Biochar cannot be a global solution for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere as long as we do not completely stop burning fossil fuels. The sequestration of carbon through production and deposition of biochar cannot compete with the current massive production of CO2 from burning fossil fuels. Starting with biochar production at massive scale would be under expense of the vegetation, which is the other – and probably much more important – part of the solution to climate change. Biochar production at large scale may also eliminate the incentive to stop the burning of fossil fuels. This is like burning the candles at both ends.
I share a lot of the view of Albert Bates that he expresses in the following video. But I am even more skeptical than him when it comes to biochar as a tool for global carbon management.
It is often argued that stopping the burning of fossil fuels will not be enough to save the climate, as we already have passed the critical mark of 350 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere, and that we would need to sequester carbon by active processes such as production and deposition of biochar. But these calculations ignore natures capacity to do the job on its own. The exchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the biosphere is a highly dynamic process. And this process is not only directly disturbed by massive release of carbon from fossil fuels, but also – and importantly – indirectly via the current management of our land.
I am convinced that by far the main task to meet the goal of reducing atmospheric carbon is stopping emission form fossil fuels, stopping industrial agriculture and the destruction of natural ecosystems so that nature is allowed do the job of remediation. Stopping the burning of fossil fuels is the most important means to stabilize the climate. This in turn will have profound impact on agriculture, which will not be able to proceed in its current form. If further active sequestration is useful and needed can only be monitored after fossil fuels are out of business.
However, biochar is part of a solution for soil restoration in polluted areas. In residential areas, where we need to grow our food with the aim of eliminating machinery and transport in the production and distribution of food. Another part of the local solution is no till practices. Permanent cultures. The soil must not be disturbed, so that soil carbon will increase and be maintained at high level. Furthermore, part of the solution is a shift from annual crop planting to perennial crops, which is a logical extension of the non till practice. Perennial plants including trees and shrubs will also increase the above soil carbon.
Biochar can also be part of a solution for revegetation of regions with extended drought or even deserts. But again, biochar is always only part of a solution and a kick-starter for a more complex change in land use practices. Biochar is not a solution on its own!
Biochar production must not become an industrial process!
Biochar must not be used as a remedy for industrial agriculture!
Biochar should be produced locally at a scale to match the particular needs for your local project in your local environment.
Therefore, a number of points have to be considered by local initiatives:
- Most importantly, when making biochar for your local use, choose the cleanest process for production you can find.
- Try to match your production to the need for the purpose of using biochar in your particular place.
- As feedstock for making biochar, use locally available material.
- Make use of the energy released dyring the pyrolysis process.
- …and: change your practice to the simple method of chop and drop.