Biochar: a cause for concern?
Biochar: a cause for concern?
By Almuth Ernsting / theecologist.org
Feb 9, 2014

Back in 2009, I discussed the claims that incorporating biochar in soils could help mitigate climate change in an Ecologist article.  At the time, biochar was included in a draft UN climate agreement: biochar carbon offsets were proposed and proponents were speaking about the potential for sequestering billions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere every year through biochar. 

The term biochar is generally used for charcoal added to soils. It can be made from any type of biomass. A widely promoted idea is for biochar to be produced in modern pyrolysis plants which also generate heat and electricity.However, such systems are not technically proven at a commercial scale. Virtually all biochar sold at present – commonly with promises of soil improvement as well as climate benefits - and most of the biochar used in scientific studies, has been produced through traditional charcoal making methods. Different types of biochar have very different chemical structures and properties, depending on how they were produced, at which temperatures, from which type of biomass, and how they were cooled and handled. 

In my previous article, I highlighted the lack of scientific field studies to show whether or not the basic claims made by biochar proponents were valid, i.e. the claims that biochar will sequester carbon over long periods while benefitting crop yields at the same time. I cited a declaration signed by 150 organisations worldwide which described biochar as “a new big threat to people, land, and ecosystems” and warned that carbon credits for biochar could trigger a new wave of land-grabbing for monoculture plantations. 

Four years on – have those concerns been realised? In August 2010, science magazine Nature Communications published an article which suggested that 12% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions could be offset with ‘sustainable biochar’. As one of the authors later confirmed, this figure was based on the assumption that 556 million hectares of land would be converted to biochar production. That is an area 1.7 times the size of India. This confirmed my fears that an ambitious global biochar programme would require land-conversion to plantations on a vast scale.  

Yet the prospect of ambitious biochar programmes being implemented – and thus the threat of large-scale biochar land grabs - has receded. References to biochar were dropped from the UN negotiating text soon after civil society groups and government delegates objected. Biochar remains ineligible for carbon offsets under any carbon trading mechanism. Even if that was to change, it would make little difference: The UK Biochar Research Centre estimates that, if UK biochar was produced at a cost of £148 to £389, it would require a carbon price between £39 and £57 per tonne of carbon to make most types of biochar financially viable. Right now, the only two commercial suppliers in the UK, Oxford Biochar and Carbon Gold, are selling biochar at £4,333 and £5,950 per tonne respectively. Global carbon markets meantime have effectively collapsed. This collapse is due largely to governments failing to set or enforce emissions caps and over-allocating carbon emissions permits to polluters, thus destroying the demand for carbon offsets – although the very principle of carbon trading as a way of reducing emissions has come under increasing criticism, too. Under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which accounts for 90% of carbon trading worldwide, the price of a tonne of carbon is now “below junk status”, according to the Economist

Corporate support, albeit limited in scale, has mainly come from the Canadian tar sands industry, led by ConocoPhillips, who have been promoting it amongst a wider range of ‘carbon sequestration’ geoengineering approaches and undoubtedly as one way of ‘greening’ the image of one of the world’s most destructive industries. For example, ConocoPhillips has sponsored the ‘Biochar Protocol’ which aims to get biochar included into two carbon trading schemes – one of them being the Alberta Offset System, a carbon offset scheme primarily for the tar sands industry.  

Despite these concerns, the number of biochar projects worldwide has continued to grow. A World Bank funded survey in 2011 identified 150 biochar projects in 38 developing countries. Only a small minority of those projects has resulted in peer-reviewed studies. Project developers commonly announce spectacularly successful results without scientific scrutiny or statistical analysis.

In 2011, Biofuelwatch commissioned an independent researcher in Cameroon to investigate a project by the Belgian Biochar Fund in that country, which had reported ‘exceptional results’ and benefits for poor farmers. The reality was different: small farmers had been persuaded through spurious promises of carbon credits to provide land and labour for pilot ‘trials’, without remuneration. By the time the researcher, Benoit Ndameu, visited, the project had been abandoned and farmers were left angry, speaking of high hopes and broken promises. While farmers clearly did not benefit, Biochar Fund’s Managing Director used claims about the project to leverage 315 million from the Congo Basin Forest Fund for a biochar project in DR Congo, for which no results were ever published. As this shows, the fact that a project is small-scale and does not involve land-grabs does not guarantee it is beneficial or even benign. 

Fortunately, there are some biochar field studies that have been published – albeit few in number and none longer than 4 years in term, but this has allowed us to research many of the biochar claims and broader soil science reviews have also looked at biochar. Answers to some of the questions we raised in 2009 have begun to emerge – and they do not back up optimistic forecasts.

In 2011, we found and analysed the results of five relevant field studies which, between them, tested biochar on 11 different combinations of soil and vegetation. In 5 out of those 11 samples, adding biochar (except in one case at an extremely high rate of over 100 tonnes per hectare) did not increase the amount of carbon in the soils – i.e. there was zero carbon sequestration. In another case, adding biochar led to a temporary overall loss of soil carbon.  The authors did not offer any explanation for the likely reasons of this carbon loss in the article, however other studies have demonstrated that adding biochar to soils can stimulate soil microbes to degrade existing soil carbon, causing it to be emitted as carbon dioxide. 

In 3 cases, biochar increased soil carbon compared to adding nothing to soils – but not when compared to other common soil amendments, such as saw dust, manure and geen manure.  In just 3 out of 11 cases did biochar result in additional carbon sequestration, at least short-term but its long-term stability is still in question. This rather contradicts claims such as those by the UK Biochar Foundation that “biochar has properties which make it suitable for the safe and long-term storage of carbon in the environment”.  

Most biochar research now focuses on identifying and producing different ‘designer’ biochars with different properties including with particularly ‘stable’ carbon. Yet soil science reviews show that such findings tell us very little. As two such reviews show, the fate of any type of soil carbon cannot be predicted from looking at molecular structures or at what happens under laboratory conditions.

Carbon in organic residues may not last long under laboratory conditions but may remain in living soils for millennia. And black carbon, the form of carbon in biochar, which appears extremely stable under sterile laboratory conditions, may disappear rapidly from soils. It appears that the stability of carbon depends primarily on highly variable soil and climatic conditions. Those insights fundamentally undermine the case for biochar as a reliable way of sequestering carbon, although this has not stopped the International Biochar Initiative and their members and supporters from continuing to claim that “The carbon in biochar resists degradation and can hold carbon in soils for hundreds to thousands of years.”  

Biochar is also promoted as a way of improving crop yields. Those claims, too, are contradicted by science. Field studies reveal highly variable impacts. A recent synthesis review found that in half of all published studies, biochar had either no effect on plants or more worryingly, even suppressed their growth. The author cautioned that due to possible ‘publication bias’, the reported success in 50% of cases should not be taken “as evidence of an overall biochar likelihood of producing positive impacts”. 

Even if the claims made for biochar as a way to sequester carbon do not stack up, can it do any wider harm if farmers or gardeners in the UK use it?  Unfortunately, yes. Since modern pyrolysis plants remain unproven, biochar relies on traditional charcoal making – which is so inefficient that 85-90% of biomass carbon gets lost as carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere in the process.  From 2007-2011, the UK imported on average 70,876 tonnes of charcoal every year, which is a rising trend. Imports – from Africa, Latin America and SE Asia - account for 95% of charcoal used in the UK, adding to the pressure on tropical forests and to carbon emissions from shipping. Various charcoal projects aim to replace imports with UK-produced charcoal, but those efforts are futile if the demand for charcoal keeps going up. Promoting a new use of charcoal in this context seems irresponsible – all the more so when that use does not even have any proven benefits. 

Almuth Ernsting is a member of the Biofuelwatch team. 

http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/category/reports/biochar/ 

0.0 ·
0
Trending Today
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 17,701 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
Before He Was Assassinated, MLK Jr. Was Advocating For An End To Income Inequality
10 min · 13,473 views today · We can honor MLK Jr. by pursuing the causes he was advocating for before he was killed.  ​​ Part 2: The Basic Income, A New Human Right (3 minutes) MLK's idea of a basic...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 6,934 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Watch How Europeans Carved Up African Land They Never Owned
56 min · 5,697 views today · Watch how Europeans gave away African land they never owned, then expressed anger when Africans resisted. The film is called Africa: A Voyage of Discovery, Episode 6: The...
One "Piece of the Oppressor" That I Have Discovered Within Myself
Tim Hjersted · 3,653 views today · One "piece of the oppressor" that I have found in myself during my inner activist journeys is my use of shame as a method of engaging with the world's problems. Having learned...
The Corporation (2003)
145 min · 2,572 views today · The Corporation is today's dominant institution, creating great wealth but also great harm. This 26 award-winning documentary examines the nature, evolution, impacts and future...
#ReclaimMLK Seeks to Combat the Sanitizing of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy
Danielle C. Belton · 2,441 views today · Martin Luther King Jr. had more than “a dream,” but you might not notice that on Monday during observances for his birthday. Somewhere between his assassination and today...
What Martin Luther King Jr. Can Teach Us about Nonviolence
John Dear · 2,289 views today · I've been reflecting on the principles of nonviolence that Martin Luther King Jr. learned during the historic yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. After Rosa Parks refused...
Coping With Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the White House
N Ziehl · 1,326 views today · I want to talk a little about narcissistic personality disorder. I’ve unfortunately had a great deal of experience with it, and I’m feeling badly for those of you who are...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,102 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,036 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
22 Documentaries That Tell the Truth About How Government Really Works
Tim Hjersted · 391 views today · And 6 that show how people are responding.
The Comprehensive Activist Guide to Dismantling Neoliberalism
Drew Serres · 384 views today · “The creation of today’s market society was not the result of a sequence of spontaneous events but rather of state interference and violence.” – Naomi Klein in The Shock...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 358 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 353 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Positive Thinking in a Dark Age: A Guide to Gracefully Losing Faith in a Collapsing Dominant Culture
Jim Tull · 329 views today · I recall a Buddhist parable involving a stick that appears from a distance to be a snake, causing fear to rise in the perceiver. As the perception shifts upon closer...
This Woman Gets No Applause...Why? They Are Too Creeped Out...
7 min · 300 views today · Think you aren't being fooled by advertising tricks? Take a look at this so-called expert revealing food marketing's secret weapon. No amount of marketing makes factory farming...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 296 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 274 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Stunning Photos By Alexander Semenov Showcase The Alien Beauty Of Jellyfish
Earth Porm · 274 views today · Jellyfish appear like beautiful aliens in Alexander Semenov’s photography, calling a new attraction to a magical species of marine life. Alexander Semenov is a marine...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Biochar: a cause for concern?