Industrial scale "biochar" is the latest dangerous planetary geoengineering proposal (replacing now discredited ocean iron fertilization as the flavor of the month) to save the Earth and humanity from climate change without personal sacrifice or social change. Biochar (charcoal) enthusiasts intend to burn biomass to produce and bury charcoal, in order to manipulate land use and the biosphere on a vast scale. As if the world's land, 25% of which is already becoming seriously degraded, does not have enough pressures from deforestation, industrial agriculture and sprawling human settlements. Charcoal proposals forestall sufficient climate change measures such as ending the use of coal, protecting and restoring old forests, and reforming industrial agriculture.
Biochar depends upon cooking wood and grasses to gain fuel from their volatile compounds, while the charcoal residue is buried in the soil. The idea is based upon Amazonian indigenous practices, where highly fertile terras pretas (black soils) were created by burying charcoal over hundreds of years. Biochar and agrofuels are closely linked. Charcoal is a byproduct from a type of bioenergy production which can also be used to make second-generation agrofuels from wood, straw, and other plant fibers; and even burning toxic plastics and coal plant residues.
Biochar advocates and agrofuel associates claim that the already depleted land base and terrestrial ecosystems will provide enough biomass to become a major source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport and aviation fuels -- while providing enough charcoal to bury to appreciably mitigate climate change.
Some propose that hundreds of millions of hectares of the Earth's surface be turned into industrial tree plantations to produce charcoal to bury, even claiming this biochar could absorb enough carbon to return to pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels. Various proposals suggest turning from 200 million to 1.4 billion hectares of forests, savannah and croplands into biochar plantations. Carbon uptake would be increased by replacing natural forests with planted, faster growing species. The United Kingdom has 5.7m hectares of arable cropland, China 104m hectares, and the United States 174m. The global total is 1.36bn.
This raises very important issues of land use, the sustainability of existing (much less further) industrial intensification of agriculture, appropriate and equitable uses of biomass, and land tenure on for indigenous and other local peoples. The most extreme scenarios would replace much (or even all) of the world's croplands with biomass plantations, either causing instant global famine, or doubling the cropped area at the expense of remaining natural habitats. It is claimed these new plantations can be created across "marginal" and "degraded" land in "which the occupants are not engaged in economic activity", meaning land used by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers and others not producing commodities for the mass market.
The ecological concerns with the existing 100m hectares of industrial plantations established around the world are well known. Aside from destroying biodiversity, tree plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when the land is ploughed for planting (meaning loss of soil carbon), exhausted nutrients, and pesticides have poisoned water and fisheries. Industrial agriculture continues to threaten the livelihoods of many communities, including indigenous peoples. Across the world, people are being thrown off their land, often by violent means, to create plantations. Working conditions are brutal, often involving debt peonage and repeated exposure to pesticides.
Biomass from increased industrial plantations is suddenly being proposed as the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. But the world's land and forests are already past their carrying capacity, and terrestrial ecosystems, upon which all life depends, are crashing. These ecological truths are being ignored. The International Biochar Initiative is a lobby group behind the push for biochar, and is made up largely of startup biochar and agrofuel companies, and academics, many with related commercial interests.
On their prodding, several governments will demand at the UN climate talks, currently taking place in Bonn, that biochar be made eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial stimulus required to turn this into a global industry. If biochar is supported by carbon credits, it would create a powerful incentive for deforestation, making it virtually impossible to limit biochar production to agricultural and forestry "waste". Natural habitats will surely fall even faster, replaced by industrial, toxic and genetically modified tree plantations on stolen lands.
Biomass based climate and energy plans dependent upon further intensification of industrial agriculture are premature, almost certainly will be ecologically devastating, and no one knows if they will work. In some cases charcoal in the soil improves plant growth, in others it suppresses it. Just burying carbon bears little relation to the farming techniques that created terras pretas, which are likely specific to regional soil conditions and require long time periods. It is not yet known whether charcoal in soil represents a permanent carbon sink.
Dr. James Hansen, the climate change luminary, has not proposed plantations for biochar. But in his paper "Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?", he unequivocally supports industrial biochar by stating: "Replacing slash-and-burn agriculture with slash-and-char and use of agricultural and forestry wastes for biochar production could provide a CO2 drawdown of ~8 ppm or more in half a century  … Waste-derived biochar application will be phased in linearly over the period 2010-2020, by which time it will reach a maximum uptake rate of 0.16 GtC/yr." (gigatons of carbon per year).
Inexplicably, Dr. Hansen does not provide an estimate for the amount of plant material required to do so, or seek to determine how much of this could be provided by agricultural or forestry wastes. Estimates provided elsewhere suggest that, if his ratios are correct, Hansen's biochar proposal would require waste products equivalent to annual dedicated biomass production across 80 million hectares. Do such quantities of available waste exist? And how much of it is genuinely waste, and not earmarked for composting, soil fertilization, animal bedding, cooking fuel and other ecologically and socially important existing uses of biomass residues?
In response to earlier questioning, Dr. Hansen replied that "Broadly speaking, our climate change mitigation scenarios are strictly illustrative in nature…" This comes from the climate scientist upon whose every word much of the world awaits with baited breath. Biochar lobbyists have happily
cited Dr. Hansen as a supporter of biochar and this will likely
continue until he firmly and clearly disavows such support.
It is clearly impossible for industrial agriculture and already depleted terrestrial ecosystems to meet the wood and crop needed for biochar to significantly reduce atmospheric carbon.
Dr. Hansen did not need to "assert or imply plantations should be grown specifically for biochar, or that reforestation should be at the expense of food crops, pristine ecosystems or substantially inhabited land." His own facts and figures, when examined, do so for him.
After losing 80% of the world's natural and intact forest habitats, mostly to agriculture, few people stop to wonder how Earth can accommodate these additional demands upon plants' primary productivity and still produce food, preserve wild places and maintain ecosystems required to maintain a habitable Earth. As eight millennia of experience and the unfolding disaster of agrofuel clearly demonstrate, expansion of land-conversion by industrial agriculture strongly threatens biodiversity and ecosystems that play an essential role in stabilising and regulating the climate, and are necessary to ensure food and water security.
There may well be virtues in small scale, community based biochar operations. And small-scale agro-ecological farming such as permaculture, and protection and restoration of natural ecosystems, are truly effective ways to use plants and terrestrial ecosystems to mitigate the impacts of climate change. These proven carbon mitigation measures should be fully supported, not risky, unfounded industrial agricultural techniques promoted by vested commercial interests, and a misreading of scientific nuance. This critique does not suggest that charcoal cannot be tested and made on a small, community scale, from material that would otherwise go to waste. But that is not generally what is being proposed with industrial biochar, whose hazards are being willfully overlooked or obscured.
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