Recently someone claiming to have ‘spent years’ researching biochar wrote a rather lengthy blog/report about his viewpoint on the prospects for biochar as a viable solution for climate change mitigation. I won’t mention the title as it seems to have changed a few times, perhaps in an effort to garner further attention. Not surprisingly though there has been some interesting conversation within the biochar community about said article. One of the main complaints was that the site that published the article never allowed comments, which seems a little thin-skinned. That is a tactic that our new President and certain cabinet secretaries have been using, so perhaps it is becoming something of a new norm to discourage dialogue. To quote a frequent late night twitter abuser – ‘SAD’! 😉
But what is so glaringly obvious to anyone that is actually inside the industry and has actually spent a lot of time on biochar research or at least reading broadly and deeply on the topic, is that the article is so out of date. If it had been published 2 – 3 years ago, the last time the author seems to have spoken to anyone in the industry, some of what he wrote would have been more relevant. However in the past few years much has changed in the world of biochar. Not only has the breadth of biochar research expanded in terms of a wide variety of potential new uses and a better understanding of the nuances of biochar production and the best ways to use it in different growing systems, but also the number of companies that are beginning to produce thousands of tons of biochar is increasing every quarter. Hardly what I would consider a ‘standstill’ for the industry, which is what the author claims
Another odd point is that the author chose to focus almost exclusively on biochar’s ability to sequester carbon for the long term, something for which he claims there is dubious research – without really backing that up with recent peer reviewed citations. He claims that for the past several years there has been an effort to get biochar included in carbon markets. By and large that effort ended a few years ago and while it is true that it was unsuccessful, the fact of the matter is that the whole carbon market industry has been something of a disappointment. Prices per ton of CO2e on the carbon markets have been hovering around $12 in the U.S. whereas the lowest price per ton of biochar is around $600 (and often much higher). Needless to say with such a huge disparity, the carbon market side of things doesn’t really get too many folks in the biochar world all that excited these days, at least not in the U.S. That is not to say they wouldn’t welcome additional income, but this is not something a lot of people are actively working on. The focus has been on documenting biochar’s value proposition in agriculture, in remediation, in wastewater treatment and other areas. There is acknowledgement that biochar doesn’t make economic sense everywhere given the current price, but the quest for identifying viable markets has definitely moved beyond carbon markets.
This article also resuscitates an old yarn claiming that the only way for biochar to make a significant impact in rebalancing atmospheric carbon, is if substantial food bearing land is converted into growing biomass for carbonization. I call a hearty BS on that one. To clarify what I mean by BS, I am talking about not just bull manure, but all human and animal excrement as just one stream of waste that when carbonized, has the potential to significantly reduce current GHG emissions related to large animal and human poop processing AND sequester carbon at the same time. I’ve blogged about lots of other waste that is currently either being out-right burned (e.g. crop waste, invasives, etc.), or landfilled (e.g. food waste, green waste, etc.) or otherwise underappreciated that can take us a long, long way before ever entertaining the needless notion to convert land used for crops into land used for biomass.
Then there are claims that ‘in many instances’ the biochar industry has teamed up with the Oil & Gas industry looking for ways to mitigate their emissions or remediate the harm they have done to eco-systems. Many compared to what? I have seen or heard of very little financial investment from the fossil fuel folks (FFF) outside of funding some academic research. Of course the FFF are beginning to hedge their bets into renewables and other climate friendly technologies, so it would be naïve to claim they have invested nothing, but I would love to hear more facts instead of unsubstantiated innuendo. This type of hack job reporting is what has made Fox News famous.
It is disappointing to see biased articles like this that purport to have spent so much time on an issue, when it is clear the goal was headlines and not balanced reporting. Balance requires following all the threads, not just the titillating ones. Those of us ‘in the arena’ as Teddy Roosevelt so famously said, with our faces marred by dust (perhaps he meant biochar?), are hard at work trying to find the bright spots of where and how and for how long biochar can help rebalance carbon while also helping humanity to adapt to the ominous perils of climate change, toxified soils and other environmental calamities. It is far more productive for all of humanity to build something up, rather than to tear something down. That doesn’t mean we can’t admit to the flaws and failed attempts to build an industry, but we need to focus on what works and how to replicate it quickly, economically and sustainably if we are to have any chance of making an impact with biochar.