Perhaps it is because of the ominous stage of the climate crisis and the understandable desire to rescue civilization from an increasingly dire future. Or perhaps it is because of more mundane motivators such as reducing organics sent to landfills, generating clean, renewable energy or reducing air pollution. Regardless of the reason, the biochar industry is witnessing a significant increase in interest over the past year. More and more individuals, companies, cities and other entities are discovering the oft overlooked carbon rebalancer known as biochar.
Needless to say, all of this newfound interest is welcome news for those of us that have been struggling to birth the industry for years. Perhaps unsurprisingly many of the ‘oldtimers’ are now being approached by untold newcomers with questions about biochar, markets, technologies, policies, barriers, standards, and the list goes on. Almost all want easy answers to which I often think to myself “if it were easy, the industry would be built already’.
A curious pattern seems to be emerging for those newly ‘biocharmed’ as I like to call them. In contrast to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), which could easily be applied to the increasing number of people suffering from eco-anxiety, I’d like to suggest the five soul soothing stages of falling in love with biochar (which could be applied to other safe, scalable and shovel-ready strategies to combat climate chaos). It should be noted that these stages may be cumulative versus linear for some of us. Here is a closer look:
Stage 1: Hopeful
When most people first learn about biochar, and I definitely include myself in this, the reaction is often a mixture of hope, relief and skepticism (perhaps a new portmanteau for this sentiment could be ‘horesk’?). Learning that there is an existing, cost-effective, scalable technology that can materially help rebalance carbon seems almost too good to be true. Many wonder why this isn’t better known and why it isn’t being rolled out en masse if it is so promising. Those of us in the industry often ponder this point as well, but we have a better understanding of the barriers.
Stage 2: Exuberant
Once the initial ‘aha’ stage begins to pass, the ‘yee-ha’ stage takes over. There is usually a lot of learning happening during this stage, but people get very switched on to all things biochar, which often leads them to quickly move on to the next stage.
Stage 3: Evangelism
“Charvangelists” come in all stripes, though the predominant geography seems to be from North America. At this stage the newly biocharmed are telling everyone who will listen, and many who can’t seem to be bothered, about just how great biochar is, often ad nauseum (just ask my family as they have subjected to this for years). Individuals in stage 3 are fearless and forthright. They speak to people they might never imaged speaking to before biochar entered their lives: farmers, foresters, and foes across the political aisle. They reach out to schools, churches, master gardeners and frankly anyone they think might listen and make a difference (I know from whence I speak!). Many people linger in this stage or may bring their charvangelism with them to the next stage.
Stage 4: Overwhelmed
In order for biochar (or any other quiver in the climate change solution set) to make a material impact on climate change, it must scale, and scale quickly. All new industries are challenged by scaling but doing so under the uncompromising time constraints of the global carbon budget makes scaling in the Anthropocene a Herculean task. The current Western culture seems ill equipped to turn multitudes of mere mortals into Carbon conquerors, which is perhaps why this stage can feel daunting in the extreme.
As those in the industry know, production of biochar is no longer the constraint to scaling. There is a lot of biochar production capability and interest just waiting for a market before they invest in infrastructure. Where to utilize the vast amounts of biochar that can and will be produced in the most beneficial and economical manner is the real hurdle. Identifying, creating and scaling those markets is nothing short of overwhelming.
Stage 5: Focused
Getting focused is the key to sustainable progress in many if not most situations. Understanding the biochar industry from soup to nuts is challenging but critical. It is important to understand how biochar is made, the different co-products that can be generated with different technologies and what their value may be in different geographies and industries; the variability of biochar and how to design them for specific end uses; the standards and policies that help or hinder different biochar markets; the climate change impact; and the emerging impact of carbon removal markets.
The sooner those new to biochar are able to focus on a few key biochar aspects and/or markets in their region or in their area of expertise, the sooner we will start to see substantial and sustainable scaling.