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The Biochar Strategy
A multinational, local approach to fighting climate change
Gregory Daigle (gdaigle)     Print Article 
Published 2009-04-07 09:58 (KST)   
Can pre-Columbian agrarian practices help save today's world from climate change?

More than two millennia ago in the Amazonian basin, indigenous people used methods of pyrolysis (decomposition of organic materials by heat in the absence of oxygen) to produce charcoal from agricultural biomass. The charcoal product, often referred to as biochar, was utilized to dramatically increase the fertility of low-nutrient soils and improve crop production in their gardens and agricultural fields. The practice created pockets of darkened soils known as Terra Preta (Portuguese for "Black Earth") which can be half a meter in depth.

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Amending soil with biochar improves beneficial microbial populations, improves the effectiveness of nitrogen-potassium-phosphorus fertilizers, both stabilizes and slows the release of nutrients in the soil and improves soil productivity. It also sequesters carbon in the soil for hundred if not thousands of years... carbon that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2) when above-ground biomass is burned.

Sequestering carbon within arable farmlands builds up land-based carbon sinks throughout the world. A carbon sink is a natural or manmade reservoir that stores carbon-containing chemical compounds for an indefinite period. Carbon sinks may be one of the most achievable of techniques for reducing atmospheric carbon.

Today, biochar's global usage as a tool for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere is negligible. However, in a recent study (Lenton and Vaughan, 2009) it was estimated that up to 0.56 gigatonnes of carbon could be sequestered yearly by extensively incorporating biochar into agricultural practices and farming methods. Increasing biochar practices in agriculture steadily from nearly zero today to 1.56 gigatonnes by 2035 across different parts of the world would remove 1.1 gigatonnes or 5 parts per million (ppm) of carbon from the atmosphere. This would be a significant step in lowering greenhouse gases (GHGs) that lead to global warming. It is estimated that utilizing the biochar capacities for all global croplands and grasslands could potentially lower CO2 levels by 34 ppm -- a significant step in lowering GHGs.

Biochar production on a global scale involves low to mid-technology units and is a low-cost process compared to that of reducing modern industrial and automotive emissions. More importantly, it is achievable within decades rather than centuries. However, to produce an amount of biochar capable of significantly mitigating global warming will take a united, global initiative and the committed involvement of agricultural producers from many nations involving millions of acres of crops.

Although scientists and environmentalists have identified other methods and techniques with the potential to significantly reduce GHGs, none of the methods possess the three essential criteria that biochar offers -- of being simple to produce, inexpensive and highly effective. For example, widely discussed strategies to create carbon sinks in the oceans with dissolved iron or seeding the atmosphere with sulphur particles to cool the planet have both recently encountered technical issues rendering them marginally effective at best.

In a January interview James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory, stated "There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste... into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil." This goal is held by many but is manifested in the mission of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), a nonprofit organization founded in 2006.

IBI and the Nine Countries Project

Among other efforts, the International Biochar Initiative has established an international biochar production and utilization project to introduce pyrolysis technologies in developing countries. The major aims of the project are to:

  • Introduce biochar and pyrolysis technologies at the household and village/neighborhood level. This includes biochar stoves and small-scale production units.

  • Develop common schemes to evaluate the performance of the of production units and the stoves.

  • Develop common procedures to analyze biochar and monitor application and plant growth response.

  • Develop a methodology to assess the environmental, economic, social and cultural costs and benefits of introducing biochar technology and biochar to soils.

IBI has selected nine countries to initially work with: Belize, Cameroon, Chile, Costa Rica, Egypt, India, Kenya, Mongolia and Vietnam. The following observations, insights and opinions have culminated from a series of recent interviews with administrators of these programs for Chile and Belize.

The Chile Project

The Chile working program includes: initially setting up a small scale pyrolysis unit that produces biochar in a lab; studying the availability and applicability of local feedstocks for biochar; evaluating the biochar from the pyrolysis unit and conducting small scale field trials to determine which feedstocks work best. Once this initial work is complete, the project will set up small farm units and conduct further field trials on the farms.

Additionally, the project will carry out larger, pilot sized field trials at mid-size farms with larger units and feedstocks. As each phase of the project is finished, it will be scaled up to determine its applicability on a larger scale. The project will work to share information by bringing in specialists and students from around Chile and internationally to share their experience and results.

Camilo Andres Urbina Alonso heads the Chilean biochar project. A biotechnology entrepreneur, Mr. Urbina is relatively new to the field of biochar as Terra Preta is most often found in tropical climates. Chile has arid and semi-arid agriculture with a savannah-type ecosystem. Studying biochar success in this climate will be important for assessing application to agriculture in Australia and other arid zones. In a recent interview with Mr. Urbina I asked about the Chilean biochar effort:

OMN: How did you find out about the IBI and its mission?

Urbina: Well, soon after becoming aware of the concept and philosophy behind Terra Preta I begun to actively search for information sources and institutional support. IBI is widely acknowledged as the global leader in the scientific and technical aspects of biochar.

Later, as I begun to shape the idea of making a project for assessing biochar here in my country, I wanted to have the best scientific advice and thus contacted Dr. Johannes Lehmann (co-founder of IBI) and told him what I was pursuing.

He recommended that I talk to one of his post graduate students, PhD candidate Julie Major, who initially agreed to take part as adviser to our Chilean Project. Julie also recommended that I send a proposal to the IBI to apply to be part of their international project. I for one can only say that if more people could be as committed and devoted as the IBI people are this world would become instantly a less troubled place.

OMN: How will your research benefit the citizens of Chile?

Urbina: Chile is a long and narrow strip of land stretching over near 5000 Km from north to south encompassing a wide diversity of geographical landscapes and agricultural environments from the driest desert of the world (Atacama desert) in the north to evergreen wet forests in the south. Our biochar Terra Preta research project is aimed at assessing the benefits of using biochar in the harsh conditions in which agriculture is performed by the local farmers inhabiting the rugged narrow valleys formed from the runoff of melting snow from the Andes mountains. By the time the meltwater reaches the agricultural region it has a high salt content. This creates saline soils but, by virtue of the favorable temperatures and high solar input, they manage to have high production rates.

Our work introducing the practice of biochar in these conditions will produce the following benefits for the farmers:

- These soils are extremely poor in organic matter. Biochar is stabilized organic matter with a series of benefits for the structure and chemical properties of the soils.
- These soils are high in salts, including salts of boron which are toxic to plants. We expect biochar to have a salt buffering effect in the soils, meaning that it will retain a part of the salts and release them slowly to the surrounding soil. This decreases the total availability of salt and thus reduces the stresses that can damage crops at the root zone.
- These soils are poor in structure and do not retain water and nutrients well. We expect porous iochar particles to significantly increase soil water and nutrient retention ability.

One of our primary aims is to benefit the rural population with new uses for biomass that they normally burn to ashes for quick easy disposal. This formerly wasted biomass is transformed into a source of improvement for their soils and crops. In the future, there's a high probability of offering increased revenue from carbon offsets resulting from long term carbon sequestration. In any case, the urban population (citizens) will undoubtedly benefit in the mid and long term because of improved environmental conditions and a supply of more and higher quality locally produced food items.

OMN: What activities will your research and development involve?

Urbina: Our project pioneers the use of biochar in hyper-arid conditions. In this regard we will extend research already performed for tropical climates and include other aspects that normally have not been researched. It has a total scheduled length of 48 months.

In our project's first year we will survey all locally available biochar feedstocks, including crop residues, salt tolerant woody weeds, animal manures, some organic industrial wastes and domestic organic wastes. We are going to make biochar from every available material and proceed to assess its stability, mineral content, porosity, water holding capacity and other relevant parameters. Concurrently with these efforts we will be collaborating with IBI for design and construction of a farm-sized biochar kiln to enable continuous pyrolytic production.

Our second year commences with a scientifically designed and surveyed period of controlled field experiments based on the evaluation of locally produced crops. This is the core of the scientific validation of the effects of biochar in crop production and carbon stability. Our study will assess the effects of biochar in our arid, saline, soils.

In the third year, while we continue the controlled field experiments, we are going to introduce a local network of small farmers to use biochar on their farms as a pilot plan during the two main crop seasons. In the fourth and last year of the project, the pilot test crops will be performed in croplands that have accrued biochar for the past three years. In the final years we plan a series of extension activities with seminars and field days in which farmers will gain insight about the short term benefits and long term possibilities of biochar use.

OMN: What are your long term hopes for the project?

Urbina: My personal hopes are of being able to show scientifically that biochar is a sound preferred alternative for biomass management eliminating waste and misuse. We hope to be able to show a noticeable increase of yields and crop quality to the farmers without additional impact on production costs. Also, commercial activities will be aimed to establish a basis for a large scale centralized production of biochar that will serve further as the basis for a carbon emission/sequestration certification. This will, I hope, be an economic stimulus to produce more biochar and sequester it on both productive and non-productive soils.

OMN: What would you tell the young people of the world regarding carbon reduction?

Urbina: Folks, we really need to stop increasing the atmospheric CO2, start reducing its levels, and making of these two activities a constant concern and occupation. Tomorrow's world may not seem to be our concern, but it will be for our children and grandchildren.

The Belize Project

Next, the Belize project was discussed with Craig Sams. He and Daniel Morrell are co-founders of Carbon Gold, a biochar company providing installation, training and technical support, with centralized marketing of the pyrolysis service and products. Also, Sams is a co-founding partner of Green & Black's Chocolate, which since 1994 has been buying organic cocoa from the TCGA, farmer's co-operative in Belize. Formerly he was the Chairman of the Soil Association of the United Kingdom. Currently he is the Chairman of Soil Association Certification Ltd, which authenticates organic farming, fair trade, farm assurance and has the network to authenticate carbon sequestration.

OMN: I understand that you will be using cacao tree pruning. Why?

Sams: We use a pretty simple technology that works reliably on a farm. This will process most types of agricultural biomass, including corn stalks, pruning from shade trees, cut biomass from slash-and-char farming, rice husks and sawmill off-cuts.

OMN: Are biomass "waste products" from other crops as easily converted?

Sams: We don't believe in 'waste' - all biomass should be turned to biochar. Waste happens when you burn biomass as you are wasting an opportunity to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere.

OMN: What are the local economic benefits of biochar to the citizens of Belize?

Sams: They are twofold. Income from the carbon credits accumulated. Because of avoided emissions and because the carbon is not re-emitted to the atmosphere there is a high value credit factor. In addition the char enriches the soil or can be sold in fertilizer blends that will increase yields from farming activity. Our project works in harmony with cacao farming, shifting cultivation agriculture and forest and nature reserve protection and management. So there are benefits to the environment and to biodiversity that will benefit everyone.

OMN: What are the specific activities in which local citizens will be involved?

Sams: The cocoa farmers will gain value from their pruning and shade trimmings, local brickmakers will manufacture components of the retorts, rice husk waste will be converted into useful soil amendments and shifting cultivation will adapt to an emerging slash--char--mulch system that will reduce pressure on land and forest.

OMN: In a paper this year Dr. Tim Lenton said that turning agricultural waste into charcoal and burying it may hold the greatest potential for long-term carbon storage on land. So is biochar's recognition as a viable tool about to arrive?

Sams: Absolutely. It's happening at an amazing rate as people realize its potential. The Financial Times devoted 6 pages to an in-depth analysis of it and emphasized its importance to avoiding catastrophic climate change. However, we still need to establish more firmly that biochar doesn't degrade back to CO2, that it really does reduce fertilizer use, and that while it increases microbiological populations it stabilizes their activity which helps retain water in soil. These are crucial issues that we are confident we have the answers for, but which need to be proven in order for biochar to be accepted at full value in the climate credit exchanges.

OMN: In an article you've been quoted as saying that if just two and a half per cent of the world's productive land were used to produce biochar, CO2 could be returned to pre-Industrial Revolution levels by 2050. Do we need international commitments by governments on sequestration through biochar?

Sams: All we need is for biochar to be given its true value in the coming cap and trade arrangements that will underpin the carbon markets of the future. To date cowardly politicians, even in Germany, have undermined the rigour that is essential if carbon markets are to make any difference to climate change. To date it could be argued that cap and trade and emissions trading schemes have actually made things worse. Biochar is the gold standard of all CO2 mitigation technologies but it is still not recognised as such. We even have the ridiculous situation in the UK where you can expend a lot of energy to generate syngas from pyrolysis and then the paltry biochar residue can't be claimed as an offset. This makes it even harder for a company like ours that is committed to maximising the biochar output from a given amount of biomass. Our leaders need to stop using climate change as an excuse for subsidising farmers in a vain and unaffordable attempt to compete with natural gas and oil. All those subsidies should be going to solar and wind and tidal energy, not to burning food.

OMN: What are your hopes for expanding your project(s)?

Sams: We see no reason why biochar can't sequester gigatonnes of CO2 within the next decade and we want our projects to show the way forward by being sustainable, supporting biodiversity and protecting the land rights of small farmers everywhere.

OMN: If you could give a message to the young people of the world regarding carbon reduction, what would it be?

Sams: Eat less meat. It is the single most important way that we can reduce the pressure on land and forests. Meat provides nutrition in the most wasteful way possible. If we have to suffer a reduction in obesity, heart disease, cancer and other degenerative diseases as a result of eating less meat then so be it. There are worse fates than to live a long and healthy life on a planet that is no longer in peril primarily because people modified their carnivorous food choices. I used to be a vegetarian, now I'm more of a 'flexitarian' in that I will occasionally eat animal products in social situations. But once you've given up meat for any length of time you realise how unnecessary it is when you do eat it you appreciate it all the more for the understanding that it is a luxury.

OMN: Thank you both for your time.

The people of our planet face a looming threat in the form of increasing levels of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming and climate change. If we are to minimize those changes and stabilize these environment threats, local projects like IBI's international biochar production and utilization project must be added to the world's mix of approaches to solving this grave problem.

Greg Daigle is a former professor of design and is Executive Director of Digital Watershed and it's environmental project, The World Class Initiative. He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Ms. Leslie Kratz in the preparation of this article.
©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Gregory Daigle

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