The soil is important in sequestering atmospheric CO2 and in emitting trace gases (e.g. CO2, CH4 and N2O) that are radiatively active and enhance the ‘greenhouse’ effect. Land use changes and predicted global warming, through their effects on net primary productivity, the plant community and soil conditions, may have important effects on the size of the organic matter pool in the soil and directly affect the atmospheric concentration of these trace gases. A discrepancy of approximately 350 × 1015¿g (or Pg) of C in two recent estimates of soil carbon reserves worldwide is evaluated using the geo-referenced database developed for the World Inventory of Soil Emission Potentials (WISE) project. This database holds 4353 soil profiles distributed globally which are considered to represent the soil units shown on a ½º latitude by ½º longitude version of the corrected and digitized 1¿:¿5¿M FAO–UNESCO Soil Map of the World. Total soil carbon pools for the entire land area of the world, excluding carbon held in the litter layer and charcoal, amounts to 2157–2293 Pg of C in the upper 100¿cm. Soil organic carbon is estimated to be 684–724 Pg of C in the upper 30¿cm, 1462–1548 Pg of C in the upper 100¿cm, and 2376–2456 Pg of C in the upper 200¿cm. Although deforestation, changes in land use and predicted climate change can alter the amount of organic carbon held in the superficial soil layers rapidly, this is less so for the soil carbonate carbon. An estimated 695–748 Pg of carbonate-C is held in the upper 100¿cm of the world's soils. Mean C : N ratios of soil organic matter range from 9.9 for arid Yermosols to 25.8 for Histosols. Global amounts of soil nitrogen are estimated to be 133–140 Pg of N for the upper 100¿cm. Possible changes in soil organic carbon and nitrogen dynamics caused by increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and the predicted associated rise in temperature are discussed.