The organic matter content of soils and more specifically soil organic carbon (SOC) is critical to the majority of these services. However, in the past 25 years an estimated quarter of the Earth's land has suffered degradation as a result of SOC loss. Therefore, we are currently operating at suboptimal SOC levels far below those required for a 'sustainable livelihood' (Powlson et al., 2011). Restoring, increasing and protecting soil organic carbon (SOC) should therefore be a global priority. In March 2013, 40 leading experts from across the world gathered at a workshop, hosted by the European Commission, Directorate General Joint Research Centre, Italy, to discuss these issues as part of a Rapid Assessment Process (RAP) project commissioned by SCOPE (Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment). This collaboration led to the publication of the SCOPE Series Volume 71 ‘Soil Carbon: Science, Management and Policy for Multiple Benefits’; which brings together the essential scientific evidence and policy opportunities regarding the global importance of soil carbon. The book is a timely contribution that supports the 5 pillars of the Global Soil Partnership (www.fao.org/globalsoilpartnership/en/) and the related activities of the 2015 International Year of Soils (www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/). Here we present some of the key messages to come out of the project.