Soil organic carbon

Indicator Specification
Indicator codes: CLIM 027
Created 11 Jul 2008 Published 08 Sep 2008 Last modified 28 Jun 2016, 05:51 PM
Note: new version is available!
Changes in soil organic carbon content across England and Wales between 1978 and 2003 Projected changes in soil organic carbon for cropland 1990-2080

Update planned for November 2012

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)


Justification for indicator selection

Organic carbon in the soil is a dynamic part of the carbon cycle, which includes the atmosphere, water and constituents of the above- and below-ground biosphere. The main source of organic carbon is organisms that synthesise their food from inorganic substances (autotrophic), such as photosynthesising plants. In this process atmospheric carbon is used to build organic materials and enters the soil layers through decomposition and the formation of humus.
Climatic conditions strongly influence both the trends and rates of accumulation and transformation of organic substances in the soil. Increases in temperature and aridity lead to a decrease in the amount of organic carbon in soils in affected areas. Lower levels of organic carbon in the soil are generally detrimental to soil fertility and water retention capacity and tend to increase soil compaction, which leads to increases in surface water runoff and erosion. Other effects of lower organic carbon levels are a depletion of biodiversity and an increased susceptibility to acid or alkaline conditions. The projected changes will accelerate the release of CO2 from the soil, contributing to higher concentrations in the atmosphere (Janssens, 2004; Bellamy, 2005). The main measures to reduce the detrimental effect of higher temperatures combined with lower soil moisture on the amount of soil organic carbon are changes in land cover and adaptation of land-management practices (Liski et al., 2002; Janssens et al., 2004; Smith et al., 2005, 2006). Under given climatic conditions, grassland and forests tend to have higher stocks of organic carbon than arable land and are seen as net sinks for carbon (Vleeshouwers and Verhagen, 2002). Land-management practices aim at increasing net primary production and reducing losses of above-ground biomass from decomposition. Adaptive measures on agricultural land are changes in farming practices, such as a reduction in tilling or retaining crop residues after harvesting.

Scientific references

  • References Bellamy, P. H.; Loveland, P. J.; Bradley, R. I.; Lark, R. M. and Kirk, G. J. D., 2005. Carbon losses from all soils across England and Wales 1978-2003. Nature 437: 245-248. Byrne, K. A.; Chojnicki, B.; Christensen, T. R.; Drösler, M.; Freibauer, A.; Friborg, T.; Frolking, S.; Lindroth, A.; Mailhammer, J.; Malmer, N.; Selin, P.; Turunen, J.; Valentini, R. and Zetterberg, L., 2004. EU peatlands; Current carbon  tocks and trace gas fluxes. Carbo-Europe report 4. Dersch, G. and Boehm, K., 1997. Bodenschutz in Österreich, edited by Blum, W. E. H.; Klaghofer, E.; Loechl, A. and Ruckenbauer, P. Bundesamt und Forschungszentrum für Landwirtschaft, Österreich. pp. 411-432. Janssens I. A.; Freibaur, A.; Schlamadinger, B.; Ceulemans, R.; Ciais, P.; Dolman, A.; Heimann, M.; Nabuurs, G.-J.; Smith, P.; Valentini, R. and Schulze, E.-D., 2004. The carbon budget of terrestrial ecosystems at the country-scale -- a European case study. Biogeosciences iscussions, : 1810-6285/bgd/2004-1-167. Lappalainen, E., 1996. Global Peat Resources (International Peat Society, Jyskä), Finland. Liski, J.; Perruchoud, D. and Karjalainen, T., 2002. Increasing carbon stocks in the forest soils of western Europe, Forest Ecology and Management 169: 159-175. Sleutel, S.; De Neve, S. and Hofman, G., 2003. Estimates of carbon stock changes in Belgian cropland, Soil Use & Manage 19: 166-171. Smith J.; Smith P.; Wattenbach, M.; Zaehle, S., Hiederer, R., Jones, R. J. A.; Montanarella, L.; Rounsevell, M. D. A.; Reginster, I.; Ewert, F., 2005. Projected changes in mineral soil carbon of European croplands and grasslands, 1990-2080. Global Change Biology 11 (12): 2141. Smith, P.; Smith, J.; Wattenbach, M.; Meyer, J.; Lindner, M.; Zaehle, S.; Hiederer, R.; Jones, R. J. A.; Montanarella, L.; Rounsevell, M.; Reginster, I. and Kankaanpää, S., 2006. Projected changes in mineral soil carbon of European forests, 1990-2100. Canadian Journal of Soil Science 86: 159-169. Vleeshouwers, L. M. and Verhagen, A., 2002. Carbon emissions and sequestration by agricultural land use: a model study for Europe, Global Change Biology 8: 519-530.

Indicator definition

  • Changes in soil organic carbon content across England and Wales between 1978 and 2003
  • Projected changes in soil organic carbon for cropland 1990-2080


Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2009 the European Commission presented a White Paper on the framework for adaptation policies and measures to reduce the European Union's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. The aim is to increase the resilience to climate change of health, property and the productive functions of land, inter alia by improving the management of water resources and ecosystems. More knowledge is needed on climate impact and vulnerability but a considerable amount of information and research already exists which can be shared better through a proposed Clearing House Mechanism. The White Paper stresses the need to mainstream adaptation into existing and new EU policies. A number of Member States have already taken action and several have prepared national adaptation plans. The EU is also developing actions to enhance and finance adaptation in developing countries as part of a new post-2012 global climate agreement expected in Copenhagen (Dec. 2009). For more information see:


No targets have been specified

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Key policy question


Data specifications

EEA data references

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Data sources in latest figures


Methodology uncertainty

Data sets uncertainty

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

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Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

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General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Geertrui Veerle Erika Louwagie


Joint Research Centre (JRC)
European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
CLIM 027
Version id: 1


DPSIR: Impact
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)

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Data references used

Latest figures and vizualizations

European Environment Agency (EEA)
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