SolveClimate: Biochar and George Monbiot’s Misguided Rant

biocharEditor’s note: This post was written by Max Ajl, and originally published on Wednesday, March 25, at SolveClimate.

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the possibilities of biochar – burning organic waste, such as wood chips, left-over crop residue or even manure at extremely low oxygen levels and high temperatures in order to produce charcoal and biogas. The charcoal would go into the ground, increasing soil fertility, while the gas would be an effective energy source, making good use of detritus that would otherwise decompose, returning its carbon to the atmosphere.

I suggested that although the technology was still distant from full-scale implementation, it had considerable promise as a way to draw-down carbon from the atmosphere.

Well, environmental writer George Monbiot has demurred. He wrote in the Guardian yesterday that biochar advocates have been “suckered.” They promote “an even crazier use of woodchips.” They wish to “turn the planet’s surface into charcoal.” They are a wild band of “magical thinkers” who wish to “destroy the biosphere in order to save it.”

Remember, this is Monbiot, a serious analyst of anthropogenic global warming, not Bjorn Lomborg or a mercenary from the Heartland Institute. This man isn’t “supposedly” in the coalition to avert disastrous warming – he’s part of it, through and through.

So what’s he in a tizzy about? A lot of nothing, it turns out, since he’s battling with a straw-man that most biochar researchers don’t take even remotely seriously.

Monbiot states that the idea that “biochar is a universal solution that can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided as Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Backwards,” adding that its “hazards” outweigh it benefits, that it’s unclear if it even promotes soil fertility.

After so much huffing-and-puffing, he finally notes, “Nor does this mean that charcoal can’t be made on a small scale, from material that would otherwise go to waste.”

biochar chartMonbiot is right to tear into those who propose industrial tree-farming as a way to create biomass for biochar. And of course he is right to point out that there would be problems in planting 1.4 billion hectares of trees and sugar to produce biomass for biochar, as Peter Read suggests, since the world’s arable land is 1.36 billion hectares.

But beyond that, he’s quite lost his way.

Contradicting Monbiot’s worry that it isn’t clear if biochar can increase land’s fecundity, Johannes Lemann’s research project at Cornell University has shown that biochar has tremendous effects on soil fertility.

And Jim Hansen, one target of Monbiot’s polemic, adds that serious scientists aren’t suggesting trash-forest plantations but are advocating pryolizing farm waste: turning some into charcoal-biochar-that can be buried to increase soil fertility, turning the rest, which would normally decompose, bleeding carbon into the atmosphere, into a biogas that can be used as fuel in lieu of fossil energies.

One peer-reviewed paper published by Lemann and a team of researchers in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change advocates replacing slash-and-burn with slash-and-char in tropical areas.

Slash-and-burn leaves a residue of 3 percent of the biomass’s carbon in the soil. Pyrolysis leaves up to 50 percent. Meanwhile, deforestation could only continue until it is taxed as a carbon emission. The biochar strategy would mitigate carbon emissions while deforestation decreases. Monbiot is against this?

In another paper, published by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the authors, including Hansen, observe that

Waste-derived biochar application will be phased in linearly over the period 2010-2020, by which time it will reach a maximum uptake rate of 0.16 GtC/yr.

They add that this could draw down about 8 ppm of carbon from the atmosphere. They derive the number from the Lemann paper I cite above, which suggests that there is an adequate supply of waste biomass-rice husks, forest and mill residue, urban debris-to fuel this process. Does Monbiot seriously wish to ignore such a figure?

Finally, even the most optimistic figures scientists bandy about are based explicitly on converting biomass into charcoal and energy in the places where it is grown. Otherwise, the transportation costs would be enormous, negating the benefits. Indeed, agronomist David Laird writes explicitly of the benefits to be gained from a distributed, as opposed to centralized, network.

Monbiot is right to pillory the latter, as well as vast plantations of socially and ecologically disruptive fast-growing monoculture trees. But that doesn’t mean biochar isn’t a good idea, even if it makes for good copy to attack its and its proponents in the harshest terms.

  1. rich albertson

    we need some planetary thinking here. removal of farm waste and using it for anything other than to return it to the soil to enhance fertility flies in the face of the natural world and its processeses. what we have to learn is the ability to carefully observe natural processes to discover how they operate, absent human intervention, and then to devise technologies that mimic the natural processes. it’s the only way to be reasonably certain that our ideas, once implemented at full scale, will prove to be environmentally benign. thank you for this opportunity to spek.

  2. nadine sellers

    Monbiot ‘s position on biomass/C use is that man’s historic propensity for mass production is disastrous to the environment.

    on a reasonable scale the gasification and energy use of spare biomass is valid. Full use of agricultural and farming offal obeys basic natural principles. It is only when man concentrates and generates too much of one element that the trouble begins. Can’t milk a dead cow!

    Diversification of materials would insure that no single source is abused.Pyrolysing of by-products of the forestry industry and farming residue would provide energy and enrich soils. China has obtained methane on village wide models for centuries, why do we need to finance unsustainable models of simple technologies?

    Large scale agronomy has been responsible for soil depletion/erosion. Charcoal would control pests, add phosphorus and necessary minerals to localized agriculture. 25% of manures and other nitrogen sources should be reserved and re-introduced in soils in order to procure bio-active thermogenic factors.

    Time to downscale and de-centralise innovative use of every carbonic compound. No need to grow another huge economic tower on the back of another ecologic disaster.

  3. Christopher Haase

    Cross comment post

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

    ‘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

  4. Michael Russell

    Potential backers of using charcoal in surface soils should first consider the following points.

    Firstly, take a look at the results from a 10-year study of a Swedish (if I remember correctly) forest where charcoal was added to the soil. The nett result was a loss of soil humus carbon to the atmosphere that negated the effect of storing carbon in the charcoal.

    The study declined to explain the result, but I would put my money on increased bacterial metabolism as a result of increased oxygenation of the soil and improved availability of nutrients supplied by exchange sites on the charcoal surfaces.

    Secondly, improved fertility and oxygenation boosts to bacterial metabolism in general also means boosting the metabolism of specialist bacterial in the nitrogen cycle. A consequence of this is increased loss of nitrate nitrogen to the atmosphere. Some of this loss is in the form of the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

    This gas has a 300 to 1 infra-red absorption compared to CO2. In other words, for every 1kg, per square unit area, of extra nitrous oxide produced by the addition of the charcoal, you must store enough charcoal to equate to 300kg of carbon dioxide, (about 100kg of carbon when you take off the oxygen atoms).

    And that is just to get a nil nett effect on the atmosphere and before allowing for CO2 releases from soil humus oxidation.

    Charcoal in the soil may be good for growing things, but looking to it as remediation of fossil fuel use is probably a mirage.

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