Biochar backlash tries to bury carbon plan

April 20, 2009

Last year scientists at Cornell and elsewhere announced that they may have found a new weapon against climate change — in the soils of the Amazon Basin.

Amazon peoples thousands of years ago ploughed charred plants into the ground, perhaps to improve soil fertility or just as an ancient means of waste disposal. 

Plants suck carbon out of the air as they grow and charring them keeps most of that stored carbon in a solid form which can be buried. What scientists found interesting was that the ancient Amazon “biochar” soils still contained up to 70 times more carbon than the surrounding ground. And so the idea was born of how to trap carbon dioxide and stop it from reaching the atmosphere and cooking the planet. The notion of ploughing into the soil charred organic waste including food, woodchips, straw etc drew favourable reviews in the media .

Perhaps predictably, the biochar backlash swiftly followed. The anti-lobby feared that the private sector would bend biochar support to char whole forests, all in the name of stopping global warming, but really just to cash in on carbon credits or whatever other payments emerged. Among critics, British environmentalist George Montbiot wrote that “the last mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up.”

For me this has highlighted growing suspicion of private sector solutions to fighting climate change. The argument runs that industry created the problem of climate change, aided by consumer demand, through large scale combustion of fossil fuels, so don’t trust the private sector to solve the problem with market solutions like carbon trading or green certificates or other subsidies. Instead, carbon should be regulated through tough emissions caps, for example. The case of carbon markets has borne suspicion out to some extent.

For example steel lobbies and power companies have earned multi-billion dollar windfalls under the European Union’s emissions trading scheme, a scheme meant to curb emissions from those two high-carbon sectors especially, Reuters analysis has showed.

Ambitious estimates by the International Biochar Initiative of the merits of the technology may have helped sow the seeds of the backlash. The IBI says biochar could remove 1 billion tonnes of carbon annually by mid-century. That’s more than one tenth of annual carbon emissions now. The trouble is uncertainty in how those numbers are calculated. Certainly, the IBI acknowledges its figures depend on a few “optimistic plus” assumptions.

The IBI says its estimates require charring of no more than 3.2% of the planet’s entire net production of energy from plants and trees, on farms or in the wild. That still sounds like quite a lot to me…

The problem of using plants to fight climate change was well debated two years ago in the case of biofuels, a new car fuel now blamed for hiking food prices by competing with crop production. The trouble is you can’t tackle a problem as big as climate without making mistakes and losing a few dollars.

Big claims for solutions may best be avoided for now.


(Pictures: top left – Brazilian farm workers burn off felled trees and brush in the typical slash-and-burn method of converting jungle into farm land, near the northern town of Acailandia in the Amazon Basin, some 1,600 kilometers north of Brasilia, September 22, 2003. By Rickey Rogers

Right – The sun sets over the Amazon port of Abaetetuba, near the river’s mouth, September 26, 2008. Picture taken September 26. By Paulo Santos)


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One aspect of Biochar systems are Cheep, clean biomass stoves that produce biochar and no respiratory disease. At scale, the health benefits are greater than ending Malaria.
A great example; imatetalks/docs/Natural%20Draft%20Stove. pdf

Also , I would like the BioFuelWatch folks to read the petition of 1500 Cameroon Farmers;

The Biochar Fund com_content&task=view&id=40&Itemid=60

The USDA-ARS have dozens of studies happening now to ferret out the reasons for char affinity with MYC fungi and microbes, but this synergy is solidly shown by the Japanese work, literally showing 1+1=4

This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of pertinence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.

Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

It’s hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure;
The old saw; “Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes; “Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !”. Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.,
build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
As one microbiologist said on the Biochar list; “Microbes like to sit down when they eat”. By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

Thanks for your attentions,
Erich J. Knight
Shenandoah Gardens

Posted by Erich J, Knight | Report as abusive

Free markets and capitalism are incapable of mitigating the vexing problems facing humanity. Greed as a motivational factor can never supplant logic and reason.

Wake up every body. Get involved before it’s to late.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Not all charcoal is biochar. True biochar is the result of heating biomass in
an emission free pyrolysis reactor devoid of oxygen. Biochar has been shown
to be a very effective soil amendment in numerous studies in South America
and Japan. It is becoming popularized enough in the US that Biochar Xtra is
now even being sold on Ebay. Others are using the bio-oils derived from biochar
production to replace fossil fuels. Some folks are alarmed at the possibility of
vast tracts of land being denuded to produce biochar. This is not a valid concern
because, due to its very low density of from 20 to 35 pounds per cubic foot,
the transport of biochar over long distances is not economically feasible.

Posted by Michael Garjian | Report as abusive

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