Biochar: The Rx for drug disposal?

This week I attended an eye-opening local meeting related to reigning in substance abuse within my County. I learned a ton, not least of which was that the people that work in this field deserve the utmost resect. More and more drop boxes are popping up but apparently liquids cannot be disposed of in drop boxes.  Liquids can be dropped off at drug collection events but those occur only a few times per year. All collected drugs are weighed and then shipped over to be combusted at an incineration plant an hour away. Not the most environmentally friendly disposal method.

But what got my biochar juices flowing at this meeting was a new disposal options for liquid pharmaceuticals.  The meeting organizer passed around a product that allows you to pour liquids into a bag filled with some unnamed material capable of neutralizing drugs, enabling it to then be disposed of in the normal trash collection process. Pills can also be disposed of in this manner as long as water is added to dissolve the pills.

The name of the product is DeTerra which immediately got me wondering what was inside the bag. Turns out it is nothing more than activated carbon (patented of course), biochar’s costlier carbon cousin. [A 3-pack, each capable of neutralizing 90 pills or 12 oz of liquids, costs $21. The package sent around the meeting room could not have weighed ¼ lb, translating to more than $60 per pound. Yowza.]

Although far more drugs find their way into waste or ground water via human or animal excretion, disposal of unused drugs is still a huge issue.  The days of naïvely recommending that unused or expired drugs be flushed down the toilet to keep them out of harm’s way are long gone. Unfortunately many people still haven’t gotten that memo, so it still happens. A lot. The environment suffers, aquatic life suffers, and we thoughtless humans that are creating the problem, suffer the consequences. 

In the developing world this problem is likely even more of a concern as many areas don’t have waste water treatment systems. Biochar could offer a low cost, locally made and safer alternative for liquid or pill disposal. Once the drugs are immobilized in the biochar they would still need to be disposed of safely. Enclosing the drug laden char in some type of container (e.g. zip lock bags, metal barrels, etc.) would be the best option and keeping it out of soils used for growing food would still be an imperative.  I have yet to see this discussed in any peer reviewed papers or tested in practice, but my gut tells me this would be a far safer alternative than some of the more common disposal practices

Biochar Workshop – April 28th – JOIN US!

Do you have a hankering to learn how to convert your hard-to-compost organics into something useful? This upcoming workshop will not only show you how to carbonize all sorts of unloved biomass that you have littering your yard or farm, but it will also show the various ways that your biochar can be used.  In collaboration with Hunt Country Winery and Dr. Johannes Lehman of Cornell University, I will be co-hosting a hands-on biochar workshop on Saturday, April 28th from 11 – 3pm.  The event will be held at the lovely and very sustainable Hunt Country vineyard in Branchport, NY. Attendees will get to see all the impressive measures Hunt Country has taken to become more sustainable, they are true leaders within the state when it comes to renewable energy use (e.g. extensive geothermal and solar usage on-farm) and other sustainable initiatives.

Attendees will also learn about the depth and breadth of expertise at Cornell University when it comes to biochar.  Cornell has a world-class pyrolysis machine now capable of making biochar out of many different forms of biomass.  They also have top-notch laboratory skills.  This is a rare opportunity for New Yorkers – though we welcome non-NYers too – to come ask questions of your land grant university’s finest!

An increasing number of New Yorkers are becoming interested in biochar and want to move beyond just learning.  Gatherings such as this one allow individuals to meet, mingle and begin collaborating with other like minded New Yorkers.  You will be able to make your own biochar and start testing it in your soils, your compost and beyond. Come join us for several hours of education, a sumptuous lunch and stay on for happy hour!

To register for the event, head on over to the Hunt Country events page. 

Hope to see you there!

 

Incineration vs Pyrolysis: pariah vs pioneer

Recently I met with my State Senator to discuss a proposed incineration plant for a beautiful part of the Finger Lakes; the home of the white deer, the former Seneca Army Depot.  My goal for the meeting was to provide input on a much more sustainable waste management technology: pyrolysis. In preparation for the meeting, I read up on the differences between incineration and pyrolysis.  Though they both involve incomplete combustion, one is viewed as a pariah while the other a pioneer.

The reason that incineration is getting any play at all these days, after nearly two decades of very few new incineration plants in the U.S., is likely due to State legislation that will soon ban large scale organics to landfill.  It’s also aided by the fact that more and more landfills are reaching capacity and neighbors are not keen to extend them or approve new ones due to toxic leaching and most notably persistent noxious odors emanating from the rising mountains of garbage. Incineration is also able to generate energy, though not in a net positive way.  Claims that incineration is a renewable source of energy is more than a little disingenuous.

Serendipitously I found that researchers in London, Ontario, Canada have already compared incineration versus carbonization specifically for managing sewage sludge. They looked at fast and slow pyrolysis and looked at the leaching potential of chars generated from each type of pyrolysis (spoiler alert: slow p chars leach less).  They concluded that pyrolysis is likely to be both economically and environmentally better than incineration. [Inserted chart incorporates some of their pros/cons but I’ve added to this.]

Compared to toxic ash that is generated from an incinerator where metals are mobile and may end up in landfill leachate, to a great extent pyrolysis immobilizes metals into the pore structure of the char.  Given the metals content and the lack of consistency of the feedstock, this char may not find a ready market for amending soils, especially soils used to grow food or graze animals.  But increasingly research is showing that various types of chars can be used for non-soil uses (e.g. composites, filtration, batteries, adsorbant for leachate etc.). The economics for pyrolysis over incineration will likely get better once large-scale markets for this type of biochar are developed.

Beyond the economics and environmental impacts though is the social impact. Those proposing incineration plants soon find themselves as social pariahs.  Town hall meetings bring out droves of residents who are angry or afraid as their daily lives will be negatively impacted, not to mention the harm to soils, crops, and in my neck of the woods, tourism. Yes, they will likely find people willing to work in the plant as the area has few big employers, but its hard to imagine those working there will be bragging about it.

Now imagine a pyrolysis plant focused on producing clean, renewable energy and biochar instead of an incinerator.  It will not be able to process all of the inorganic or toxic materials that an incinerator plant can, so volumes may not be as high. But there is plenty of organic waste in the form of sludge, manures, tree waste – especially after disasters like Sandy and winter storms, spoiled cardboard, old pallets and food waste to keep a pyrolysis plant charring away.  Heat or electricity can be generated and instead continuing the legacy of a linear economy, a closed loop biorefinery could be born.  Ancillary businesses that convert the biochar into different products such as building materials could be created. 

More and more academic institutions in New York are starting to work with pyrolysis and biochar. Cornell has been at it the longest and has a world-class reputation for biochar used as a soil amendment. RIT has been exploring pyrolysis as an alternative for food waste management and I’ve been working with various teams of engineers at RIT and the University of Rochester testing biochar based building materials and composites. There is always much excitement from young engineers when they first learn about biochar.  It’s something they like to be associated with and many continue to help educate others about it once they go off to their first jobs, some locally but many abroad. The choice between being a pariah, perpetuating an old and dirty technology or investing in a pioneering, regenerative XXI century bio-economy that other regions will want to emulate, should be a no-brainer.  In the last few months I’ve been part of an increasing number of conversations within NYS, around the country and around the world where individuals and companies want to create this type of concept.  It would be fantastic if the Finger Lakes could be on the leading edge of carbonizing organics.

 

Biochar’s unmatched versatility in mitigating & adapting to climate change

Listening to a webinar on Agriculture & Climate Change Adaptation hosted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, I was at once enlightened and yet disheartened.  Sadly biochar received nary a mention. To fill the void, allow me to present my perspective on how biochar can help not only with climate change adaptation but also with climate mitigation.

Climate Mitigation

Mitigation comes in two basic flavors: reducing and rebalancing.  The vast majority of interest and investment seems to focus on reducing; i.e. lowering current emissions of various greenhouse gases (GHGs). There are many, many ways to do this but using less energy and/or using cleaner energy (e.g. solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, etc.) are amongst the most common recommendations. Reducing is absolutely critical to mitigating the worst forecasts, but it is far from sufficient. Rebalancing is perhaps even more important. Rebalancing means shifting excess atmospheric CO2 back from whence it came: terra firma (I will leave the discussion on ocean sequestration and release to others).

Biochar can help on the reduction side in a variety of ways. Renewable energy in the form of heat, which can be converted into electricity, is created during the production of biochar. Sometimes a portion of this heat is used for drying feedstock prior to carbonization, but the vast majority of it is available to displace fossil fuel derived energy.

Further on the reduction side, we can look to fertilizer use, especially Nitrogen (N), which comes with a particularly heavy carbon footprint both on the energy-intensive production side, but even more so on the application front.  Excessive N use is rampant around the world as farmers desperately try to maximize annual yield in soils long since exhausted of inherent nutrients. Microbes convert nitrogen into nitrous oxide (N2O) which is 300x more devastating to the climate than CO2. Biochar blended with either organic nutrients (e.g. manure, urine, compost) or with synthetic fertilizer can reduce the amount of fertilizer needed as it provides a bonding structure for the nutrients that slowly releases them and prevents unwanted leaching into groundwater or as GHG into the atmosphere.

Biochar can also reduce methane (CH4) emissions from at least two significant sources: bovines and rubbish. The world’s 1.5 billion cows as well as other livestock belch out an alarming amount of CH4, a GHG 25 to 80 times more potent than CO2. In the US, livestock is the 2nd highest source of CH4 emissions after Natural Gas. Research has shown that adding biochar to livestock feed can materially reduce enteric methane emissions as well as provide other health benefits to animals.  It can also serve as a low cost delivery mechanism for getting biochar into soils (via manure). Similarly research has shown that biochar used at landfills, either as daily cover or as part of a capping material when landfills are retired, can also reduce CH4 emissions.

Biochar can also reduce significantly emissions by diverting organic materials from going to landfills, which represent the 3rd largest source of CH4 emissions in the US.  Carbonization minimizes biomass volume by 75 – 90% depending on the production parameters.  In the right circumstances, this can reduce transportation tremendously and it can also prevent CH4 from being generated at landfills in the first place.

On the rebalancing front, biochar can help mitigate climate change in two critical ways: by boosting photosynthesis and by interrupting or massively slowing down the normal carbon cycle. Using biochar to plant trees or crops has shown that plant survival and growth are improved which can boost overall photosynthetic activity.  The CO2 absorbed by plants is stored until they die and then it normally decomposes back into CO2 and re-enters the carbon cycle.  However, if the trees or plants are converted into long lived products (e.g. furniture) or carbonized into biochar, the natural carbon cycle is interrupted.  When biomass is carbonized, up to 50% of the carbon absorbed during the tree or plants lifetime is converted into stable carbon and if the resulting biochar is put in the soil or embedded in other long-lived products (e.g. building materials), it will not return to the atmosphere for many centuries. This is an example of what is commonly referred to as carbon sequestration.

Adaptation

Adaptation focuses on strategies that can be employed to deal with the impacts currently being experienced as a result of climate change. A growing number of adaptation strategies are being employed from relocation of populations impacted by rising seas, to changes in planting schedules and/or crop types, to improved drainage or more successful integrated pest management.  As with mitigation, biochar can help adapt to the impacts of climate change in a variety of ways, a sampling of which are provided here.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on global food security. Droughts, floods and storms are both more common and more fierce. Increased heat, disease and land degradation are amongst the other threats to food security, compliments of climate change. Biochar can help improve crop yields, plant resistance to pests and pathogens and retain water longer in areas prone to droughts, all of which will help to build more resilient food production systems. Biochar also helps reduce the amount of water needed for irrigation which, in an increasingly water constrained world, is critical.  Some research is showing that it can help to recharge and filter ground water supplies which can lead to healthier crops and improved human health.

Storm water management is becoming enormously crucial especially in flood-prone areas.  Biochar is being successfully used as a strategy to manage urban stormwater from Seattle to Stockholm, but can also be used by farmers in drainage ditches or potentially in lieu of expensive tiles, and by gardeners and home owners in rain gardens.

Fierce and frequent fires such as those swallowing up Southern California at the moment threaten lives and landscapes. Drought is turning trees to tinder and invasive species bring unwanted biomass which also increases the risk of wildfires. Biochar made from beetle-kill pines is underway in places like Colorado and teams of volunteers in Oregon have been thinning vast amounts of brush to reduce fuel loads (more info here).

Communities that have suffered devastating impacts of hurricanes or monsoons could, as I’ve noted before, greatly benefit from biochar in many ways.  From dealing with debris to generating desperately needed power to remediating toxified soils and replanting ravaged perennials, biochar can help rebuild and regenerate.

Some biochar scenarios straddle both mitigation and adaptation. These include its use in regenerative agriculture which focuses on building soil fertility and increasing biodiversity; reforestation or afforestation; and urban agricultural practices such as green roofs and tree establishment.

This is far from an exhaustive accounting of biochar’s benefits when it comes to climate change mitigation and adaptation but it should provide the reader with an overview of biochar’s unmatched usefulness and versatility.

NOTE: This blog post has been cross-posted in the Biochar Journal.

Biochar’s boundless versatility: from ‘fillee’ to filler

The versatility of biochar seems, at times, limitless. As the ever expanding uses of biochar continues, research is showing that biochar can be used either as something to be filled by other substances or as something to fill in other substances.

For most of biochar’s ancient and recent history it has been viewed predominantly as a “fillee” or carrier with countless pores to be filled with a wide variety of substances.  Charging biochar’s nooks & crannies with nutrients, either organic (e.g. urine, manure, compost) or synthetic, can transform biochar into a slow-release fertilizer. Saturating pore space with water can convert biochar into something that can provide a low-cost, long lasting irrigation pathway. Filling pore space with other substances, such as herbicides, can improve efficiency of the herbicide while also reducing leaching. Packing biochar pores with microbial inoculants has shown that biochar can perform as well as or even better than other inoculum carriers such as peat moss or vermiculite. Suffice to say that biochar’s role as a long lasting pack mule is rather well established.

However life on the flip side of the fill equation is not nearly as well established as of yet but research is definitely beginning to show that biochar holds promise as a filler in various types of composites. Fillers have traditionally served to lower the cost of composites, but they can also improve various properties of plastics, paper, paints and more. Fillers come in many forms with calcium carbonate, wood flour and saw dust being amongst the most popular.  More recent research has shown that biochar can reduce costs while simultaneously improving different mechanical and electrical properties in different types of composites. While much work remains to be done to understand which of biochar’s chemical, physical or biological properties are most relevant to improving various different properties in different types of composites, this new frontier of biochar research is bringing new talents (e.g. engineers of all sorts) into the biochar arena.

Regardless of whether its role is as a filler or fillee (not to be confused with a female horse), the added bonus of using biochar is that it is able to sequester carbon, and potentially other elements such as heavy metals which could be detrimental to the environment, for decades to millennia while also providing the other more immediate benefits described above. Biochar’s ‘ambidextrous’ nature when it comes to fill, increases exponentially its potential as a carbon sequestration tool. No longer constrained solely to use in soils, however plentiful those opportunities might be, above ground carbon sink opportunities abound for biochar in civil infrastructures as well as every day consumables (see soap pictured above).  What other filler or fillee material can boast this much bang for the buck?

Following the biochar bright spots

 

Early in September I had the privilege of leading a biochar study tour to Stockholm, Sweden on behalf of the IBI. I have long been enamored with the Stockholm Biochar Project (SBP) for many reasons and was thrilled at the opportunity to see up front what I believe is one of the first of what will hopefully be many replicable biochar ‘bright spots’ (as the Heath brothers call them in their book ‘Switch’). The crux of the project is this:  convert urban yard and garden waste into heat for the district heating system and biochar for urban tree planting and storm water remediation.

What makes the SBP different from so many other biochar production scenarios is that, through years of trial, error and persuasion, a small but dedicated team has succeeded in building a strong, consistent, non-seasonal demand for biochar. Having proved the various benefits of using biochar in structured soils [which consists of: 1 part biochar, 1 part compost, to 6 parts gravel by volume], the city has been importing biochar from different biochar vendors in the UK and Germany by the truckload for a growing number of urban landscaping projects for several years. While initially intended to improve urban tree survivability, an unintended but enormously valuable consequence of using gravel based, biochar-enhanced structured soils was the significant reduction in storm water sent to the city’s wastewater management system.  Not only has this reduced municipal wastewater management costs but urban perennials including trees and shrubs, are thriving as compared to those that were dying in heavily compacted soils. Assisted with grant funding from winning the 2014 Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge, the city took the next step in creating a closed loop biochar production facility to replace the imported char with char they can produce from underutilized biomass.

 

Urban trees provide a variety of eco-system services estimated at more than $500M in value for a megacity.  Amongst other benefits these benefits include: improved air quality and human health, production of oxygen, CO2 storage, wildlife habitat, reduced heat island effect and energy usage and improved property values. Not having to replace urban trees every decade that die due to compaction issues can also translate into a huge savings for cities.

The Bright Spots approach looks at entrenched problems through the lens of: let’s find out what is working to solve problems and how we can do more of it using specific tasks and behaviors that support new directions. Replicating biochar production is no longer the problem for scaling the biochar industry.  More and more examples of biochar production are popping up all across the globe using different technologies and different biomass for biochar production.  The challenge, as I’ve said before, is replicating the consistent, preferably local, demand for biochar at a price that makes biochar production financially viable. What the SBP folks have done is identify and educate a large prospective end user for biochar, i.e. urban landscapers, on the benefits of using biochar. While not all cities are likely to value urban trees the same way that Stockholm does, especially those located in drought-prone areas, many cities do place a high value on trees and thus provide funding for tree & perennial planting and maintenance.

Many cities have been or will be forced to plant new trees to replace those afflicted by the ever increasing number of invasive insects such as the emerald ash borer which is decimating ash trees or the Asian long-horn beetle which is responsible for felling maples, box elders and willow trees across the country.  Many cities, especially coastal cities, are also desperately trying to figure out how to reduce flooding which has been exacerbated by the perpetual pursuit to pave combined with rising sea levels.  Using biochar enhanced structured soils can help with both of these.  Planting trees in these soils has improved tree survivability, and some research is beginning to show that planting trees using biochar in soils can even help fend off certain pests by enhancing the thickness of leaves.  It can also help to significantly reduce flooding, which after seeing the devastation in places like Florida, Texas and Louisiana, could be worth billions in averted rebuilding costs.

Given all of that, doesn’t it sound like it is time to call up a few folks  responsible for planting trees at your local municipality to schedule a time to chat with them about tree planting and biochar?

Creating a Biochar Brigade using the Master Gardener program model

Master Gardening Volunteer (MGV) programs have existed in many parts of the US for more than 40 years. They serve as a train the trainer program for gardening education where interested volunteers learn about many different aspects of horticulture including; how to plan gardens, growing fruits & vegetables, wildlife management, integrated pest management, lawn care, composting and more.  Each State’s Land grant University is responsible for developing and offering the training, and each county then helps to coordinate the activities of the certified volunteers.  While certain information is leveraged across different States, this model allows the curriculum to be customized for regionally specific plants, pests and practices.  Volunteers pay a subsidized amount for the 12 – 15 week training in exchange for committing to volunteering in the year(s) following the training (this varies by County from 50 – 150 volunteer hours). Volunteering opportunities vary by County and may include: giving presentations at schools, libraries, and to other interested groups; organizing workshops; writing articles; answering gardening related questions on hotlines; planning & helping to maintain demo gardens; tabling at farmers markets, festivals and fairs, judging 4-H Exhibits; conducting home diagnostic visits; organizing annual plant sales, and even in some places helping to conduct soil sampling.

Acknowledging the impossibility of providing in-depth training on the vast array of topics that falls under Horticulture, what they do instead is train people on how to access and assess quality information on different topics.  They also focus on critical thinking and communication skills, a must if you are out there speaking to gardeners. 

Each year more than 16K volunteers are trained with nearly 95K active volunteers across the country.  NYS alone has more than 2K volunteers that work roughly 106K hours per year to promote gardening, composting, soil building and so much more. This is an amazing accomplishment when you think about it. A volunteer army corps of gardeneers!

Could something similar to this be created to train and deploy a Biochar Brigade? To understand a bit more about how the program works I decided to ‘embed’ with the Finger Lakes MGV class of 2017. It has been fascinating so far and the reality is that I am learning as much if not more from my fellow classmates. The NYS MGV Director seems to understand this and has now built in to the course, a kind of micro-Capstone project where each student creates some kind of training activity or material to be shared with the class.  These activities are not just shared at the end, but are iteratively shared so that classmates can connect with each other before the end of the class to learn more from each other. This type of cross-pollination is ideally suited to the biochar world, where variations and nuances in crops, soils and other growing constraints is so vast.  No one can ever fully understand all the variations, but getting a group of interested parties together with disparate backgrounds can lead towards better information sharing and regional and crop-based best practices.

My activity for the class will, of course, be focused on biochar education – no surprise there.  But what I am coming to understand from this class is that one of the most important benefits for home or farm scale biochar production may be in mitigating the transmission of both disease and weeds.  The current recommendation for infected plants and trees and weeds seems to be merely to ‘get rid of it’ or ‘put it in the garbage’.  Carbonizing this type of biomass would not only eliminate the pathogens and keep it from the landfill, but it also creates long lasting carbon for the compost and garden.  That’s a home run in my book!

Biochar Industry SWOT: When a ban becomes a boon

Increasingly I am fielding calls from larger and larger companies expressing interest in diving into the biochar world.  What they all want to know ‘Is this the right time?’, which prompted me to put together my perspective of the biochar industry’s current SWOT.  This is based on frequent discussions with other biochar consultants, current producers, technology vendors, researchers and potential investors. It’s not meant to be exhaustive by any stretch, but rather it can serve as a high level view of those factors pushing and preventing the industry from growing. [Note: this is predominantly a US view, but is probably not too far off for other parts of the developing world.]

Although this chart makes it seem like the weaknesses outweigh the strengths, that is not how I see the current landscape.  The most interesting thing to observe these days is that there are certain policy initiatives, albeit mostly at the state level (or regional in the EC), that may be driving carbonization of biomass faster than the oft-dreamed of holy grail of biochar acceptance on the carbon markets might have.  Though many folks were, and in some cases still are, convinced that until or unless biochar becomes an accepted offset product, the industry would languish, I don’t subscribe to that particular philosophy. The carbon markets are still not all that huge, [though they are growing in some cases e.g. RGGI and CA], and the price of offset products is still rather pitiful (e.g. <$15/ton CO2e in CA and way less under RGGI). The reality is, for better or for worse, that biochar is still not an accepted offset (or better yet sequestration) product on any mandatory exchange. And yet the biochar market seems to be growing at a nice clip, though it is very hard to get solid numbers.

What could be better than carbon markets you ask? Bans! Barring organic waste from landfills may soon become a boon for the biochar production.  As landfills fill up, and NIMBY prevents new landfills from opening States are looking to restrict what gets sent to their existing landfills in an effort to extend their life expectancy. NY is considering joining a growing number of other states that have at least some type of requirements for organic waste diversion. Diversion options can be expensive depending on how far away a waste generator is to a food pantry, livestock farm, composting, AD or other facility which will accept them.  Certain types of organics (e.g. sewage sludge, yard waste) do not lend themselves to too many current diversion options.  In these scenarios pyrolysis (or gasification) is a scalable solution offering a variety of co-products (e.g. heat, electricity, biochar) which can offer an attractive option to increased tipping fees.

At some level this restriction of organics to landfills is in its own way an easier to administer carbon tax.  By eliminating the ability to choose what has traditionally been the lowest cost but highest emitting disposal option, it incentivizes waste producers to find alternative waste management processes which will also (likely) reduce their carbon footprint, at least the portion related to CH4 emissions from organics in landfills + transportation of waste. Done right the waste generators could also use the heat (or electricity) produced during carbonization, thereby reducing their reliance on fossil fuel energy.  In many cases, they might also be able use or sell the resulting biochar to further improve waste management economics.  A few examples might help elucidate this thinking: 1) coffee roaster: instead of landfilling the chaff, they can carbonize it and use the heat for the roasting process; 2) tofu manufacturer: instead of landfilling the wet okara byproduct they can carbonize it and use the heat to dry the okara then use the biochar to filter the whey effluent; 3) wastewater treatment facility: carbonize sludge or digested sludge and use biochar to filter effluent.  There are many such examples that could work, though those generators with a more homogeneous waste stream have a huge advantage over those that have a very heterogeneous one (e.g. supermarkets, etc.) since that kind of biomass doesn’t make for high quality, consistent biochar and can run havoc on production equipment.

For more info on the current state of the biochar industry, you may want to listen to a recording of  Webinar from earlier this week on the Past, Present & Future of IBI and the Biochar Industry given by myself and Tom Miles, the Chair of IBI’s Board of Directors.

The Meaning of Drawdown: Reduce & Replace or Rebalance & Remove?

Finally, finally, after what seemed like months, the recently debuted book ‘Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming’ became available on my library wish list.  I was eager to pick it up and dive in, especially after having heard the author speak on a recent ‘Wonder Women Webinar’.

So far, and I confess I’ve only spent a few hours perusing; the book is both fascinating and frustrating. It is hope-filled yet distinctly lacking in details and references.  Beautiful as any coffee table book could hope to be, yet strangely ordered for a logical thinker like me.  The world definitely needs more hopeful books like this that provide potential solutions. But for a book titled ‘Drawdown’, at first blush the book seems to conflate reducing or replacing current bad habits (i.e. drawing down current emissions by avoiding fossil fuel technologies), which is critical but not enough to avoid climate chaos, with rebalancing and removal strategies (i.e. drawing down atmospheric CO2 levels via photosynthesis, sequestration etc.). While both are obviously needed – a point which they admit, to compare avoidance and removal strategies as equals seems overly simplistic.  If drawdown is the goal and the book states that reversing global warming is the only goal that makes sense for humanity, than strategies capable of rebalancing and removing carbon (and other GHGs) ought to be weighed or at least categorized differently than those that can (only) avoid and reduce.

It is great that so much time and energy was spent explaining different technologies and strategies in a manner which nearly anyone can understand (even Grandma!) and providing some historical context for many of them was helpful. Yet the impact information – the most important criteria for rankings – is woefully insufficient; a single small paragraph amidst the one or two pages each solution was permitted, with no methodology, no assumptions, and for 20 – 25% of the solutions no cost or net savings information was provided.  Drawdown rankings are based only on the GHG emissions that can be avoided or removed, so in this simplistic scenario such information may not seem relevant.

However there are many critical adoption issues which must be factored into any realistic plan for reversing global warming as these are what will ultimately determine which strategies soar and which sour.  Some factors to consider include: current viability – are the solutions market ready or still on the drawing board; degree of difficulty in deploying quickly and broadly; financing availability and interest in various solutions; current or alternative options and the required infrastructure or operating costs and how those might prevent large scale adoption of more climate friendly options (e.g. natural gas versus heat pumps); regulatory helpfulness or hindrances for certain technologies; and which solutions offer other co-benefits (e.g. satisfying different UN SDGs) besides GHG mitigation which might make them more attractive in terms of funding as compared to options that only provide one primary benefit. No doubt there are many other considerations.

Since I normally blog about biochar, I would be remiss if I didn’t address their coverage of biochar, which they rank as #72 with a drawdown potential of .82 Gigatons of reduced CO2. The author of this section, like many people, conflates the meaning of Terra Preta with biochar. While the two are related,  they are not the same; the latter is but one element of the former. They also state “The preferred method is gasification, a higher temperature pyrolysis that results in more completely carbonized biomass.” Gasification and pyrolysis are not the same; the former involves limited oxygen while the later is a no oxygen thermochemical conversion process.  The two technologies can produce very different biochars, yields and co-products and both can be done using high temperatures. They also say “The slower the burn, the more biochar.” Generally speaking it is not the duration of the burn but rather the temperature of the burn that impacts yield the most (higher temps generate lower yield). There are other details that show a lack of deep understanding of the nuances of biochar, which could have easily been corrected had they reached out to one of many biochar experts. While they do a decent overall job describing biochar (albeit limiting it to a soils only perspective), what I think is really unfortunate is the carbon math.  As I’ve already said the book is light on details so it is impossible to understand the parameters for their calculation of biochar’s drawdown potential, but I would guess they’ve only looked at a limited type of biomass and then looked only at sequestration capability and excluded the off-setting impact of other co-products (e.g. renewable heat or electricity) or reduction of GHG impacts which varies depending on the end use of the char (e.g. reduction of soil GHG emissions, reduction of GHG related to fertilizer production, or CH4 from livestock emissions if used as a feed additive).

As a means of starting a productive dialogue for climate change mitigation, I think Drawdown is great.  As ‘the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming’ I can’t say the same.  Drawdown is a sumptuous buffet of hopeful possibilities, but it cannot accurately be called a plan. The ranking of potential solutions has more in common with Fortune’s 100 Best Companies listing – except Fortune’s methodology is broader and more transparent.  Perhaps Drawdown will evolve into something like this type of list, with annual updates and methodology refinements which not only show progress but serves to inspire the best kind of competition amongst those rising up to head off climate catastrophe.

NYS Methane Reduction Plan & Biochar

In May New York State announced a Methane Reduction Plan (MRP) aimed at reducing methane (CH4) by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.  Going beyond the Federal EPA’s MRP and even California’s plan which largely target only Oil & Gas, they have focused on the 3 primary anthropogenic sources of CH4 in the State: Landfills (58%), Agriculture (22%) and Oil & Gas production and storage (11%). To help achieve the targeted reductions 25 separate actions have been proposed; 11 for Oil & Gas, 9 related to Landfill emissions and 5 for Ag.

I blogged about biochar & CH4 reduction potential more than 3 years ago and fortunately the research on this topic has continued apace. While biochar could potentially help mitigate certain negative environmental impacts of fracking, most of the research has focused on filtering the toxic water that results and not on reducing emissions. I confess this is not an area that I’ve delved into with any enthusiasm so there may be additional benefits related to using biochar on the fracking front.

Landfills and agriculture, however, are another story.  Biochar could potentially play a role in four of the nine proposed landfill related activities which have been split into two separate categories: 1) diverting organics to help reduce future emissions (#12 – 14) and 2) reducing current emissions (#15 – 19). While there is a heavy emphasis on diverting to food banks and anaerobic digesters, this isn’t always a viable option given distances to facilities nor is all food waste viable for either human or AD consumption. Carbonizing food waste may be a much more attractive and CH4 (not to mention other GHGs) reducing option. The focus on reducing current emissions is largely on CH4 reporting & capture but #17 goes beyond that to ‘identify best practices, in conjunction with evaluations of potential revisions to regulations, to reduce CH4 emissions and diminish odors). Utilizing biochar on landfills, either for daily cover or during the capping process, has shown promising results both from a CH4 and odor reduction perspective.  Recent research has shown that blending char with soil, versus using layers of pure biochar, improved removal efficiency. Other research suggests that biochar pore sizes may not be small enough to remove CH4, so more research is definitely needed.

But it is the agricultural front that I believe holds the most promise for biochar mitigation strategies. The NYS plan has articulated mitigation strategies for manure management (#20), enteric emissions (#21), monitoring & reporting (#22 – 23) as well as soil carbon sequestration (#24 – 25). Claudia Kammann, a fantastic biochar researcher from Germany, and 14 others recently published an (open source) article on “Biochar as a tool to reduce the agricultural greenhouse-gas burden – knowns, unknowns and future research needs”. This paper looks at the current state of biochar research in terms of N2O and CH4 soil emission mitigation potential, the impact of using biochar as a composting additive on CH4 & N2O emissions, and its use in animal husbandry in terms of both its use as a feed additive and carbonizing manures via pyrolysis. While the mechanisms behind biochar’s ability to mitigate GHG emissions are still under review, the most relevant characteristics for biochars to optimize different end goals still needs significant research.  Overall though, there are enough promising indications to warrant more funding for this type of research, especially in light of the fact that GHG mitigation is only one of the potential benefits of using biochar.  Soil health, yield improvement, reduced water needs and other potential benefits can also be realized in many scenarios.

The research paper presented some ‘back of the envelope’ calculations for adding 1% biochar (see Table 1) to the daily feed intake of the global livestock population as a means of sequestering carbon. As the carbon does not biodegrade in the digestive track but is excreted in the manure, nearly 400 Mt/yr of CO2e could be sequestered in this manner – and that doesn’t even begin to address the potential CH4 mitigation potential from enteric emissions or N2O emissions from manure or the improved animal health or the accelerated feed conversion impacts!

I would encourage all five of the entities [Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Department of Public Service (DPS), Department of Agriculture & Markets (DAM), Soil & Water Conservation Committee (SWCC) and Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA)] tasked with working on further refinements and funding proposals to review the potential of biochar to not only help reduce emissions, but build a thriving biochar industry in NYS that can help resolve other issues that are contributing to environmental degradation.