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Consequences of feasible future agricultural land‐use change on soil organic carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions in Great Britain

Smith, P., Bhogal, A., Edgington, P., Black, H., Lilly, A., Barraclough, D., Worrall, F., Hillier, J., Merrington, G.
Soil use and management 2010 v.26 no.4 pp. 381-398
agricultural land, carbon sinks, crop production, forestry, forests, grasses, grasslands, greenhouse gas emissions, greenhouse gases, markets, plows, soil organic carbon, Great Britain
The aim of this study was to assess the consequences of feasible land‐use change in Great Britain on GHG emissions mainly through the gain or loss of soil organic carbon. We use estimates of per‐area changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks and in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, coupled with Great Britain (GB) county‐level scenarios of land‐use change based on historical land‐use patterns or feasible futures to estimate the impact of potential land‐use change between agricultural land‐uses. We consider transitions between cropland, temporary grassland (<5 yr under grass), permanent grass (>5 yr under grass) and forest. We show that reversion to historical land‐use patterns as present in 1930 could result in GHG emission reductions of up to ca. 11 Mt CO₂‐eq./yr (relative to a 2004 baseline), because of an increased permanent grassland area. By contrast, cultivation of 20% of the current (2004) permanent grassland area for crop production could result in GHG emission increases of up to ca. 14 Mt CO₂‐eq./yr. We conclude that whilst change between agricultural land‐uses (transitions between permanent and temporary grassland and cropland) in GB is likely to be a limited option for GHG mitigation, external factors such as agricultural product commodity markets could influence future land‐use. Such agricultural land‐use change in GB could have significant impacts on Land‐use, Land‐Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) emissions, with relatively small changes in land‐use (e.g. 5% plough out of grassland to cropland, or reversion of cropland to the grassland cover in Nitrate Vulnerable Zones of 1998) having an impact on GHG emissions of a similar order of magnitude as the current United Kingdom LULUCF sink. In terms of total UK GHG emissions, however, even the most extreme feasible land‐use change scenarios account for ca. 2% of current national GHG emissions.