Biochar: a cause for concern?
Biochar: a cause for concern?
By Almuth Ernsting / theecologist.org

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
What's Next
Trending Today
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 4,853 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...
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 4,659 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 4,231 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
The Orwellian War on Skepticism
Robert Parry · 2,394 views today · Official Washington’s rush into an Orwellian future is well underway as political and media bigwigs move to silence Internet voices of independence and dissent, reports Robert...
Projext X: Using Leaked Documents to Reveal the NSA's New York Spy Hub, Hidden in Plain Sight
10 min · 2,272 views today · A top-secret handbook takes viewers on an undercover journey to Titanpointe, the site of a hidden partnership. Narrated by Rami Malek and Michelle Williams, and based on...
Where Do You Draw the Line? (2016)
60 min · 1,899 views today · Why is the Ecuadorian government proposing to extract oil in an area frequently classified by ecologists as one of the most bio-diverse rainforest regions left intact on earth?...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,788 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...
Twelve Things To Remember After The US Election, From Front Line Organizers
Bill Quigley · 1,783 views today · When you find yourself in a suddenly darkened room, what do you do?   Some rush blindly to where they think the door might be.  Others stand still, let their eyes get...
Law Professor's Epic Response to Black Lives Matter Shirt Complaint
Social Design Notes · 1,068 views today · A first year law school student wrote a complaint about her professor having worn a Black Lives Matter T-shirt during class. The professor’s response is priceless. Scans of...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 993 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Social Media Echo Chambers: Here's How Most of Us are Living in One
2 min · 840 views today · Americans are blocking out the friends and news sites that won't confirm their views.
The Fight for Clean Water (#NoDAPL)
2 min · 782 views today · Clean water or Corporate profits? What’s more important? #NoDAPL Energy Transfer Partners: (214) 981-0700 U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers: (202) 761-0010; (202)...
Dakota Access Pipeline Permit Denied
Nika Knight · 725 views today · 'For the first time in Native American history, they heard our voices.'
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 694 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 617 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
This Short Film Plays Out Like an Epic Movie That Will Shake Your Soul - But the Movie Is Real, and We are The Actors
6 min · 544 views today · For next year, we need a resolution capable of confronting the crisis we face, and making a future worth fighting for. This short film looks back on the crisis and confusion...
Dreaming Beyond Capitalism: a Culture Without Fear
Martin Winiecki · 416 views today · In the 1990s an unusual encounter took place in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In plant rituals, shamans of the Achuar, a tribe living in pristine forest that had never been in touch...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 384 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...
How a Land High in the Western Himalayas Can Help Us Understand The Crisis of The Modern World
9 min · 361 views today · This is a clip from The Economics of Happiness. Watch it here. It's a brilliant film that was easy to put at the top of our list of the top 100 documentaries we can use to...
The 6 Grand Illusions That Keep Us Enslaved
Sigmund Fraud · 341 views today · For a magician to fool his audience his deceit must go unseen, and to this end he crafts an illusion to avert attention from reality. While the audience is entranced, the...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Biochar: a cause for concern?