Soil contains approximately 2344 Gt (1 gigaton = 1 billion tonnes) of organic carbon globally and is the largest terrestrial pool of organic carbon. Small changes in the soil organic carbon stock could result in significant impacts on the atmospheric carbon concentration. The fluxes of soil organic carbon vary in response to a host of potential environmental and anthropogenic driving factors. Scientists worldwide are contemplating questions such as: ‘What is the average net change in soil organic carbon due to environmental conditions or management practices?’, ‘How can soil organic carbon sequestration be enhanced to achieve some mitigation of atmospheric carbon dioxide?’ and ‘Will this secure soil quality?’. These questions are far reaching, because maintaining and improving the world's soil resource is imperative to providing sufficient food and fibre to a growing population. Additional challenges are expected through climate change and its potential to increase food shortages. This review highlights knowledge of the amount of carbon stored in soils globally, and the potential for carbon sequestration in soil. It also discusses successful methods and models used to determine and estimate carbon pools and fluxes. This knowledge and technology underpins decisions to protect the soil resource.