Crop residue returning (RR) is a promising option to increase soil organic carbon (SOC) storage, which is linked to crop yield promotion, ecologically sustainable agriculture, and climate change mitigation. Thus, the objectives of this study were to identify the responses of SOC storage and sequestration rates to RR in China’s croplands. Based on a national meta-analysis of 365 comparisons from 99 publications, the results indicated that RR increased SOC storage by 11.3% compared to residue removal (p
< 0.05). Theoretically, when combined with low nitrogen fertilizer input rates (0–120 kg N ha−1
), single cropping system, paddy-upland rotation, lower mean annual precipitation (0–500 mm), alkaline soils (pH 7.5–8.5), other methods of RR (including residue chopping, evenly incorporating, and burying) or long-term use (>10 yrs), an increase in SOC storage under RR by 11.6–15.5% could be obtained. The SOC sequestration rate of RR varied from 0.48 (Central China) to 1.61 (Southwest China) Mg C ha−1
, with a national average value of 0.93 Mg C ha−1
. Higher SOC sequestration rates enhanced crop production. However, decreases in SOC sequestration rate were observed with increases in experimental durations. The phenomenon of “C saturation” occurred after 23 yrs of RR. Overall, RR can be used as an efficient and environmentally friendly and climate-smart management practice for long-term use.
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