Thursday, February 19, 2009

Biochar; part of the solution to climate change?

According to a growing, vocal and very well-connected group of scientists, entrepreneurs and lobbyists, the best if not the only way of humanity surviving climate change and solving the food and energy crisis is to plough billions of tonnes of charcoal into the soil every year. They call charcoal used in this way “biochar” and claim that it will lock up carbon for thousands of years, provide energy through the same process which produces the charcoal, greatly increase plant yields and stop deforestation (caused, according to many of them, mainly by small farmers who slash and burn forests because they cannot keep their soil fertile). However bizarre and unfounded these claims may be, they are being taken very seriously in high-level policy circles.

A keynote speaker at the 2008 conference of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI), which is the main biochar lobbying forum, was the Australian Tim Flannery. He chairs the Copenhagen Climate Council which is organising the World Business Summit on Climate Change in May, ’09, which will put forward business and pro-business leaders’ ‘recommendations’ to UNFCCC. Many IBI members and supporters are similarly well-connected and able to influence high-level policy decisions.

The IBI achieved major successes at the Poznan UNFCCC Conference: Following a UNCCD submission in Poznan, biochar has been included into the “dialogue for the post 2012 climate regime”. 1 Furthermore, the government of Micronesia proposed that biochar should play a vital role in mitigating climate change. Post-2012 CDM credits for biochar could be formally approved at Copenhagen.

If it is endorsed then a statement made by Flannery about “biochar” might well prove correct: “With the appropriate …promotion and adoption, it will change our world forever”, though, there is every reason to reach the opposite conclusion regarding the second part of his sentence: “and very much for the better”.2

Fine-grained charcoal is a by-product from biomass pyrolysis, a form of bioenergy production which yields two types of fuel; bio-oil and syngas as well as the charcoal. Both can be used for heat and power and they can also be further refined into second-generation agrofuels, i.e. into fuel for cars and potentially planes. It thus fits in perfectly with the push for biorefineries and tree plantations to fuel cars, but it does not depend on those. Pyrolysis for heat and power could be rapidly scaled up, provided that ‘market hurdles’ can be overcome. If pyrolysis companies could earn money from turning the biochar into patented fertilisers (with plantation expansion guaranteeing high profits from fertilisers), and if, on top of that they could attract carbon credits, the industry could take off very quickly. For companies such as Best Energies, Eprida, Dynamotive and Biomass Energy and Carbon, getting biochar included into carbon trading could make the difference between possible bankruptcy or, as Best Energies put it “win[ning] the current land grab in next-generation fuels”3.

IBI lobbyists promote an image of a future industry which primarily benefit small farmers and other villagers, through small pyrolysis units and charcoal-making cooking stoves, yet many of their spokespeople call for “biochar” ‘carbon sequestration’ targets which would make half a billion hectares of biochar plantations sound conservative.

“Biochar” thus fits in with other false climate solutions based on large-scale plantations and land-grabbing, from agrofuels to ‘carbon sink’ tree plantations and GE trees. The scientific rationale for “biochar” is even shakier than for many other false solutions: Agrofuels, however harmful, can at least power cars. Applying charcoal to soils, on the other hand has not been shown to reliably sequester carbon or make soil more fertile on its own. The ‘evidence’ for the claims is based primarily on terra preta, ancient soils in Central Amazonia, formed hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Terra preta was created by small farmers who, over many generations, mixed charcoal as well as compost, animal and fish bones, river sediments, manure and diverse biomass residues into the soil. There is no evidence that carbon-rich, fertile soils can be recreated simply – or quickly – by applying large quantities of charcoal to fields.

So far only one “biochar” field study has been published in peer-reviewed journals. Researchers found that, charcoal additions to soil made synthetic nitrogen fertilisers work better. Yields for plants grown with char and fertilisers were still considerably lower than for plants grown solely with chicken manure. Using nothing but charcoal, however, resulted in zero plant growth after two harvests. This is why a lot of the ‘biochar research’ actually involves an ammonium bicarbonate fertiliser, of which char is only one component. At least during this short-term study, most of the carbon remained in the soil, but other studies indicate that even this is not guaranteed.

A study in Kenya showed that over the first 20-30 years after biomass burning, soils lost 72% of the carbon contained in charcoal.(4) Initial results of a Colombian field study show that plots with charcoal had higher yields but lost 60% more soil carbon than control plots over two years.5 This makes claims about biochar having the potential to sequester carbon on a geo-engineeering scale little more than hot air.

The push for “”biochar today can be compared with that for agrofuels around 2002: Unfounded promises to solve the climate crisis and poverty with one stroke, while, behind the scenes, a massive lobbying effort is paving the way for artificial markets through state support. By the end of this year, the biochar lobby could well succeed in getting “biochar” into the CDM and other carbon trading schemes from 2012, possibly with ‘double credits’, as well as gaining other state support. Once this is in place, major industry investment and plantation expansion will follow. Several Indonesian pulp and paper companies, the executive director of the Indonesian palm oil association, Embrapa in Brazil, the Bolivian agribusiness firm DESA in Santa Cruz and Shell are amongst those already promoting the idea. The question is whether civil society groups and movements will be able to organise quickly enough and succeed in stopping the push for industrial biochar and, above all, carbon trading in charcoal as a soil amendment(“biochar”). If we fail this year then we could soon find ourselves fighting against another wave of land-grabbing and forest and other ecosystem destruction.

By Almuth Ernsting, Biofuelwatch,, e-mail: info at biofuelwatch dot org dot uk


For fuller information see in particular Section 4 of “Climate Geo-engineering with ‘Carbon Negative’ Bioenergy”,


Source: WRM Bulletin, Nr. 138 (Januar 2009)

For a briefing paper on biochar, please see 'Biochar for Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction?' by Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker, . For a detailed report about the different proposals for climate geo-engineering with biomass, including biochar, see 'Climate Geo-engineering with 'carbno negative' bioenergy: Climate saviour or climate endgame' by Almuth Ernsting and Deepak Rughani,

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At 3:01 AM, Blogger Erich J. Knight said...

Biochar Soil Technology.....Husbandry of whole new orders of life

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.

Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration,10X Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 3X Fertility Too.
Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration, Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

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, build it and they will come.
As one microbologist said on the TP list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat". By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,

Charles Mann ("1491") in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

Biochar data base;

NASA's Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.

The many new university programs & field studies, in temperate soils; Cornell, ISU, U of H, U of GA, Virginia Tech, JMU, New Zealand and Australia.

Glomalin's role in soil tilth, fertility & basis for the soil food web in Terra Preta soils.

UNCCD Submission to Climate Change/UNFCCC AWG-LCA 5
"Account carbon contained in soils and the importance of biochar (charcoal) in replenishing soil carbon pools, restoring soil fertility and enhancing the sequestration of CO2."

Given the current "Crisis" atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.


Erich J. Knight

Shenandoah Gardens
540 289 9750

Biochar Studies at ACS Huston meeting;



665 - III.


Most all this work corroborates char soil dynamics we have seen so far . The soil GHG emissions work showing increased CO2 , also speculates that this CO2 has to get through the hungry plants above before becoming a GHG.
The SOM, MYC& Microbes, N2O (soil structure), CH4 , nutrient holding , Nitrogen shock, humic compound conditioning, absorbing of herbicides all pretty much what we expected to hear.

Company News & EU Certification

Below is an important hurtle that 3R AGROCARBON has overcome in certification in the EU. Given that their standards are set much higher than even organic certification in the US, this work should smooth any bureaucratic hurtles we may face.

EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests
Subject: Fwd: [biochar] Re: GOOD NEWS: EU Permit Authority - 4 years tests successfully completed

Doses: 400 kg / ha – 1000 kg / ha at different horticultural cultivars

Plant height Increase 141 % versus control
Picking yield Increase 630 % versus control
Picking fruit Increase 650 % versus control
Total yield Increase 202 % versus control
Total piece of fruit Increase 171 % versus control
Fruit weight Increase 118 % versus control

There is list of the additional beneficial effects of the 3R FORMULATED BIOCHAREU DOSSIER for permit administration and summary of the results from 4 different Authorities who executed different test programme is under construction
I suggest these independent and accredited EU relevant Authority permit field tests results will support the further development of the biochar application systems on international level, and providing case evidence, that properly made and formulated (plant and/or animal biomass based) biochars can meet the modern environmental - agricultural - human health inspection standards and norm, while supporting the knowledge based economical development.

We work further on to expand not only in the EU but in the USA as well. My Cincinnati large scale carbonization project is progressing, hopefully the first industrial scale 3R clean coal - carbon plant will be ready in 2009.

Sincerely yours: Edward Someus (environmental engineer)

EcoTechnologies is planning for many collaborations ; NC State, U. of Leeds, Cardiff U. Rice U. ,JMU, U.of H. and at USDA with Dr.Jeffrey Novak who is coordinating ARS Biochar research. This Coordinated effort will speed implementation by avoiding unneeded repetition and building established work in a wide variety of soils and climates.

Hopefully all the Biochar companies will coordinate with Dr. Jeff Novak's soils work at ARS;

I spoke with Jon Nilsson of the CarbonChar Group, in their third year of field trials ;
An idea whose time has come | Carbon Char Group
He said the 2008 trials at Virginia Tech showed a 46% increase in yield of tomato transplants grown with just 2 - 5 cups (2 - 5%) "Biochar+" per cubic foot of growing medium.

At 6:21 AM, Blogger Rohan G said...

Thank you for your blog on this most important of topics.

I am not a professional scientist or expert so perhaps I am not as qualified as others to comment on this matter. However, the claims of so many enthusiasts of biochar are contradictory, even to the layperson like myself. On the one hand we are to believe that biochar locks carbon into the soil for hundreds, even thousands of years. On the other hand we hear claims that bichar is a wonderful nutrient for the soil, improving its fertility greatly. It is basic science that even a layperson like myself can easily understand that both of these statements cannot be true. If biochar carbon is a nutrient then it must surely return to the carbon cycle of nature. If that is true then claims of millennial sequestration are nothing but a hoax.

My suspicion is that, *in large volumes*, the claims of sequestration are valid but those of fertility enhancement are fictional.

At 3:37 AM, Blogger Erich J. Knight said...

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.


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