Biochar to fight climate change

During the last few years, I have read a fair bit about biochar, a substance generated by burning biomass in a low oxygen environment. Because this charcoal is rich in carbon dioxide (CO2), making it could somewhat draw down the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. There are also claims that it can make soil more fertile, playing a similar role to the ‘terra pretta’ that apparently makes some Amazonian lands more productive than average.

There are certainly people who make exaggerated claims about what biochar production could achieve. While it might be adequate to generate one small ‘wedge’ in net greenhouse gas emission reductions, it does not seem plausible that it can be a major part of the solution. George Monbiot has been especially critical of those who have hailed it as a solution in itself.

While not a miracle cure, biochar may have some promise, and deserves to be looked into as part of the process of building a low- (eventually zero-) carbon global society.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

14 thoughts on “Biochar to fight climate change”

  1. Biochar Soils…..Husbandry of whole new orders & Kingdoms of life

    Biotic Carbon, the carbon transformed by life, should never be combusted, oxidized and destroyed. It deserves more respect, reverence even, and understanding to use it back to the soil where 2/3 of excess atmospheric carbon originally came from.

    We all know we are carbon-centered life, we seldom think about the complex web of recycled bio-carbon which is the true center of life. A cradle to cradle, mutually co-evolved biosphere reaching into every crack and crevice on Earth.

    It’s hard for most to revere microbes and fungus, but from our toes to our gums (onward), their balanced ecology is our health. The greater earth and soils are just as dependent, at much longer time scales. Our farming for over 10,000 years has been responsible for 2/3rds of our excess greenhouse gases. This soil carbon, converted to carbon dioxide, Methane & Nitrous oxide began a slow stable warming that now accelerates with burning of fossil fuel. Agriculture allowed our cultural accent and Agriculture will now prevent our descent.

    Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

    Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

    Biochar, the modern version of an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice called Terra Preta (black earth, TP), is gaining widespread credibility as a way to address world hunger, climate change, rural poverty, deforestation, and energy shortages… SIMULTANEOUSLY!
    Modern Pyrolysis of biomass is a process for Carbon Negative Bio fuels, massive Carbon sequestration, 80%-90% Lower Methane & N2O soil emissions, and 2X Fertility Too.
    Every 1 ton of Biomass yields 1/3 ton Charcoal for soil Sequestration (= to 1 Ton CO2e) + Bio-Gas & Bio-oil fuels = to 1MWh exported electricity, so is a totally virtuous, carbon negative energy cycle.

    Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
    “Feed the Soil Not the Plants” becomes;
    “Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !”.
    Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
    Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
    Microbes like to sit down when they eat.
    By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders & Kingdoms of life.

    This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of penitence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.

    Dr. Scherr’s report includes biochar.

    I think we will be seeing much greater media attention for land management & biochar as reports like her’s come out linking the roll of agriculture and climate.

    Unlike CCS which only reduces emissions, biochar systems draw down CO2 every energy cycle, closing a circle back to support the soil food web. The photosynthetic “capture” collectors are up and running, the “storage” sink is in operation just under our feet. Pyrolysis conversion plants are the only infrastructure we need to build out.

    Another significant aspect of bichar and aerosols are the low cost ($3) Biomass cook stoves that produce char but no respiratory disease. and village level systems with the Congo Basin Forest
    Fund (CBFF). The Biochar Fund recently won $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.

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

    Major Endorsements:

    Senator / Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar has done the most to nurse this biofuels system in his Biochar provisions in the 07 & 08 farm bill,

    NASA’s Dr. James Hansen Global warming solutions paper and letter to the G-8 conference, placing Biochar / Land management the central technology for carbon negative energy systems.

    Dr. James Lovelock (Gaia hypothesis) says Biochar is “The only hope for mankind”

    Charles Mann (“1491”) in the Sept. National Geographic has a wonderful soils article which places Terra Preta / Biochar soils center stage.

    Tony Blair & Richard Branson in the UK and conservative party opposition leader John Turnbull in Oz.

    Soil Carbon Sequestration Standards Committee. Hosted by Monsanto, this group of diverse interests has been hammering out issues of definition, validation and protocol. The past week, this group have been pressing soil sequestration’s roll for climate legislation to congress.

    Along these lines internationally, the work of the IBI fostering the application by 20 countries for UN recognition of soil carbon as a sink with biochar as a clean development mechanism will open the door for programs across the globe.

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

    This is the single most comprehensive report to date, covering more of the Asian and Australian work;

    Biochar data base;

    Disscusion Groups;
    The group home page location, General orientation:
    Biochar (
    Biochar POLICY;
    Biochar Soils;
    Biochar Production;

    Earth Science Terra Preta Forum;
    Terra Preta – Science Forums

    Given the current “Crisis” atmosphere concerning energy, soil sustainability, food vs. Biofuels, and Climate Change what other subject addresses them all?

    This is a Nano technology for the soil that represents the most comprehensive, low cost, and productive approach to long term stewardship and sustainability.

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

  2. What ? Did you bother even read the links?……… USDA,………. ASA……..CSSA……….SSSA………. NASA,…….?
    The Congressional Research Service (CRS) , only the gold standard of objective & non-partisan reasearch.
    Saving woman and children from black soot aerosols.
    Ask the 1500 subsistence farmer of Cameroon if they think it’s “overblown”

    Heck!……Look at my Field trials


  3. I am not saying the sources aren’t credible, per se, but rather that statements like “Biochar is The only hope for mankind” overstate the importance of biochar, in dealing with climate change.

  4. The reason I quote Dr. Lovelock , who I agree is prone to overstatement,
    is the Gaia weight he might have with the authors of the UK Biofuel Watch group (BFW). They have twisted and cherry picked the research they cited and ignored or had not even reviewed the rest. The char researcher’s they do cite have universally condemned the BFW interpretation of their work.
    BFW is using overblown scare tactics, they have a single agenda ; no biofuels at all, so this most sustainable biofuel systems must represent the worst of slippery slopes. They have been non-responsive to the record of work in Africa, even though one of their main attacks is harm to the developing world farmers, …………………I just don’t understand the vehemence with which they are cutting off their noses to the spite of their faces.

  5. The biochar backlash
    March 30, 2009, 11:07 am

    It should be fairly obvious to everyone who’s not just in this for the aggro that there will be good biochar interventions and bad ones. Forcing biochar on people or soils that don’t want it or can’t prosper with it will not help; helping people to find systems that are biochar friendly could quite possibly provide the win-win prospects everyone wants to see. As usual, Gary has sensible things to say about this, with helpful comparisons to the use of manure and lime as soil additives — as might be expected from someone whose ideas are rooted in practice and who has been blogging on this topic a lot while remaining impressively self-critical.

    My biggest worry about the technology is that its strengths could have within them a fatal flaw. The soil is an easily reached reservoir, and provides a multiplier effect that’s crucial to the efficacy of biochar: the carbon stored in biochar schemes is not just the carbon in the charcoal, it’s the increased organic carbon in the rest of the soil. But easily reached is also easily breached, and multipliers can work two ways. If people use biochar to store a lot of carbon in soil, but not enough to forestall significant warming (which is a not unlikely scenario in the world biochar enthusiasts imagine) then they’ll have provided an extra bolus of soil carbon to be respired back into the atmosphere by the warmer, and thus harder working, soil bacteria; they will have effectively traded emissions now for emissions later. So the carbon could quickly come right back out. If the microbial priming effect kicks in in this scenario — with the easily mobilised carbon providing enough energy for the bacteria to tackle more refractory carbon they would normally ignore – you might end up with not just with the carbon you stored away leaking out, but also some of the carbon that was already there. This is a subject on which I’d like to see more research before squirelling away the odd gigatonne of carbon.

  6. “Paying farmers to sequester carbon might jump-start the use of biochar, which Gore calls “one of the most exciting new strategies for restoring carbon to depleted soils, and sequestering significant amounts of CO2.” Biochar, which he learned about during a 1989 trip to the Amazon, is basically porous charcoal. Made by burning switch grass, corn husks, and other waste, it can absorb CO2 like a charcoal filter in a cigarette absorbs gases. Gore estimates that biochar could sequester 40 percent of annual CO2 emissions.”

  7. Al got Only the absorb part wrong. Plants absorb the CO2 , Biochar fixes it to elemental Carbon.

    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 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 :
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

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

    Mark my words;
    Given the potential for Laurens Rademaker’s programs to grow exponentialy, only a short time lies between This man’s nomination for a Noble Prize.

    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 (discussed more
    fully on other posts) 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. .

    United Nations Environment Programme, Climate Change Science Compendium 2009

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

    About time Al Gore got on the Biochar Bus, now if he will stick at it, waving out the windows;
    Al Gore praised in Brazil the indigenous practice of “terra preta”

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

  8. Can charcoal save the world?

    Maggie Koerth-Baker at 6:00 AM March 15, 2010

    Advocates have long hoped that biochar—spread over farm fields—would improve soil quality and crop yields, while simultaneously trapping carbon in the soil.

    The science on the second goal is a little more clear-cut than the first.

    Biochar definitely does imprison carbon, and does it better than normal charcoal, said John Bonitz, a farm outreach and policy advocate with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. The charcoal left behind by a campfire, for instance, is chemically made up of carbon joined to lots and lots of oxygen molecules, but is primarily ash and has lost most of its carbon to burning. Like sorority girls in a slasher film, the oxygen is easily picked off by bacteria, which speeds up the process of decomposition, breaking the chemical bonds and leaving the carbon that does remain to drift back into the atmosphere.

    Subtract the oxygen, however, and the carbon molecules get tough—forming ring structures that don’t easily shatter and are more resistant to microbial attack, Spokas said. Lab research, done by him and others, suggests that these bonds have the potential to hold fast for anywhere between hundreds to hundreds of thousands of years. That means less carbon in the atmosphere. It’s also good news for anyone who’d like to see carbon neutral, or even carbon negative, biofuel production. Of course, that’s in a test tube.

  9. To me, in the long run, the final arbiter / accountancy / measure of sustainability will be soil carbon content. Once this royal road is constructed, traffic cops ( Carbon Board ) in place, the truth of land-management and Biochar systems will be self-evident.

    A dream I’ve had for years is to base the coming carbon economy firmly on the foundation of top soils. My read of the agronomic history of civilization shows that the Kayopo Amazon Indians and the Egyptians were the only ones to maintain fertility for the long haul, millennium scales. Egypt has now forsaken their geologic advantage by building the Aswan dam, and are stuck, with the rest of us, in the soil C mining, NPK rat race to the bottom. This meta-analysis of Syn-N and soil C content show our dilemma.

    The Ag Soil Carbon standard is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA.
    Contact Gary Delong . 515-334-7305 office
    Read over the work so far;

    In my efforts to have Biochar’s potential included, I have recruited several to join the list, briefed the entire committee about char when issues concerning N2O & CH4 soil GHG emissions were raised, fully briefed a couple of the 120 members when they replied individually to my “Reply all” briefs. The members cover the full spectrum of Ag interest.

    With the Obama administration funding an inter-departmental climate effort of NASA, NOAA, USDA, & EPA, and now even the CIA is opening the data coffers, then soil carbon sensors may be less than 5 years away. I’m told by the Jet Propulsion Lab mission specialists responsible for the suite of earth sensing satellites, that they will be reading soil carbon using multiple proxy measurements in 5 years. Reading soil moisture to 3 foot dept in two year with SMAP, Reading GHG emissions and biomass from the tree tops down next year when the Orbital Carbon Observer (OCO, get it:) is rebooted, to 1 Ha resolution and don’t even ask about the various spectrometric, lasers, UV, IR, lidars , ground-penetrating- radars, interferometry etc.

    Then, any farmer can click “Google Carbon maps” to see the soil carbon accounted to his good work, a level playing field to be a soil sink banker.
    The Moon Pie in the sky funding should be served to JPL
    Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
    Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

    Hope to see you at ISU for the 2010 US Biochar Conference

    Dr. Robert Brown , and the team in Ames Iowa are planing the next national biochar conference. The Conference will be June 27-30 in Ames Iowa Hosted by Iowa State University.

    The Biochar Fund deserves your attention and support.
    Exceptional results from biochar experiment in Cameroon

    Thanks for your efforts.

    Erich J. Knight
    Chairman; Markets and Business Opportunities Review Committee
    US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University, June 27-30

    EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
    Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
    1047 Dave Barry Rd.
    McGaheysville, VA. 22840
    540 289 9750
    Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP

  10. Al Gore also talks about biochar a bit in Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. He isn’t as optimistic as the most emphatic boosters, but does seem to think it could play a role.

  11. Don’t believe in what biochar can do?
    Learn more about the future of agriculture with biochar, from the most complete book about biochar “The Biochar Revolution”
    Learn how to get terra preta!

  12. Science 23 November 2012:
    Vol. 338 no. 6110 pp. 1034-1035
    DOI: 10.1126/science.1225987
    Carbon Storage with Benefits

    Saran P. Sohi

    Biochar is the solid, carbon-rich product of heating biomass with the exclusion of air (pyrolysis or “charring”). If added to soil on a large scale, biochar has the potential to both benefit global agriculture and mitigate climate change. It could also provide an income stream from carbon abatement for farmers worldwide. However, biochar properties are far from uniform, and biochar production technologies are still maturing. Research is beginning to point the way toward a targeted application of biochar to soils that maximizes its benefits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *