If the problem we have is too much carbon in the sky (and conversely too little in the ground), then the solution is to deprive the sky while feeding the ground.
And yet, for much of the climate change policy community, biochar is still not on their radar. It’s too new.
In 2011 a Duke University study by the Technical Working Group on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases reviewed the research literature to assess the state of knowledge on the mitigation potential of a wide range of agricultural land management activities. They reported:
Out of 42 practices reviewed, 26 seem to have positive mitigation potential. Eleven of those were supported by significant research (more than 20 field or lab comparisons), 13 by a moderate level of research, and two, while promising, have little research.
Despite an 8000-year track record of adding and holding carbon in soils, biochar was among those last two. The other was mob grazing through Holistic Management.
Eric Toensmeier’s book, The Carbon Farming Solution, which is otherwise excellent, falls into this trap, falsely labeling biochar untested and potentially dangerous.
He may draw this conclusion from two seriously flawed (not to say insidiously undermined) studies by the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society. Both of those studies lumped biochar under the heading of geoengineering and then assigned it to the same dumpster as all the other already debunked carbon capture schemes without bothering to speak with any actual biochar scholars.
For the geoengineering techno-utopians, methods of atmospheric carbon extraction such as BECCS, air capture of CO2 or limestone salting imply estimated costs of 100 to >570 trillion dollars to deploy, and entail large risks with uncertain feasibility and duration. Among the uncertainties is our ability to muster sufficient political consent to impose expensive taxes and tariffs on carbon emissions in order to justify the economic burden of these efforts. When faced with dire economic environments, the public may simply choose to disregard moral duties towards future generations.
Biochar, in contrast, requires no tax subsidies (although that would accelerate the needed conversion) because it provides enough financial rewards as a renewable energy source and biofertilizer to justify the cost of making it from various woody wastes, most of which are burned away. It is easy to verify — just do annual or decadal soil tests — and easy to perform life-cycle costing because it has been commercially available for many years.
When we use terms like “carbon-minus” or “carbon-negative” we set off associations that immediately cause the majority of us to back away, or to regard the information as detrimental to us in some way. Last week we spoke of the important work on cognition provided by Alfred Korzybski’s theory of general semantics.
Just as an aside, one of Korzybski workshops, in the Autumn of 1939, was attended by a 25-year-old William S. Burroughs and the 36-year-old Samuel I. Hayakawa. Hayakawa, the nephew-in-law of Joseph Stalin, went on to become president of San Francisco State College (where, among the students he trained, was Stephen Gaskin) and a US Senator for California (1977-83) where he had untold influence on the seductive rhetorical practices of silver-screen-idol-turned politician Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party he led, later catalogued by George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.
We know that words that seem threatening, such as those that imply, hard conditions, forced austerity, higher taxes and so on, trigger a denial reflex in the human brain, one which was not possessed by our mammalian ancestors but which is important to our genetic survival. Once we realized that not only is it our karma to kill to live (right down to the billion of helpless microbes in every teaspoon of tofu), but each of our fates to suffer and die, we would go raving nuts were it not for the saving grace of the denial reflex.
So what should we use instead of carbon-minus? We like “cool.”
An example of "cool" branding was provided by the pilot Carbon Minus Project in Kameoka City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The Hozu rural farmers' cooperative, concerned about the overgrowth of bamboo that was destroying satoyama (managed forest commons) began producing bamboo biochar to amend their soils. Using a "Cool Vege" brand to denote the benefit of carbon sequestration, the university assisted cooperative demonstrated impressive success in marketing their produce to climate-conscious consumers.
Nothing stands in the way of the "cool" brand being extended to any product or service that reverses climate change. It is a sticky meme.
4 pour 1000
There are other reasons that good solutions may not get traction that have less to do with our fight or flight reflex. At COP-21 in Paris in 2015 the French government backed an initiative called 4 pour 1000. France had obtained pledges from over 25 countries – and would bring that number to 50 during COP-21 – as well as hundreds of food, agriculture and research organizations.
The "4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate" was a voluntary effort launched through the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.
"The conclusion is simple," said French Foreign Minister Le Foll. "If we can store the equivalent of 4 per 1000 (tons of carbon) in farmland soils, we are capable of storing all man-made emissions on the planet today."
But then what happened? At COP-22, France still featured 4 pour 1000 in its literature and displays, but it had attracted few new adherents or pledges in the year since Paris. There were no real success stories to point to, no carbon fields waving in the sunlight. Just hot air.
Food writer Michael Pollan, in a Washington Post Op-Ed during the Paris summit, wrote:
Marin County ranchers have found that applying a single layer of compost, less than an inch thick, to rangelands stimulates a burst of microbial and plant growth that sequesters dramatic amounts of carbon in the soil - more than 1.5 tons per acre. And research has shown that this happens not just once, but year after year.
If the practice were replicated on half the rangeland area of California, it would sequester enough carbon to offset 42 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, roughly equal to all the CO2 emitted by the State's electric utilities each year. Adding an inch of compost to all the rangelands each year would sequester as much as electric utilities, residential and commercial emissions combined.
What is left out of that calculation are the big gorillas in California's emissions picture: the industrial sector (77 million metric tons) and transportation, most notably the freeway system (200 million metric tons). California would need to convert its deserts to rangelands to get that much carbon locked away every year.
That is really the problem with 4 pour 1000: the math doesn’t pencil out. Le Foll’s goal of adding 0.4 percent carbon to just existing farmlands will not revert the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial harmony. Spreading an inch of compost, as Michael Pollan suggests, won’t do it either.
While compost stimulates soil organisms and that moves carbon down from the surface into the root zone for longer sequestrations, most compost decomposes closer to the surface and emits greenhouse gases in the process. That is just the labile carbon cycle, get used to it.
There is also this problem in Allan Savory’s chemistry. When those advocating Holistic Management, after the fashion of the Savory Institute and others, claim that they can build deep carbon in soils by mob grazing on rotational pastureland, they are speaking of labile carbon. Labile carbon never stops going around. More ominously, climate warming accelerates soil outgassing. One of the standard nightmare scenarios that could even be playing out as we write this involves long-stored labile carbon in swamps, peat bogs, grassy plains and permafrost that may be liberated in one enormous carbon pulse that sends Earth's atmosphere to something akin to that of Venus in a very short time.
Compost can be seen as the basic food supply of any garden. It provides a circular economy. It closes the loop between human uses and what gets left afterwards. It supplies the microbial decomposers, re-arrangers and transporters who turn wastes back into resources and deliver them in forms and on schedules that plants need.
But if you are a microbe or a dung beetle, you need more than food. You also need shelter. You need a habitat that helps you survive and encourages you to thrive. And if you are a climate scientist, or just someone concerned with rapid warming of the planet, you are looking for a real solution — something capable of rebalancing the various carbon stores between land, ocean and atmosphere.
And that’s where biochar comes in.
The Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (C-AGG) is a multi-stakeholder coalition whose participants include 150 organizations including agricultural producers and producer groups, scientists, environmental NGO’s, carbon market developers, methodology experts, and investors, and other proponents of voluntary agricultural GHG mitigation opportunities and benefits. According to their website:
Despite the critical and pivotal role the agricultural sector can play in climate change mitigation and adaptation, climate change policies and programs are largely directed at point-source emissions reductions activities and approaches. Agricultural and land use GHG mitigation opportunities pose a different set of challenges that require different approaches more appropriate to the sector. Diversity and change are inherent characteristics of agricultural systems.C-AGG attempts to tap the enormous potential for carbon sequestration in soils by
- Developing appropriate incentives, tools, and decision support systems to scale sustainable agriculture and climate change solutions
- Achieving agreement on monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) frameworks and metrics to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem services
- Supporting asset value generation for sustainably managed landscapes and development of thriving carbon and ecosystem service markets and results-based payments
Once you begin to measure whether and when what happens in the soil stays in the soil, some conclusions become unavoidable.
The recalcitrant carbon cycle — biomass to biochar — locks carbon up for thousands to millions of years. While useful to stimulate the soil biology, it has the added benefit of holding more oxygen and water, which better mitigates the damage of extreme weather. It also helps the nitrogen cycle, another thing that is seriously out of balance but seldom mentioned.
By combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions — net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely.
And that’s where fake news comes in.
We encountered critics of biochar even before we wrote The Biochar Solution. The loudest of them is Biofuelwatch, an organization we previously respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious and friendly correctives. Because they are close with many social justice, ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational proclamations against biochar have been picked up by many in the environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been shown to be not merely without merit, but ridiculous.
In our book we discussed the critics' arguments that we thought had some merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar for carbon credits — and what could be done to require biochar to be produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don't follow the rules.
But the outlandish claims by Biofuelwatch, repeated loudly and frequently — statements like “No matter how it is done, or what is burned, combustion creates pollution,” “soil carbon is not so much determined by the molecular structure of the carbon itself, but rather by surrounding soil ecosystem properties,” or “pyrolysis is difficult to control and remains largely unproven for commercial application” continue to find traction both in the alternative media and in policy reviews.
These spurious arguments continue to engage a series of very public but false debates. They happen at high profile events and in respected journals but they are false in the sense that those arguing for biochar are using science — laboratory testing, review and re-testing in the real world — while those arguing against are using only polemic, and will not waiver from patently absurd, well-disproven claims even when backed into a corner.
Biofuelwatch’s Rachel Smolker occasionally gets it right, as when she argued:
Forests, soils, ecosystems all are far more than agglomerations of carbon. They are intricate, multidimensional, interconnected, and complex beyond our imaginings and hence beyond our ability to measure, manipulate, and control.
But she is arguing as much against science as against biochar. She is arguing against extending the human ability to measure, manipulate, and control.
In that, she may not be far wrong.
These previous essays have laid out the different dimensions of our problem: a runaway climate threatening near term human extinction; a mode of social organization in conflict with fixed biophysical limits; trusted authorities failing to get it right; confirmation and normalcy bias obscuring our vision; and orphaned solutions sitting it out while the clock ticks. In our next post we will begin to explore a way out of this swamp.
This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. The next installment, the introduction to Book Two: The Solution, appears next week. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.