Globally, soil carbon sequestration is expected to hold a major potential to mitigate agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. However, the majority of life cycle assessments (LCA) of agricultural products have not included possible changes in soil carbon sequestration. In the present study, a method to estimate carbon sequestration to be included in LCA is suggested and applied to two examples where the inclusion of carbon sequestration is especially relevant: 1) Bioenergy: removal of straw from a Danish soil for energy purposes and 2) Organic versus conventional farming: comparative study of soybean production in China. The suggested approach considers the time of the soil CO2 emissions for the LCA by including the Bern Carbon Cycle Model. Time perspectives of 20, 100 and 200 years are used and a soil depth of 0–100 cm is considered. The application of the suggested method showed that the results were comparable to the IPCC 2006 tier 1 approach in a time perspective of 20 year, where after the suggested methodology showed a continued soil carbon change toward a new steady state. The suggested method estimated a carbon sequestration for the first example when storing straw in the soil instead of using it for bioenergy of 54, 97 and 213 kg C t−1 straw C in a 200, 100 and 20 years perspective, respectively. For the conversion from conventional to organic soybean production, a difference of 32, 60 or 143 kg soil C ha−1 yr−1 in a 200, 100 or 20 years perspective, respectively was found. The study indicated that soil carbon changes included in an LCA can constitute a major contribution to the total greenhouse gas emissions per crop unit for plant products. The suggested approach takes into account the temporal aspects of soil carbon changes by combining the degradation and emissions of CO2 from the soil and the following decline in the atmosphere. Furthermore, the results from the present study highlights that the choice of the time perspective has a huge impact on the results used for the LCA. For comparability with the calculation of the global warming potential in LCA, it is suggested to use a time perspective of 100 years when using the suggested approach for soil carbon changes in LCA.
Journal of Cleaner Production, 2013, Vol 52, p. 217-224