Biochar

The use of charcoal for sequestering carbon dioxide and enriching the soil

For ten years James Bruges and Marion Wells, who live in Bristol, UK, have been associated with an NGO in south India called Social Change And Development (SCAD), which was started 25 years ago by Cletus Babu to help poor rural communities. It now works in 400 villages that have 5,500 farmers. 

Visiting India this year James was interested in the use of charcoal for sequestering carbon dioxide: to such an extent that he would collar anyone he met on the subject much to Marion’s embarrassment. However this paid dividends when a friend introduced him to Ravi Kumar, an innovator at the Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology in Mysore, who had been working on the subject for eight years and was frustrated because he had not found a suitable organisation to put his ideas into practice. He suggested Ravi should contact SCAD and they are now working together. 

Why charcoal? Plants, not just woody ones, capture carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis and can be turned into charcoal before they rot and release the gas.  Carbon is captured and oxygen released. Charcoal is light in weight because it is largely air caught between the skeletal carbon-structure of plants. If buried it locks carbon in the ground, rather like coal mining in reverse. Farmers at SCAD were initially horrified at the thought of ploughing charcoal, a valuable fuel, into ground, but when they saw photos of its microscopic structure they immediately got the point: it would trap moisture and prevent water run-off. It was then explained to them how the voids in charcoal would attract microbes and nutrients if charged with urine and manure. Now they are keen, this season, to test whether it can indeed increase the fertility of the soil. 

Ravi, through endless trial and error, had developed a ‘pyrolysis’ unit that can be used by a family to produce charcoal using any scraps of plant material that can be gleaned, of which there is no shortage. What’s more, the gases from the process ignite and keep the charring process going for over an hour, long enough to cook a meal. It is like a barbecue, except that it makes, rather than burns, charcoal. 

Cletus Babu appreciates that, if successful, the use of these units could spread naturally – by word of mouth and demonstration – for small-scale farmers to adopt them in India, Africa, Indonesia and China. The incentive to use them would be improvement to the structure and fertility of the soil. This grass-roots approach could then be the primary way in which carbon dioxide is captured, globally. He is now extremely keen to promote the project. 

Reservations about industrial carbon sequestration 

Carbon sequestration using charcoal is being developed with larger industrial units in the US – they call it biochar – but lack of finance is causing delay. They see the way forward through being able to claim financial credits for carbon that is successfully buried in the ground. Surely a regime of carbon credits would also bring added income to the above Indian farmers? The idea is tempting but Ravi is suspicious. 

Carbon credits are built into the Kyoto protocol: western industries are allowed to ease the transition to lower emissions by financing initiatives that reduce emissions in poor countries. However, for the ten years since the protocol was introduced, emissions have been steadily rising. 

The European Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) gives big companies an allocation for greenhouse gas emissions. Over-polluting companies can buy credits from companies that do not use their full allocation. Energy companies are making huge windfall profits from the scheme and emissions in Europe are steadily rising, not falling. This provides adequate cause for caution about using a global economic mechanism to achieve change in agricultural practice. 

Look at it from the perspective of small-scale farmers: they could not possibly keep separate records of how much charcoal they use for cooking, or selling, or putting into the ground. They could not enter into trans-national contracts. And monitoring would require an army of, possibly corrupt, bureaucrats. Agri-businesses would be the only organisations to benefit. Small-scale farmers would be out-competed, bought out and join the disastrous migration to city slums.

But worse would follow. As regulations progressively reduce the amount of greenhouse gas that industries are allowed to emit, they would be desperate to increase their allocation. The value of carbon credits would rise. In due course it would be more profitable for agri-businesses to use land for the most efficient carbon-capturing crops, like hemp and elephant grass, than for food crops. Land-use would join biofuels to service the western way of life in competition with food for the poor. 

Instead of carbon credits, carbon sequestration should be encouraged by direct grants for appropriate equipment. Regulations, particularly in the west, could require farmers to maintain soil carbon at an acceptable level. These approaches, together with the incentive of higher yields, would be more appropriate than introducing a global financial system that would inevitably have unexpected consequences. 

One cannot over-emphasise the importance of getting it right. There is already too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Emissions must be reduced but we must also bring concentrations back to pre-industrial levels. Human survival is at stake. There is no better way, maybe no other way, of achieving this than integrating carbon-capture with farming, which is, after all, the one essential activity for human security. 

For a detailed analysis and account see James’ Schumacher Briefing 16: The Biochar debate, Green Books 2009 

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In CHSUK’s files: 

Corporate Europe Observatory has written a who’s who guide to corporate lobbying at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen: ‘Making Money out of Climate Change’. 

The UN climate talks have become a “must attend” for huge numbers of business lobbyists, each eager to promote their preferred “solution” to tackling climate change – which protects their business interests. More:

International Biochar Initiative (IBI) – the corporate version: 8 December 2009

The International Biochar Initiative is the main vehicle lobbying for biochar – using charcoal to store carbon in soils. IBI represents Biochar Engineering (US), Carbon Gold (UK), Crucible Carbon (Australia), Mantira Industries (US), Carbon Zero (Switzerland) and Carbonscale (New Zealand).

IBI claims that charcoal (produced by burning trees) can act as a “soil improver”, but critics warn that it could lead to a vast expansion of tree monocultures.

The International Biochar Initiative lobbied the UN Convention to Combat Deforestation (UNCCD) and 14 governments, persuading them to call for the inclusion of biochar in the Clean Development Mechanism. IBI also wants biochar to be included in carbon trading schemes like the European Emissions Trading Scheme.

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One response to “Biochar

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