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Keywords:

  • bioenergy crops;
  • land-use change;
  • RothC;
  • soil carbon fractionation;
  • soil organic carbon;
  • stable isotopes

Abstract

Bioenergy has to meet increasing sustainability criteria in the EU putting conventional bioenergy crops under pressure. Alternatively, perennial bioenergy crops, such as Miscanthus, show higher greenhouse gas savings with similarly high energy yields. In addition, Miscanthus plantations may sequester additional soil organic carbon (SOC) to mitigate climate change. As the land-use change in cropland to Miscanthus involves a C3-C4 vegetation change (VC), it is possible to determine the dynamic of Miscanthus-derived SOC (C4 carbon) and of the old SOC (C3 carbon) by the isotopic ratio of 13C to 12C. We sampled six croplands and adjacent Miscanthus plantations exceeding the age of 10 years across Europe. We found a mean C4 carbon sequestration rate of 0.78 ± 0.19 Mg ha−1 yr−1, which increased with mean annual temperature. At three of six sites, we found a significant increase in C3 carbon due to the application of organic fertilizers or difference in baseline SOC, which we define as non-VC-induced SOC changes. The Rothamsted Carbon Model was used to disentangle the decomposition of old C3 carbon and the non-VC-induced C3 carbon changes. Subsequently, this method was applied to eight more sites from the literature, resulting in a climate-dependent VC-induced SOC sequestration rate (0.40 ± 0.20 Mg ha−1 yr−1), as a step toward a default SOC change function for Miscanthus plantations on former croplands in Europe. Furthermore, we conducted a SOC fractionation to assess qualitative SOC changes and the incorporation of C4 carbon into the soil. Sixteen years after Miscanthus establishment, 68% of the particulate organic matter (POM) was Miscanthus-derived in 0–10 cm depth. POM was thus the fastest cycling SOC fraction with a C4 carbon accumulation rate of 0.33 ± 0.05 Mg ha−1 yr−1. Miscanthus-derived SOC also entered the NaOCl-resistant fraction, comprising 12% in 0–10 cm, which indicates that this fraction was not an inert SOC pool.