Biochar differs in terms of pH. The value of this parameter depends on the rate of the carbonization process, the pyrolysis temperature and the type of raw material [48]. Biochar contains organic acids which are generated during biomass pyrolysis, and thus it can influence the final pH of the soil [49]. Because of its sorption properties, biochar can influence soil processes and gas emissions from the soil, e.g., NH3 [50]. At the same time, biochar improves soil C-organic content and contributes to better use by plants of nutrients contained in the soil [Hossain et al. [51]. Carbon derived from biochar may also be converted to inorganic soil compounds, e.g., magnesium and calcium carbonates, which are stored in the soil long-term [52].
In order to rationally design, develop and implement the crops adapted to carbon agriculture, in the long term it will be necessary to improve modeling of the metabolic nitrogen and carbon fluxes and, subsequently, to understand the control mechanisms thereof. The next step will be to implement this knowledge in order to model the interactions between carbon sequestration pathways and source-sinks in integrated plant–microbe–soil systems via genome editing and engineering. The theses above are supported by some scientific reports from which guidelines can be drawn for the development of metabolic flow models [53][54][55] and genome-scale metabolic networks [56].
Jansson et al. [57] noted that pastures and agricultural cropping systems constituted one-third of global arable land, having the potential for drawing down significant amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to be stored as SOC as well as enhancing the soil-carbon budget. The purpose of an enhanced soil-carbon budget is twofold: it promotes soil health, supporting crop productivity, as well as constituting a pool for conversion of carbon to its recalcitrant forms, facilitating the long-term storage which is employed to mitigate global warming.
The content of soil-carbon is regulated by a balance between the inputs resulting from photosynthesis, plant root exudates, and additives such as compost and manure, as well as the outputs via root and microbial respiration and soil emissions. In the process of carbon allocation, the assimilated atmospheric carbon dioxide is subject to shifts between respiration, biomass production and enduring and transient tissues, as well as below-ground and above-ground components. According to functional or optimal equilibrium theories, resources are allocated by plants among their organs in order to ensure optimal fitness [58][59].
The distribution of the products of photosynthesis between above- and below-ground biomass in a plant changes depending on environmental variables, e.g., availability of nutrients and light, as well as soil moisture. Significant amounts (20–30%) of recent photosynthates are allocated by plants to the below-ground biomass. Approximately half of this carbon is utilized for the growth of roots, whereas its largest fraction (up to 30%) is then released to the rhizosphere, either via mycorrhiza or sloughed root cap cells, or through exudation; some part is lost in the course of respiration. Under limited light conditions, plants accumulate more carbon in their shoots, while under water- and nutrient-limited conditions, they divert more carbon to their roots [60][61].
Poeplau and Don [3] quantified the overall potential of catch crop cultivation intended to increase SOC based on data from 139 plots at 37 different sites. In their view, cover crops used as green manure are an important management option for increasing SOC stocks in agricultural soils. The authors considered most of the available studies on cover crops worldwide and found that the average annual sequestration of SOC ranged widely, from 0.32 ± 0.08 Mg ha−1·yr−1 to 16.7 Mg ha−1·yr−1.
Chahal et al. [2] demonstrated the positive effect of catch crops (oilseed radish, oat, cereal rye, and a mixture of oilseed radish + rye) on increasing C-organic storage in surface soil after using them six times over 8 years. Of the catch crops tested, oilseed radish contributed the highest cumulative carbon sequestration by above-ground plant parts and the greatest SOC gains. Compared to the control without catch crops, all soils under catch crops had higher SOC content, and main crop plants (cereals) grown after catch crops’ cultivation had better yields, indicating the usefulness of the tested catch crops for improving soil functionality, primary productivity and sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in temperate and humid climates.
In the study by Kwiatkowski et al. [5], all the catch crops included in the experiment (white mustard, tansy phacelia, and faba bean + spring vetch mixture), regardless of the tillage method, caused a statistically proven increase in SOC content compared to the control object, but had no significant effect on total nitrogen content.
An undeniably positive effect of catch crops is the prevention of nitrate leaching, the amount of which after the end of vegetation in autumn is on average 30% less than in soil without catch crops. Evaluation of the effectiveness of catch crops varies and is highly dependent on soil quality and initial nutrient abundance [5]. The beneficial subsequent effect of crop residues depends mainly on the rate of decomposition and the amount of nutrients released from them, and this is directly related to the quality of the biomass, i.e., the C/N ratio and lignin content [22][29].
Plant root systems are vital in providing and storing SOC. However, it is unclear which characteristics of roots are essential for maximization of SOC as well as for long-term storage of carbon. In order to achieve a high soil-carbon pool, high root-carbon inputs are an essential, but insufficient, precondition. For instance, higher root exudation and increased root biomass, both stimulated by greater levels of CO2, do not always contribute to high gains of soil-carbon. This phenomenon can be explained by increased microbial activity and enhanced priming of old soil organic matter [62][63].
A field trial conducted over a period of 9 years that compared switchgrass monoculture, highly biodiverse native succession vegetation, and two perennial herbaceous systems and showed that, although the root biomass of switchgrass exceeded that of native vegetation by more than 10-fold, the levels of soil organic carbon under switchgrass exhibited markedly lower improvements [64]. This example shows that it cannot be unequivocally stated that breeding plants to achieve greater root biomass constitutes the solution for enabling quicker and more efficient storage of carbon in the soil. Instead, some authors have detailed plant characteristics that can lead to increased SOC. First, they point to the physical features characterizing the structure of a root system, rather than simply total root biomass. They also take into account root morphology, the complexity of which promotes soil structure [65][66][67]. The amount of carbon that enters the soil as root exudation in the course of plant growth is also important [68][69]. Further factors influencing greater soil-carbon storage include the chemical composition of root tissues and root exudation [70][71], as well as the development of a rhizosphere microbiome capable of converting the carbon contained in root biomass into SOC [72].
According to Zhang et al. [73], the no-tillage system resulted in a significant increase in the SOC of the topsoil (0–30 cm), as compared to conventional tillage. Furthermore, SOC could be increased and greenhouse gas emissions reduced by increasing the complexity of crop rotation and straw return, as noted in study [74].
Jansson et al. [75] proposed a comprehensive approach to the integrated plant–microbe–soil system and suggested the possibility of achieving marked improvements related to SOC storage via the following approach:
Selecting plants characterized by high root strength in order to further sequester carbon in the soil;
Balancing the increased allocation of below-ground carbon with greater source strength for improved biomass accumulation and photosynthesis;
Designing consortia of soil microbes for improved strength of rhizosphere sink as well as properties promoting plant growth.
Amelung et al. [76] believe that sustainable soil-carbon sequestration practices must be rapidly expanded and implemented, and thereby contribute to climate change mitigation. The authors emphasize that the main potential for carbon sequestration is in the soils of croplands, especially those with large yield differences or large temporal losses of soil organic carbon. Implementing soil-carbon sequestration measures requires a diverse set of options, each tailored to local soil conditions and crop management. The authors suggest creating a soil information system on low-carbon farms regarding the soil group, its degradation status, yield differences, and associated carbon sequestration potential, as well as providing policies (financial incentives) to translate management options into region- and soil-specific practices.
The European Commission [77] provides guidance on low-carbon farming. According to these guidelines, low-carbon farming on mineral soils involves measures to improve the level of soil organic carbon (SOC) on croplands and grasslands. Increasing SOC levels can directly promote the restoration of biodiversity, as microorganisms responsible for biochemical processes in soil require appropriate SOC levels. Additionally, high crop biodiversity can further enhance SOC accumulation. The Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 (BDS) emphasized the close relationship between soil health and biodiversity, leading to the proposal of a new strategy to address soil degradation in Europe. The EU Nature Restoration Plan will play a significant role in this strategy by including soil restoration targets to reduce soil erosion, protect soil fertility and increase the content of SOC. Low-carbon farming can play a direct role in achieving these targets and can aid in the implementation of the national restoration plans which Member States are expected to develop by 2023. Carbon farming can also indirectly contribute to the restoration of farmland biodiversity through measures such as improved crop rotations and cover cropping as well as the restoration of permanent grassland, which can provide habitats for endangered species. Additionally, carbon farming can help alleviate the pressure on biodiversity by enhancing nutrient availability, improving soil structure, and increasing water retention. This, in turn, leads to greater productivity and a reduced need for fertilizers. Furthermore, low-carbon farming on mineral soil can fulfill the EU nature restoration law’s objectives by promoting increased water retention, minimized run-off, and reduced erosion risk [78].
Low-carbon agriculture offers a long-term opportunity to tap the considerable potential related to linking agriculture to the rhizosphere microbiome regarding promotion of soil-carbon sequestration. In this regard, designing low-carbon agriculture crops is consistent with the consensus of the Paris Climate Agreement mandating the economically optimal pathways aimed at mitigating global warming, which should not only mandate the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, but also have to include negative emissions technologies, e.g., stimulating the soil to achieve greater carbon storage [79].
According to present research, an annual growth of carbon stored in soils of 0.4% could halt the current increase of CO2 in the atmosphere [80]. Many national strategies for meeting climate goals incorporate programs for soil-carbon sequestration. An analysis of the first round of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change found that 28 countries mentioned the increase of soil organic carbon in their pledges, while 14 of them referred specifically to agricultural lands. However, only 15% of countries included a strategy of SOC increase in their climate pledges, suggesting that many hesitate to officially include soil-carbon sequestration into environmental policy due to the difficulties in monitoring or quantifying SOC content [81]. There are several aspects covered in the studies on the implementation of soil-carbon sequestration practices. One of them pertains to the beliefs of farmers regarding the reliability of the science indicating climate change, and their readiness to take the necessary action to mitigate or adapt to it. The actions include the use of “climate-smart” practices, which have significant overlaps with soil-carbon sequestering practices [82]. The term “climate-smart agriculture” was coined around ten years ago, and it involves reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture while simultaneously enhancing adaptive capacity [83].


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