Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The Biochar Debate - written by James Bruges

This week’s post is a ‘guest post’ from James Bruges. James was at Woodbrooke for the ‘Zero Growth’ weekend (see last week’s post) and he and I got into a conversation over Sunday breakfast aboutbiochar – so I asked if he would write something for this blog.

James was brought up in India until the age of 12, studied at the Architectural Association in London and subsequently worked in Khartoum for three years. In due course he set up an architectural practice in Bristol. His architectural interests developed in the direction of environmental design and urban planning.

He subsequently took to writing. The Little Earth Book went through four editions that had to be updated annually. It was followed by two editions of The Big Earth Book, and now The Biochar Debate. In these books his aim has been to look at global issues from a moral, rather than a pragmatic, point of view. He is a member of Feasta, the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, which is largely an informal group connected by email but based in Dublin. Richard Douthwaite is a prominent presence in the group. James has come to regard the western money system, which has gone global, as the primary cause of global degradation.

With Marion, he advises the RH Southern Trust, a family trust. Among the trust’s objectives are to identify initiatives that aim to achieve fundamental change, as well as to provide support for organisations in India that have been founded and run by Indians along lines that are consistent with the attitudes of Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave. James feels that this connection, together with his early childhood, enables him to see issues both from the viewpoint of a wealthy country and from a country with much of the world's poverty.

James’s favourite aunt was clerk of Sydney meeting, and another aunt turned to the Society when her clergyman husband died, so Quakerism is in the family. James is a member of the Society of Friends and attends Redland (Bristol) meeting.

James writes:

James Lovelock, the scientist who coined the term ‘Gaia’ for Earth as a living system, has said that charcoal could save us from global warming. Others point out that the commercial exploitation of charcoal could lead to dangerous monocultures. This is a debate of huge importance.

Over a period of fourteen years the entire volume of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is brought down to earth and subsequently released. This is the carbon cycle. The longer carbon is held in or on the land the less greenhouse gas concentrates in the atmosphere. Photosynthesis is the magic by which plants capture carbon from the air and transfer it to the soil. Trees, pastures and organic cultivation retain it for a number of years. Industrial farming, on the other hand, destroys the ability of soil to hold carbon. Charcoal, properly used, can keep it in the soil almost permanently.

Fine-grained charcoal is called biochar. Electron microscope photographs show that even charcoal dust is riddled with cavities so that, once saturated, it retains moisture. This is the property that immediately appealed to farmers I met in India. The surfaces around these cavities (one gram of charcoal can have surface areas equal to two tennis courts) attract microbes. When biochar is ‘charged’ with compost, manure and urine, and mixed with soil, it enhances fertility. We met some banana farmers who halved their use of water and doubled their yield through using biochar over a period of four years, and their neighbours are adopting the practice.

Cletus Babu started SCAD (Social Change and Development) an NGO in southern India, 25 years ago. His main aim was to regenerate rural areas. SCAD is now carrying out trial plots using biochar to demonstrate the increased yields that result. Once farmers observe the benefit, the practice will spread. This is the most effective and lasting inducement for farmers around the world to use charcoal. Cletus is aware that the benefit to small-scale farmers could be destroyed if the process were to earn carbon credits from transnational markets: agribusiness would buy up land to ‘farm credits’ and drive small farmers into city slums.

I have been working with Feasta, on the implications for climate negotiations. The 1992 Rio Earth Summit  set an agenda based on scientific advice that could have saved us from the present crisis. At Kyoto in 1997 commercial considerations took precedence and resulted in hugely complicated procedures. These procedures need to be simplified into two categories.

(1) Two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions come from the use of fossil fuels, so this is the first category. It would be easier and more effective to regulate the 400 or 500 companies that extract coal, gas and oil from the ground - the 'supply side' - than to change the behaviour of 6.7 billion people using the commercial incentive of carbon trading in the forlorn hope of reducing demand. Cap and Share is the policy for achieving it (called ‘Cap and Dividend’ in the USA).

(2) The second category includes all emissions from land-based activities, and biochar falls into this category. The carbon content of land can now be measured through remote sensing by satellites. LUCAS New Zealand does this, as does Amazing Carbon in Australia. Countries should be paid a substantial fee for the carbon pool in land within their borders. They should be heavily rewarded if this increases and penalised if it reduces. This policy is called the 'Carbon Maintenance Fee'. Feasta’s Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network has developed the theory and will shortly publish a report.

Synthetic chemicals and intensive use have degraded a large proportion of the earth’s land. Small-scale farmers manage much of it, and it is these farmers, particularly in tropical areas, who can benefit from biochar. But ‘charged’ biochar could also enable any one of us with a garden to take carbon from the air and put it in the ground. Local authorities could also turn the green waste they collect into charged biochar and distribute it.

For keeping up with the fast developing debate the best approach is simply to google ‘biochar’.

Other books:
Biochar for Environmental Management, Science and Technology, edited by Johannes Lehmann & Stephen Joseph, Earthscan 2009
Reducing Greenhouse Emissions from Activities on the Land, edited by Richard Douthwaite and Corinna Byrne, Feasta, 2009 (forthcoming).

* * * * *
Thanks to James for this article.


  1. All political persuasions agree, building soil carbon is GOOD.
    To Hard bitten Farmers, wary of carbon regulations that only increase their costs, Building soil carbon is a savory bone, to do well while doing good.

    Biochar provides the tool powerful enough to cover Farming's carbon foot print while lowering cost simultaneously.

    Another significant aspect of bichar is removal of BC aerosols by low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease emissions. At Scale, replacing "Three Stone" stoves the health benefits would equal eradication of Malaria. and village level systems
    The Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF).recently funded The Biochar Fund $300K for these systems citing these priorities;
    (1) Hunger amongst the world's poorest people, the subsistence farmers of Sub-Saharan Africa,
    (2) Deforestation resulting from a reliance on slash-and-burn farming,
    (3) Energy poverty and a lack of access to clean, renewable energy, and
    (4) Climate change.

    The Biochar Fund :

    The broad smiles of 1500 subsistence farmers say it all ( that , and the size of the Biochar corn root balls )

    This authoritative PNAS article should cause the recent Royal Society Report to rethink their criticism of Biochar systems of Soil carbon sequestration;

    Reducing abrupt climate change risk using
    the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory
    actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions

    There are dozens soil researchers on the subject now at USDA-ARS.
    and many studies at The up coming ASA-CSSA-SSSA joint meeting;

    Senator Baucus is co-sponsoring a bill along with Senator Tester (D-MT) called WE CHAR. Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration Act! It focuses on promoting biochar technology to address invasive species and forest biomass. It includes grants and loans for biochar market research and development, biochar characterization and environmental analyses. It directs USDI and USDA to provide loan guarantees for biochar technologies and on-the-ground production with an emphasis on biomass from public lands. And the USGS is to do biomas availability assessments. - S. 1713, The Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009

    Individual and groups can show support for WECHAR by signing online at:

    Congressional Research Service report (by analyst Kelsi Bracmort) is the best short summary I have seen so far - both technical and policy oriented. .

    Bill Clinton said Biochar;
    Mantria Industries inducted in Clinton Global Intuitive

    Al Gore got the CO2 absorption thing wrong, ( at NABC Vilsack did same), but his focus on Soil Carbon is right on;

    The future of biochar - Project Rainbow Bee Eater

    Japan Biochar Association ;

    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

  2. Alice Yaxley has drawn this to my attention:

    "Converting the U.S.’s 160 million corn and soybean acres to organic production would sequester enough carbon to satisfy 73 percent of the Kyoto targets for CO2 reduction in the U.S."

    Sounds good! Serious conversion now to organic production would also go a long way towards stabilizing food production in general; (what about yields though?)