Dec 7, 2022Mapping The Soil Carbon Ecosystem“What will it take to maximise the potential of soils as a carbon sink? This was the question Ivana Gazibara and I set out to understand when researching soil carbon. I wanted to share how we went about investigating the topic and how taking a systems-thinking approach allowed us to uncover some deeper insights that we otherwise might have missed.By Poppy Russell

Our Approach To Analysing The Soil Carbon Ecosystem

As investors in carbon removal technologies, tackling soil carbon is tricky. Innovations in soil carbon need to integrate into incumbent food, agriculture, and forestry industries. Carbon is often not the priority for stakeholders in those industries, whose primary focus might instead be maintaining productivity, increasing profitability, improving nutrition or biodiversity. Focusing on carbon could seem like a distraction.

To ensure we were thinking holistically, focusing on the real issues at hand and looking for the solutions that can create lasting change, we took a systems approach. It involved understanding the overarching trends driving change in this space eg. soil health is being degraded by industrial farming and climate change. Next interviewing a range of actors from across the soil carbon value chain, from farmers, to entrepreneurs, to policymakers to learn about the key barriers they are facing. Ivana has written about our research process here

We produced a Soil Carbon System Map, presenting perspectives from different parts of the ecosystem, and enabling the identification of “leverage points” (places where action creates the greatest impact across the system). For Counteract, this meant identifying the critical blockers for scaling soil carbon removal that could be lifted with early stage investment, such as strong MRV solutions. Read about our priorities for soil carbon investment here.  

Our evolving view of the soil carbon ecosystem. Outlined are the high level drivers of system change, the resulting trends they are causing, which are creating areas of activity or “dynamic areas” (see legend). Click to explore.

A Few Take Homes From The Process…

Systems-thinking can uncover stakeholder priorities

Building soil carbon is rarely the reason behind changes in land management practices. In agriculture, improving soil health is more commonly the motivation. Healthy soils can improve crop yields, reduce dependence on chemical fertilisers, show increased resilience to harsh climate conditions, produce more nutritious food as well as store more carbon. So although developing robust measurement systems are important for carbon monitoring, innovations providing broader insights to the farmer could be equally catalytic. 

Learning from past mistakes with Nature Based Solutions carbon credits 

In the carbon crediting world, the many co-benefits of soil carbon sequestering practices could throw additionality into question: the carbon removal action is not necessarily the sole reason for carbon finance. However, although healthy soils store more carbon, carbon-rich soils do not always indicate soil health. Incentivising projects that focus purely on soil carbon could risk encouraging malpractice. Just as we have seen with some reforestation projects that have narrowed in on carbon and overlooked other parameters like biodiversity and sociopolitical context has led to poorly executed forest plantations that are ultimately unsustainable, the same is possible with soil carbon. 

From a financial standpoint, adopting new land management practices is often not viable without a new revenue stream. In this context soil carbon credits could provide a route to meaningful change. There is crucial work ongoing between scientists, CDR advocates, and policymakers developing the underlying frameworks and methodologies for a credible carbon crediting system. 

NBS projects must measure soil carbon to avoid carbon accounting errors

Neglecting to monitor and account for the carbon belowground can result in over- or underestimating the total carbon footprint of nature-based solutions. Reforestation projects that regenerate degraded landscapes into native woodland can also incur significant gains in soil carbon. Converting grasslands to bioenergy crops, on the other hand, will have the opposite impact, counterbalancing the life cycle carbon emissions. Scientists are advocating for soil carbon to be included in greenhouse gas inventories. It is also becoming ever clearer that overlooking soils can hinder the success of nature based projects. Trees planted on degraded soils often exhibit high mortality rates, whereas interventions that improve soil health can support tree growth and carbon drawdown.

The need for standards in soil MRV

Last week the EU released a first draft Carbon Removal Certification Framework (CRCF). It was criticised by some within the CDR community for not doing enough to create clear separation between low durability, such as soil carbon sequestration, and high durability solutions, such as geological sequestration. Creating consistent and cohesive frameworks for certifying CDR solutions will be definitive in building transparency and avoiding exploitation. Carbon180 have developed principles for high accountability MRV, something we believe will be crucial for scaling and building trust in soil carbon. 


As standards and best practices are being decided we view soils as an essential carbon sink. And if not protected and enhanced, soils may become a source of 100-600 Gt CO₂ by 2100. Therefore we will continue to seek out the innovations that are building soil carbon or catalysing a fair, trustworthy and supportive ecosystem.

By sharing this tool we hope to catalyse connectivity and imagination in the soil carbon ecosystem.  If you are an actor in this space, or curious about innovating in it, reach us and let us know the interventions you view as transformational.