Charcoal Ain't Gonna Cool the Planet (Duh)!

It's downright amazing what people are willing to put their faith in
when confronted with a crisis. With ever more dire impacts from a
cooking planet, the "biochar worshippers" are doing their best to sell
the idea that we can cure just about everything -- from global warming to
soil infertility, agrichemical runoff, even dirty toilets -- by doing a
little more cooking. Just cook
up some trees, agricultural "wastes and residues" -- maybe a few hundred
thousand acres of industrial tree monocultures (why not?) and then bury
the resulting charcoal in soils to "sequester" it. This,
they refer to as "a powerful tool to fight global
warming." (Footnote:
If you think referring to them as "worshippers" is overstepping, see

So convinced are they
that charred plant matter is the answer to global warming, that the
International Biochar Initiative, (IBI), a group consisting of a mix of
business, academic and hybrid interests, has spent tons of time and
money zealously lobbying to have biochar included in all manner of
policies intended to address climate change: from the UN and other carbon
trading venues to the proposed "Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting
and Restoration Act" (WECHAR) bill introduced by Senator Harry Reid from
Nevada, which would have us char trees and other "biomass" from National

The worshippers are now
basking in success having managed to convince John Kerry et al to
feature biochar prominently in the recently released senate climate
bill, the "American Power Act." So successful were they that biochar
appears in three different places in the bill, under "rapid mitigation,"
in the domestic offsets provisions, and under a title that directs EPA
to explore its potential for "reducing black carbon."

This is very disturbing.
First of all, the biochar worshippers' faith in biochar is largely based
on extrapolation and wishful thinking. We know that
indigenous peoples in the Amazon created remarkably fertile, carbon rich
soils -- called Terra Preta -- between 500 and 2,500 years
ago by adding a mix of kitchen waste, fish bones, river sediments and
many other diverse residues as well as charcoal to their soils over
very long periods of time. Nobody knows exactly how Terra Preta was
created, nor whether it can be achieved quickly or in other soil types.

The biochar worshippers
like to claim they are making something like Terra Preta when they
pyrolize everything from wood to municipal solid waste, and that their
biochar will similarly last for thousands of years. But
there is little basis for comparison between modern biochar and ancient
Terra Preta. As the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation states: "The
knowledge systems and culture linked to the Terra Preta management are
unique but have unfortunately been lost". (1)

For the past year or so,
Biofuelwatch and others have been raising concerns about biochar --
especially that big new demands for biomass are a threat to farms and
forests already suffering from soil degradation and deforestation.
We have repeatedly pointed out that there is no proof that biochar
improves soil fertility (beyond an initial early effect due to
nutrients in the ash residue). Nor is there any proof that it performs
as well as compost, let alone better! Nor is it by any
means clear that the overall effects of biochar are good for the
climate, especially if we account for the emissions from growing,
harvesting collecting, transporting and pyrolyzing all that plant

There are no
peer-reviewed comprehensive field studies of modern biochar lasting more
than a year yet published! This is problematic given that in the real
world, living soils are enormously variable, teeming with a huge variety
of microbes and subjected to all kinds of climatic vagaries -- droughts,
wildfires, floods and more. One (not peer-reviewed) field
trial on a GM soya plantation in Quebec, used wood biochar made by
Dynamotive. The soy yields were a bit higher in the first year compared
to using nothing but lime, but then dropped off in the second. In spite
of the persistent claim that biochar remains stable in soils for
thousands of years, the researchers found no increase in soil carbon 2
years after the biochar was applied. In another study in Central
Amazonia, biochar was compared with chicken manure. Manure worked

There are also concerns
that since toxins are concentrated in char, they could end up in soils
and enter the food chain. Although the climate bill directs EPA to study
biochar's potential for reducing soot (small particles of black carbon
which contribute to global warming), biochar itself breaks down over
time into fine dust which can easily become airborne, like soot. These
particles also cause lung disease when inhaled.

Pro-biochar organisations
and companies, including WorldStove (whose Haiti project featured in
two recent Huffington Post articles) are promoting biochar use amongst
farmers in Haiti, Africa and elsewhere, and the IBI seeks to emphasize
their image as "humanitarians," featuring images of poor farmers hoeing
charcoal into their fields. But small stoves projects are only a part of
the picture. From the get go, members of the IBI have advocated for
very large scale biochar production as a "climate geoengineering"
technology, with statements that biochar can sequester "gigatons" of
carbon out of the atmosphere -- or "reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations
by 100 parts per million," or even "absorb all of the carbon emissions
from fossil fuel burning that has occurred in the past 50 years."
Such claims should cause us to wonder: how much biomass would it
take, and where will it all come from? With an expanding population to
feed and forests and ecosystems spiraling downward in decline, does it
make sense to burn a lot of plant material, especially when there is so
little evidence it will do any good?

making their grand visions for biochar a reality, the IBI has recently
partnered with the Carbon War Room, founded by airline owner and
space-tourism entrepreneur Richard Branson. There, they
are promoting "Operation Black Gold" which will "Apply
Overwhelming Force" to ensure that biochar gets included
into different carbon trading schemes and is granted prominence on the
agendas of large NGOs. They also seek to set up a biochar
trade association with the goal of "removing"
one billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere -- an experiment
that would require billion tonnes of wood be burned. They consider
members of the UNFCCC and the scientific community who have raised
concerns to be no more than "obstacles" to be overcome.

So perhaps it should not
be too surprising that biochar features rather prominently in the Senate
climate bill as a means of "enhancing soil sequestration" for
"Achieving Rapid Mitigation." The bill proposes up to 60
pyrolysis plants producing biochar which will require vast quantities of
materials -- trees, crops, residues, whatever is handy. To
understand how absurd this is, consider that the Terra Preta soils
contain around 25 tons of carbon from biochar per hectare. Since wood is
about 50% carbon, and at least 65% of that is normally lost during
charring -- one would have to burn about 143 tons of biomass per hectare
to achieve a similar concentration.

American Power Act further offers polluters the chance to avoid
reducing their pollution, offsetting: it by paying for more biochar
production. Offsets are a farce in the first place, and we
can ill-afford to engage them at this point. The lack of certainty
over the impacts of biochar highlights one of the most common
criticisms: namely that real and measurable emissions from fossil fuel
burning cannot be "offset" by questionable practices that may or may not
work now or in the future.

Promoting the widespread
use of biochar at this point is not unlike a drug company pushing a new
compound without even testing it, because "it might work, or at least
some people think so."

advocates say they don't want to see natural forests being cut down.
They prefer to talk about using "wastes and residues, just as do
the purveyors of bioenergy and biofuels. But in reality there are no
mountains of wastes and residues lying about, and already forests from
Indonesia to Argentina and Colombia are being destroyed ever faster -- to
the tune of escalating human rights abuses and hunger. Forests are cut
and replaced with industrial monocultures to supply the ever growing
demand for wood chip and pulp. And of course it is precisely that ever
expanding market that lies behind Arborgen's development of genetically
engineered eucalyptus, just approved for field testing in the
southeastern U.S. Biochar in the climate bill just added more fuel to
the fires.


Terra Preta Prayer , by biochar worshipper extraordinaire, Erich Knight

Carbon who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name
kingdom come, thy will be done, IN the Earth to make it Heaven.
It will
give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our atmospheric
As we
forgive those who trespass against the Kyoto protocols
And lead
us not into fossil fuel temptation, but deliver us from it's evil
as we walk through the valley of the shadow of Global Warming,
I will
feel no evil, your Bio-fuels and fertile microbes will comfort me,
thine is the fungal kingdom,
and the microbe power,
the Sequestration Glory,
For ever and ever (well at least
2000 years)



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