Friday, December 11, 2009

My COP15 Journal: Day Seven

Day 7: In Denmark the public transport system is enviable by anyone living in a country whose mass transit is, to quote Jim Kunstler, something Bulgaria would be ashamed of. I am staying at a farm an hour out in the country from Copenhagen, but it is a short walk to the nearest bus shelter and even an hour before sunrise the buses run every 10 minutes.  Stepping off the bus and onto the Copenhagen train is a mere 12 strides, and, like the bus, the trains run constantly, about 20 minutes apart at this hour.

Changing to the Bella Center metro train at Norreport, another 6 minute wait, then five stops down the line we come to the metro stop for COP-15, and the gauntlet of conference security, along with the protestors who form up outside, install daily art, leaflet delegates and perform street theater.

Moving briskly to the anti-biochar side event hosted by EcoNexus, we politely sat through an hour of presentations against various bad practices in agriculture (including the mistaken lumping of organic no-till with chemical no-till) until the microphone arrived in front of Deepak Rughani of Biofuelwatch.

Rughani’s 16 minute talk is now available as an audio download (22 Mb) on our website.

Pointing out that 14 governments and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification have endorsed biochar, Rughani said that biochar was being fast-tracked through the Clean Development Mechanism without adequate vetting. He said it was like releasing a new pharmaceutical product without clinical testing. He enumerated several “false claims”  that he said were going unexamined.

First, carbon negative cooking and heating. Rughani said that with any fire, you only get the energy out that you put in, so if you get a third to half out as biochar, that means you have to find a third to half more fuel, which in many parts of the world is already unsustainable and leading to deforestation.

We all know the bad health effects of inhaling soot, endemic in Africa and Asia, and when you add the handling of biochar from stoves, this problem will only worsen, he said.

Second, carbon negative agriculture. We are seeing large clouds of black soot when biochar is broadcast to the fields, Rughani complained, showing dramatic photos. This is only adding to the climate problem, not to say global dimming, and of course some of that carbon is swept up by the wind and carried aloft.

When you spread these large swaths of biochar across the ground you turn the field black. Fine for Japan, where they want to warm the earth, but in Africa the last thing you want is hotter soils, Rughani said.

Third, long retention, a la terra preta. Rughani asserted that microbial breakdown is what will determine whether the biochar will stay in the soil or not. He claimed up to 72 percent will oxidize and go back to the atmosphere as CO2 within 20 years. He based this on the misconception, and some isolated and unreviewed case studies, that microbes metabolize biochar and turn it into CO2, which is now well established to be untrue. The only place that biochar works to improve crops is in the tropics, Rughani said, and turning the Amazon soils into inorganic carbon is disastrous. The premise that biochar only works in the tropics is patently false, and the latter statement is belied by history.

The nutrient loss, much of which will be vaporized, Rughani argued, means that people will become more dependent on industrial fertilizers, and the more you strip away the topsoil in the tropics, the more vulnerable these soils are to erosion, and since you have been applying fertilizer, this means you need to apply more fertilizer, and it also means eutrophication of rivers and lakes.

Rughani concluded that 156 NGOs have come out against biochar and the precautionary principle would suggest that when you undertake geoengineering schemes of this type that more study and vetting of the claims should precede widespread adoption of the practice.

All of that sounds quite reasonable until you realize that this has been studied for decades now, and, while studies are still needed and are ongoing, we know enough to conclude that biochar, properly characterized, manufactured and applied, is ready for prime time now. It is the safest solution available to get us back south of 350, on decadal timeframes, safer by far than the no-action option dictated by the precautionary principle.

Biofuelwatch’s talk displayed much more global dimming than biochar will. While there were some legitimate concerns — all ones that are being addressed by the biochar policy community in a considered and deliberate fashion — there were a huge number of false or misleading statements sprinkled through Rughani’s talk. Raising spectres of giant tree plantations that displace indigenous societies, an industry that crushes local initiatives, enhanced addictions to fertilizer, and destruction of soil humus on a massive scale, Rughani employed virtually every faulty syllogism in the propagandist’s handbook.

We were reminded of the admonition we’d received from the late David Comey, formerly of the London OSS office in World War II, whose job it was to deceive the Wehrmach of the location and timing of the Normandy landings.

Comey advised, at a time when we were just embarking on our anti-nuclear work, that in good propaganda, it is always truth that establishes credibility. A single falsehood can set you back for a lifetime. Biofuelwatch would do well to learn this lesson.

Had biochar not been more than adequately defended by real scientists, permaculturists, African stove-makers and Danish organic farmers at the Bella Center the day before, addressing each and every one of Rughani’s spurious arguments, one might have some greater concern. Truth will out.

If there is a legitimate concern, it is that biochar will be excluded from the UNFCCC process, and excluded from any cap and share or clean development mechanism. In that event, Biofuelwatch’s worst nightmares could be realized. In a Wild West scenario, where there are no certification standards, no requirements for life cycle analysis, no feedstock and product characterization, and no need for continued research on soil biology and plant results, precisely the monocropping, toxicity, displacement of the poor and all the rest become possible, even probable.

From Bella Center we hopped the metro back to Christianshavn and strolled over to the Bottom Up meeting where we were given 20 minutes to speak on the 40-year experience of The Farm. One of the speakers after us was worth sticking around for, and his running theme knocked our socks off.

The Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi, Theravidin Buddhist monk and scholar, and co-author of A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change began with asking the audience what would they do if the Big Top tent we were sitting in suddenly caught fire.

He paused to let us think, and then answered for us. “We would go outside and start finding buckets and water. We would form a line and pass the buckets to throw onto the flames, in order to extinguish the fire before it burns the tent.

“We wouldn’t start bargaining with each other, saying, you carry four buckets of water but I’m just going to carry one bucket. We wouldn’t respond, if I carry four buckets then you should pay me, because I am carrying four more times than you are.
“We wouldn’t put out just 25% of the flames or 40% of the flames; we wouldn’t stop until we had extinguished the entire fire. Yet our planet, the world that we live in, is literally on fire. The oceans are rising, threatening to inundate the continents with water. The centers of the continents are drying out. Large sections of woodland are burning up, setting off terrible wildfires which are killing hundreds of people. Just in the past year, 150,000 people died just from the effects of global warming. The land which is fertile enough to grow our food is growing sterile....

“So what are the people at Bella Center going to be doing over the next week? You say you will carry four buckets, I say I’ll carry one bucket, but we won’t start carrying them until 2020? So why is this happening? What is lying behind this delay, procrastination, wiggling out of commitments, trying to get by with the minimum that is possible? This is a question that has plagued me since I started to learn about global warming. The overwhelming majority of people who know about this are saying, ‘Do something, don’t delay, hurry up, we are losing islands already.’ Even the cities along the coast will be gone. What is the obstacle?

“I say there are three big obstacles in place. One is corporations that profit from selling fossil fuels — coal, oil and gas. These companies sponsor projects and organizations with names like Institute for Environmental Studies and the Institute for a Sane Environmental Policy, but who works there? — not reputable scientists but pawns, matchbook Ph.Ds. or scientists outside their discipline.

“The second is the bed-partner of the corporations, the politicians. To run for elections you need what? Brain? Intelligence? Wisdom? Compassion? No. You need money. You can’t beat a competitor with powerful corporate backing by sending out fundraising letters in the mail. And this whole process makes economic prosperity the goal in and of itself. Not social welfare but how much money we make, what is our profit margin, how large is our dividend. Everything is transformed into the abstraction of numbers, which one can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t swim in, can’t grow food in. This is greed working with ignorance, and underlying it is fear.

“We need to create a hierarchy of priorities. It needs to be based on harmonious families, harmonious communities, and harmonious social order. This is grounded in commitment — to satisfaction of our basic needs, moderation, frugality, compassion, care for those in need, non-violence, honesty, truthfulness. We need a human way of living that satisfies our cultural, aesthetic and intellectual needs to grow. This, then, gives primacy to the pursuit of spiritual development.”

Back at the Bella Center, we had a brief talk on the record with IPCC lead scientist, Stephen Schneider. That is now available as an audio download from our website.

Making it over to the Klimaforum for the first time, we saw Naomi Klein’s panel and spend an hour with some of our permaculture buddies from Palestine, Malawi, El Salvador, Cuba, Slovakia, and France circling around Tony Anderson’s 10000 trees proposal.  Tony has reckoned we could put out the fire if we used these buckets:
  • Cut human emissions down by 1 ton CO2 per person by 2025. This will be harder in the consuming world than in the producing world.
  • Save all existing forests and wetlands from destruction.
  • Plant 6000 to 10000 trees per person.

We think this is a good start, but anyone who has been planting trees (as we have to offset our travel and other emissions, beginning in 1985) knows, 6000 to 10000 is not so many. It seems like many when you begin, but you have plenty of time in your life, and you can get into the habit of starting trees on a daily or weekly basis without much inconvenience.

Remember the China Youth pictured on Day 2 of our journal? Their 21st Century Greater Beijing Reforestation Model project is aimed at preventing desertification in China, which is now encroaching on Beijing. Those kids have planted trees on approximately 2,800 hectares over the past eight years, and it is steadily gathering speed. Recently the China Youth travelled to Japan to start the China/Japan Greenerization Fund. Cool name. 350 Chinese volunteers and 50 Japanese students successfully planted about 250 hectares with some 300,000 camphor, mangnolia and evergreens. And they are having a great time, enjoying cultural exchange, travel and camaraderie, and saving the planet.

The kids of China have formed a bucket brigade and are putting out the fire.


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Kelpie said...

Albert - thanks for the great reports! I wanted to let you know about a document that IBI has posted that addresses point-by-point all of the claims from Biofuels Watch about biochar. It is called "Biochar Misconceptions and the Science." You will find it here:
You can also go to the IBI Publications link at and find it listed there.




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