Biochar Wars  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

I'm a big fan of the potential of biochar to help solve some of our problems (at least when we try to follow the terra preta example), so I was disappointed to see that George Monbiot is slamming the idea - Monbiot blasts biochar (via Energy Bulletin.

The latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up; yet many who should know better have been suckered into it ...

Whenever you hear the word miracle, you know there's trouble just around the corner. But no matter many times they lead to disappointment or disaster, the newspapers never tire of promoting miracle cures, miracle crops, miracle fuels and miracle financial instruments. We have a limitless ability to disregard the laws of economics, biology and thermodynamics when we encounter a simple solution to complex problems. So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the new miracle. It's a low-carbon regime for the planet that makes the Atkins diet look healthy: woodchips with everything.

Biomass is suddenly the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. Its advocates claim that it will become the primary source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport fuel (cellulosic ethanol) and aviation fuel (biokerosene). Few people stop to wonder how the planet can accommodate these demands and still produce food and preserve wild places. Now an even crazier use of woodchips is being promoted everywhere (including in the Guardian). The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet's surface into charcoal.

Sorry, not charcoal. We don't call it that any more. Now we say biochar. The idea is that wood and crop wastes are cooked to release the volatile components (which can be used as fuel), then the residue - the charcoal - is buried in the soil. According to the magical thinkers who promote it, the new miracle stops climate breakdown, replaces gas and petroleum, improves the fertility of the soil, reduces deforestation, cuts labour, creates employment, prevents respiratory disease and ensures that when you drop your toast it always lands butter side up. (I invented the last one, but give them time).

James Lovelock has a reply in The Guardian, noting that most sensible people would agree that creating plantations in the tropics in order to create charcoal is a bad idea, but that processing some existing crop wastes and using them for carbon sequestration is an entirely sensible idea - Lovelock replies to Monbiot on biochar.
I usually agree with George Monbiot and love the way he says it but this time – with his assertion that the latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up – he has got it only half right.

Yes, it is silly to rename charcoal as biochar and yes, it would be wrong to plant anything specifically to make charcoal. So I agree, George, it would be wrong to have plantations in the tropics just to make charcoal.

I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eat eaten.

What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don't need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. Charcoal making might even work instead of landfill for waste paper and plastic.

10 comments

While also at a loss for individuals slamming biochar, geothermal, hydro...

Long ago I said to you: 'many of us will have to agree to disagree if we want to solve this in our short lifetime.

A disagreement in principals and application should not be a dismissal of ideas...
James & George are gentlemen who promote great ideas and appear to be fighting the good fight. It makes their ideas easy targets. But they need to remember we are together in this.

I have certainly had flawed ideas and plans and will have many more, it is called learning. The gravest mistake is not having either.


I would also assert that George Monbiot - has got it half right.

He is correct on a major level when media promotes a good idea as a 'miracle cure' and can lead to disappointment or disaster,world markets jump on a singular idea as the silver bullet and sometime destroy the beneficial future of the original idea along with all good intentions.

It is NOT the fault of the ideas but the form they are presented (i.e. steak served in ashtray).

Pushing a idea 'over the top and making its broad application sound simply silly'

For years thousands oppose and protest 'tangible solutions' to 'high risk problems' and it has pushed us from a hole into the abyss.

Simply 'stating idealist principals ' is not a 'realistic solution'... just 'intangible arguments' to sell more books about 'future dreams and wishes'.

Focus is key to ending the debate - plantations devoted to non food projects should be last priority. but, 'processing some existing crop wastes and using them for carbon sequestration is an entirely sensible idea'- with many benefits.

Also James stating there is a 'only tool' to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels... is a kinda singular thought. CO2 is NOT the cause of the millions dying of current air, water and soil pollution... but the effect of the same problems.


EVERY tangible solution has flaws when broadly applied.

There is no PERFECT plan or universal answer for everyone in every area.

A perfect plan for communities in Wisconsin WILL fail horribly in Arid regions and vise versa.

Scale, population and regional resources change everything.


George should stick to 'slamming' the idea that promoting silver bullet and miracle cures 'is the problem' and not simply dismiss a solid and proven idea because it is not that.... and maybe James should brace there is no 'only tool'.


But, Hey I'm not pushing a books, press articles or singular idealistic principals.


"I'm just a simple man, trying to make his way in the universe" - Jango Fett

Jim Hansen Has also replied;

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/25/hansen-biochar-monbiot-response

This is getting to be a little GRISTY.

In the late 90's web forums started on energy and EHS issues...

I was drawn in a 'debate' with an individual who appeared to be limitless in arrogance to argue and completely devoid of listening or reasoning skills.

Something new called a 'moderator' stepped in and thank us both for contributing but proclaimed:
'this thread is dead'

Reminding us that the issue and forum is was not about 'us'.

When you have made a valid point, step away from the keyboard and let your words and actions speak for themselves.

Everything else is redundant and takes away from the good intentions of the original discussion.

Debate Rule:
If you truly feel you are arguing with an one big idiot and continue arguing... then there are two.

It may be "Gristy" for the Mill.

This war on Terra has brought out the big guns, Hansen, Lehmann, Lovelock and Read restating their endorsements and this on the heels of Turnbull's rumble down under with his "Green Charcoal" intuitive is keeping biochar on the public radar.

Bourke's Backyard, yes the man himself, is selling Biochar.

See here
the video linked to on the right and its sequel seem to claim that biochar could lock away ALL the Co2 we need to. Is this correct?

1. Agriwaste and forestry each year?
I've been wondering if someone in agriculture could give us the agriwaste yields (dried husks, stalks etc) for various crops each year worldwide, and the forestry wastes as well.

2. Assuming Eprida's equation is right, 10 tons biomass = 3 tons diesel and 1 ton biochar, then assuming we hypothetically developed an enormous worldwide biochar energy system, how much Co2 sequestered into our soils could that amount to each year?

return

George at it again...
Now taking a stand against decentralized miro-grids?

http://www.off-grid.net/2010/03/03/monbiot-anti-micropower-rant-is-anti-green/

I don't get it.

Local sustainable, secure, clean power communities that feeds non sustainable communities - The only future that 'works'.

Well - remember that George is a socialist at the end of the day - and that colours every aspect of his thinking.

Big renewables can be provided by (or regulated by) central government and made available to the population at large.

Distributed renewables are far more of an individual solution.

Most people's stances on particular issues are usually based on their political beliefs - objective facts (even if they can be accurately determined) don't usually come into it...

I have heard Vandana Shiva ( http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20090319/fp1 ) has joined the India Biochar Assoiation & That Elain Engham (grand Ma of the Soil Food web school of soil science)
are Both on the Biochar Bus.
Strong Stuff!!

Ah yes 'political beliefs' trumping objective facts and ideas... Thinking left is right and right is wrong has put us in this 30 year old energy predicament.

As we enter 'the 2nd carter era' where one political side is desperately trying to undermine any and all efforts due to 'party indifference' we end up with dismal and depressing political choices for our nations with trillions in a hole.

At some point they need to be 'for something' not just against change.

As change is an unstoppable continuation of a time we can only choose to help or hinder.

Kinda like the whole 'James & George' sediment.

BioChar on the Boing2day:
Same story with a little history.

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/03/15/can-charcoal-save-th.html

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