(searched for: doi:10.3389/fenvs.2020.579904)
Frontiers in Environmental Science, Volume 8; doi:10.3389/fenvs.2020.514701
Enhancing soil organic matter in agricultural soils has potential to contribute to climate mitigation while also promoting soil health and resilience. However, soil carbon (C) sequestration projects are rare in C markets. One concern surrounding soil C is uncertainty regarding the permanence of newly sequestered soil C. This scientific uncertainty is exacerbated by differences in terminology used by scientists and policymakers, which impedes the integration of new scientific findings regarding soil carbon longevity into evidence-based policies. Here, we review the evolution of understanding of soil C lifespan and the language used to describe it in both scientific and policy sectors. We find that recent scientific findings that have bearing on soil C lifespan are not part of discussions surrounding C policy, and conversely, policymaker concerns are not clearly addressed by scientific research. From a policy perspective, soil C is generally assumed to be a vulnerable pool at risk of being quickly lost via microbial degradation or other avenues of physical loss if soil C building practices are not maintained indefinitely. This assumption has been challenged by recent scientific advances demonstrating that microbial consumption and transformation of plant-derived C actually necessary for the long-term storage of soil organic matter. Here, we argue that soil C longevity can best be understood as resulting from continual movement and transformation of organic compounds throughout the soil matrix, and show that this definition is directly at odds with how soil C longevity is represented in current policies. Given current interest in new policies to promote soil C sequestration activities, resolving these definitions is critical. We further identify priority areas for future research in order to answer key policymaker questions about soil C lifespan, and to help develop new tools and benchmarks necessary to assess efficacy of agricultural soil C sequestration efforts.