Skip to main content


Log in

Biophysical and socioeconomic factors influencing soil carbon stocks: a global assessment

  • Published:
Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Soil is the most important terrestrial carbon (C) reservoir but is greatly impacted by land use change (LUC). Previous analyses of LUC impacts on soil C have focused on biophysical variables, leaving aside the influence of socioeconomics. The aim of our study was to determine global soil organic carbon (SOC) change patterns after LUC and to assess the impacts of both biophysical and socioeconomic factors that influence stocks of SOC after LUC simultaneously. This was done at a global scale using 817 sites from 99 peer-reviewed publications. We performed separate analyses for cases in which there were gains and losses of SOC. The best predictors of SOC stock changes were the type of LUC and predictors related to sampling depth, climate, biome, soil order, relief, geology, years since LUC, and primary productivity. However, also, socioeconomic variables such as indices of poverty, population growth, and levels of corruption were important. They explained 33% of the variability in SOC on their own and helped improve model accuracy from 42 to 53% when considered in combination with biophysical variables. SOC losses were highly correlated to the type of LUC and social variables, while SOC gains correlated most strongly with years since LUC and the biophysical variables. The analyses confirm that one of the biggest drivers of SOC loss is conversion to agroindustrial scale cropping, whereas with regard to the recuperation of SOC after LUC, the factor “time since conversion” emerged as the most important predictive variable, which must be better integrated in respective policy expectations. We conclude that policies should more than ever incentivize holistic approaches that prevent additional loss of native SOC, while at the same time promoting sustainable intensification of existing agricultural regions. Finally future investments on LUC to regain SOC should be aligned with efforts to alleviate poverty and corruption for their potential to achieve mutual gains in soil fertility and socio-economic parameters.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Similar content being viewed by others


Download references


We thank INTA Argentina for supporting our work in Patagonia and Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral (UNPA, Argentina) for supporting and promoting education through phD scholarship programs. Evert Thomas is supported by the CGIAR Fund donors.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.D., P.P., W.A., and B.L. contributed in the conception of this study. S.D., E.T, W.A., P.P., and B.L. run and interpreted the analyses. S.D., P.P., W.A., E.T., N.B., G.B., A.C., and B.L. drafted, wrote, and made substantial revisions to the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brenton Ladd.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Electronic supplementary material

Appendices for our work can be found in this link:


(XLS 678 kb)


(PDF 784 kb)


(XLSX 3027 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Duarte-Guardia, S., Peri, P., Amelung, W. et al. Biophysical and socioeconomic factors influencing soil carbon stocks: a global assessment. Mitig Adapt Strateg Glob Change 25, 1129–1148 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: