Mar 24, 2009
Whenever you hear the word miracle, you know there's trouble just
around the corner. But however 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 bottomless 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 which 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 (bio-kerosene). 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(1)). 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).
They point out that the indigenous people of the Amazon created
terras pretas (black soils) by burying charcoal over hundreds of years.
These are more fertile than the surrounding soils, and the carbon has
stayed where they put it. All we need to do is to roll this out
worldwide and the world's problems - except, for the time being, the
toast conundrum - are solved. It takes carbon out of circulation,
reducing atmospheric concentrations. It raises crop yields. If some of
the carbon is produced in efficient cooking stoves, it reduces the
smoke in people's homes and means they have to gather less fuel,
This miracle solution has suckered people who ought to know better,
including the earth systems scientist James Lovelock(3), the eminent
climate scientist Jim Hansen(4), the author Chris Goodall and the
climate campaigner Tim Flannery(5). At the UN climate negotiations
beginning in Bonn on Sunday, several national governments will demand
that biochar is eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial
stimulus required to turn this into a global industry(6). Their
proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to
In his otherwise excellent book, Ten Technologies to Save the
Planet, Chris Goodall abandons his usual scepticism and proposes that
we turn 200 million hectares of "forests, savannah and croplands" into
biochar plantations. Thus we would increase carbon uptake, by grubbing
up "wooded areas containing slow-growing trees" (that is, natural
forest) and planting "faster-growing species"(7). This is
But that's just the start of it. Carbonscape, a company which hopes
to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting
930 million hectares(8). The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new
biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4 billion ha(9).
The arable area of the United Kingdom is 5.7m hectares, or one 245th
of Read's figure. China has 104m ha of cropland. The US has 174m. The
global total is 1.36 billion(10). Were we to follow Read's plan, we
would either have to replace all the world's crops with biomass
plantations, causing instant global famine, or we would have to double
the cropped area of the planet, trashing most of its remaining natural
habitats. Read was one of the promoters of first-generation liquid
biofuels(11,12), which played a major role in the rise in the price of
food last year, throwing millions into malnutrition. Have these people
Of course they claim that everything can be reconciled. Peter Read
says that the new plantations can be created across "land on which the
occupants are not engaged in economic activity"(13). This means land
used by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers and
anyone else who isn't producing commodities for the mass market:
poorly-defended people whose rights and title can be disregarded. Both
Read and Carbonscape speak of these places as "degraded lands". We used
to call them unimproved, or marginal. Degraded land is the new code for
natural habitat someone wants to destroy.
Goodall is even more naive. He believes we can maintain the
profusion of animals and plants in the rainforests he hopes to gut by
planting a mixture of fast-growing species, rather than a
monoculture(14). As the Amazon ecologist Philip Fearnside has shown, a
mixture does "not substantially change the impact of very large-scale
plantations from the standpoint of biodiversity"(15).
In their book Pulping the South, Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann
show what has happened in the 100m ha of industrial plantations planted
around the world so far(16). Aside from trashing biodiversity, tree
plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when
the land is ploughed for planting (which means the loss of soil
carbon), exhausted nutrients and required so many pesticides that in
some places the run-off has poisoned marine fisheries.
In Brazil and South Africa, tens of thousands of people have been
thrown off their lands, often by violent means, to create plantations.
In Thailand the military government that came to power in 1991 sought
to expel five million people. Forty thousand families were dispossessed
before the junta was overthrown. In many cases plantations cause a net
loss of employment. Working conditions are brutal, often involving debt
peonage and repeated exposure to pesticides.
As Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch point out,
many of the claims made for biochar don't stand up(17). In some cases
charcoal in the soil improves plant growth; in others it suppresses it.
Just burying carbon bears little relationship to the complex farming
techniques of the Amazon Indians who created terras pretas. Nor is
there any guarantee that most of the buried carbon will stay in the
soil. In some cases charcoal stimulates bacterial growth, causing
carbon emissions from soils to rise. As for reducing deforestation, a
stove that burns only part of the fuel is likely to increase, not
decrease, demand for wood. There are plenty of other ways of
eliminating household smoke which don't involve turning the world's
forests to cinders.
None of this is to suggest that the idea has no virtues; simply that
they are outweighed by hazards, which the promoters have either
overlooked or obscured. Nor does this mean that charcoal can't be made
on a small scale, from straw or brashings or sewage that would
otherwise go to waste. But the idea that biochar is a universal
solution which can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided
as Mao Zedong's Great Leap Backwards. We clutch at straws (and other
biomass) in our desperation to believe that there is an easy way out.
2. Chris Goodall, 2008. Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. GreenProfile, London.
4. James Hansen et al, 2008. Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should
Humanity Aim? https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0804/0804.1126.pdf
6. This is the AWG-LCA meeting at the UNFCCC negotiations.
7. Pages 226-227.
9. Peter Read, 2008. Biosphere carbon stock management: addressing
the threat of abrupt climate change in the next few decades: an
editorial essay. Climatic Change.
11. Peter Read, 20th October 2004. Good news on climate change.
Abrupt Climate Change Strategy Workshop. Press Release.
13. Peter Read, 2008, ibid.
14. Page 228.
15. Philip M. Fearnside, 1993 'Tropical Silvicultural Plantations
asa Means of Sequestering Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide', ms., Manaus.
Quoted in Pulping the South (see below).
16. This book is available online at https://www.wrm.org.uy/plantations/material/pulping.html
17. Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker, February 2009. Biochar for
Climate Change Mitigation: Fact or Fiction?
We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.