Saturday, December 19, 2009

Copenhagen has failed

Today, December 19, 2009, an Anonymous Blogger Reported from Copenhagen that the UN had failed to address the most important crisis in human history.

This is what he wrote:

The UN has failed to address the most pressing human rights issue of our time, and perhaps the most important crisis in human history.

The Copenhagen conference, and the entire process that has been unfolding for the past two years, has utterly and completely failed. None of the work has resulted in an agreement of any kind, let alone a strong and fair one.

18 years of effort in international negotiations have amounted to virtually nothing. These processes have failed, and we have lost time we could not afford to lose.

Many have devoted their blood, sweat and tears for over a year trying to raise awareness and put pressure on leaders to reach a strong and fair deal. It hasn't worked, and we see a lot of anger and bitterness being expressed today.

At the last minute, a proposal put together by the US and a few other countries behind closed doors was submitted, with no emissions targets.

The UN delegates have now left and the conference has broken up without approval of this "deal".

The US and some of the other countries that produced this two page declaration did so outside of UN processes.

The document mentions only a "goal" of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. There were no emissions targets listed at all, no method for monitoring or enforcement, and no obligations, legal or otherwise, for participating countries. The US itself has made no new commitments to emissions targets beyond its prior inadequate proposal of reducing by 4 percent.

This document was then submitted to UN delegates and they were given just an hour to decide whether or not to approve. After much protest, delegates were allowed to speak, and a string of countries began to denounce and reject the document. After much deliberation, the conference broke up without any approval of this last minute proposal. They agreed only to "take note" of it

Perhaps this is better than the worst case outcome, however. It is probably better to have no deal, than an obviously weak and impotent one.

But is was not just what he wrote about Copenhagen that is startling, it is what he wrote afterward that was most enduring to me.

He said, "We are now at a crossroads."

He noted that the third world is likely going to experience the worst effects of climate changes, and indeed, many countries are already suffering.

He indicated that if the developing countries can remain united, they do have some power. They would be capable of forcing the issue.

This could even come in the form of various types of sanctions, boycotts and embargoes against us.

If Western countries refuse to reduce emissions, these developing nations can simply deny us the ability to “grow emissions” by denying us the resources that generate those emissions in the first place.

We already acknowledge that a substantial amount of oil and other important natural resources are located in the third world. A substantial amount of the oil in the world is not under our own soil. Beyond oil, there is coal, natural gas, uranium, and various rare metals sitting under the soils of much of the developing world.

Third world nations could decide to leave them in the ground, limit supplies, or sell them only to certain countries.

This would then force us to conserve. We would need to get by with only the fossil fuels we are producing ourselves, which would certainly force us to scale back and take a more serious interest in “alternative” energies.

It would compel us to change, although we might be dragged kicking and screaming into a sustainable way of life.

In the end, though, this would probabyly help the whole world, including those living in the West.

But it would be tough times for us.

Right now Canada may be producing more oil than we need, and without any global climate agreement we will probably be tempted to expand our exploitation of the tar sands. Could sanctions or boycotts be brought against us to discourage us from such action?

Will there be demands from the international community – and from within Canada as well -- that we abandon the tar sands completely? We certainly seem to have enough oil for ourselves without using the tar sands.

But we also have to remember that the oil in Canada it is unevenly distributed. In the East half of Canada we get our oil by buying it from elsewhere.

Also, many activists in the Western world will probably do everything that they can do to support the developing world. They will also agitate against any possible retaliation, especially if military invasion were being tabled as a possibility. After all, these are not our resources -- and it was the Government of Canada who behaved so badly at Copenhagen and we were the ones would would not compromise at Copenhagen.

An agreement at Copenhagen could have provided a pathway for developing nations to not use their own resources.

But now they must.

Can we continue to reply on these resources coming into Canada at reasonable prices now that Canada is seen as the villain? Will countries even want to continue selling us their inheritance and birthrights for mere pennies?

Are we prepared to fight them for these resources if we had to? Certainly the US military is already stretched to the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan. The US certainly cannot dominate the world if the world stands against them. Indeed, with limited supplies of resources, the US may even be forced to withdraw from the countries they are already in and start focusing their limited resources and funds on change at home.

Or will be simply have to make even deeper concessions later?

The issues are definitely challenging -- and divisive.

We certainly live in "interesting times".

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Biochar PAH issue

The issue of PAH was the very first topic that arose during the inaugural meeting of the CBI in December 2008. We have talked a lot about PAH.

Of the resolutions of our meeting in December, we were to:

§ Facilitate links between industrial and research community.
"Research must be pushed towards demonstration with a focus on PAH’s, toxicity and decomposition by-products and any other unintended chemical or physical interactions."

§ Undertake technical specific work on developing biochar standards that address toxicity ie LDL 50 and PAH levels

A biomass stove expert from the National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL) in Colorado has undertaken quite an extensive review of the PAH issue and has spoken to several other NREL (and former NREL) personnel on this topic and has found “none with a major PAH concern related to biochar”, but he has suggested a need for more work.

He had indicated that he does not believe “this need be a very complicated study”. He added later that “it is important how the char and gases are separated” because it has been shown definitively that there is a hazard with the gasses (Diebold studies). He also said that many residual compounds are water soluble.

He did say that it might be a good idea to contact “experts studying char from the fire impact standpoint”. It has been suggested that “sediment researchers” be engaged to look at this.

Back in April this is what he had to say:
"I have looked at this issue every way I knew how and have found nothing definitive -- especially that char is definitively safe.”
“PAHs and dioxins certainly exist and are carcinogenic - but the only literature I have found says the PAH compounds are dangerous because they can be airborne (breathable - part of the gas output in the char production) and produced at much higher temperatures than the roughly 500C value (or less) that we hear proposed for biochar. I know of no literature showing a PAH hazard associated with char in the ground. In fact char seems more likely to be used to clean up PAH compounds from soil. We need someone to study this in more detail."

This is confirmed by the fact that Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons are US federally regulated “hazardous air pollutant” -- not a soil or water pollutant.

Marquita K. Hill, Second Edition, CambridgeU Press, 2004 stated:
i. “They bind to soils so tightly that even if ingested absorption is limited.”
ii. “Sunlight and warmth will degrade them.”
iii. “90% of human exposure is from food, especially leafy veggies and whole grains”
– most of this comes from airborne PAHs that have “settled onto food crops”
iv. “Even baked goods and toast typically contain them, created during the browning process.”
v. “Common in carpets, some babies have been found to be exposed to an equivalent of three cigarettes a day from their daily urban exposures.”

Here is one other study:

But I still think that Paul Stamets presentation on Bioremediation has incredible value:

If biochar stimulates AM Fungi, as has been indicated in many studies, then the “PAH issue” may not be as much of an issue as we believe it might be (even if the simple laboratory leachate tests indicate the PAHs are mobile and will leach out of the chars).

One likely cannot infer conclusions based on separating out a single test of a single parameter anymore. Hopefully science is evolving past this simplistic view and we are now capable of studying dynamic systems where a host of variables interact and create an outcome that cannot be predicted based on simplistic binary models.

Humans and all other organisms have evolved with PAHs in their environment, just like most other natural compounds that we might consider toxic.

I am FAR more worried about the “new” compounds that humans are formulating in laboratories and dumping into the natural environment in vast quantities. Compounds that nature has never been exposed to in its several billion years of evolution on this planet like organochlorine compounds, PFCs, PBDE (brominated) flame-retardants, chlorinated benzenes, chloroform, cyclohexane, octane, tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, toluenes, phthalates, phenols, xylenes, surfactants and a vast array of unreported compounds of industrial origin -- and nuclear wastes, which can produce materials that have never before existed on earth and will likely never be assimilated into the tissues of living creatures.

Thousands of common synthetic (organic and inorganic) chemicals have been introduced into the environment over the past half-century that can mimic natural hormones, alter sexual and neurological development and impair reproduction. Dozens of studies have documented the impact of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on animals, frogs, fish and birds with deformed genitals, brain damage, cancers and damaged reproductive systems.

Millions of tons of reproductive toxins are spewed out by facilities in the Sarnia area of Ontario year in, year out with barely a whisper. (In 2005, according to a study by the environmental NGO Ecojustice, factories in Sarnia released more than 131,000 tonnes of pollutants into the air.)

There are more than 80,000 chemicals in industrial production today with hundreds added each year. Few have been tested for their effect on human health or the environment. And, critically, there is almost no knowledge of how chemicals interact with each other to affect our health or the wider environment. When the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed in the US in 1976, more than 62,000 chemicals were ‘grandfathered’ into the market – i.e. no testing, no questions asked.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits that 95 per cent of all chemicals in the US have not undergone even minimal testing for toxicity. In the European Union (EU) it’s estimated that two-thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals have not been vetted. The EPA has banned just five chemicals in the past quarter-century.

The air emissions from a properly designed Pyrolysis plant are far more likely to be clean.
Even a properly designed small stove that produces biochar (like the TLUD) is probably far, far cleaner than an open campfire. The air emissions from an industrial system were tested and it was found that “the total volatile emissions measured were only 8 ppm in their stack tests”. PAH levels were not measured, but were expected to be “non-existent”.

Fast pyrolysis char yields are rather small and the oxygen content is high, but the PAH and aromaticity was measured as being “low” (and it was shown to be “a good absorbent”).

Here is how summarized it:

"The formation of PAH during pyrolysis has been well documented (Painter, 2001; Ledesma et al, 2002) although the concentration and availability of PAH with respect to biochars is still uncertain. Garcia and Perez (2008) reported lower presence in bio-oils derived under fast pyrolysis conditions (<10>100 ppm). While PAH may be harmful to most plant and microbial communities, relatively rapid decomposition of these compounds by certain microbial populations has been observed (Ogawa, 1994; Zackrisson et al, 1996) and PAH compounds may be fully consumed within one to two growing seasons under many conditions (Thies and Rillig, 2009)."

I believe that many have come to these conclusions:

- There is no way you can expect simple answers about PAHs.
- Smoke contains PAHs. So all of the smoked Foods that you eat (from sausage to salmon) have PAHs in them. (Smoking food has been used for centuries to kill off the life forms that cause food spoilage.)
- People get routinely exposed to PAHs through regular daily exposure to things like BBQ dinners and coffee … and campfires, cigarettes, wood fireplaces, asphalt fumes, chocolate ( and fertilizers (

Consider this: What happens to the residual PAHs that are left on the floor of a forest after a forest fire?
Are these considered a health hazard?

Unpublished analyses of several biochar samples had found PAH content no greater than that of bulk soil (Manning, pers. comm.).
A single published study examined the full PAH profile (40 individual PAH compounds) in a number of synthetic char samples manufactured at relatively high heating rate concentrations (Brown, 2006). The total PAH concentration was 3–16 µg g-1, depending on peak temperature, compared to 28 µg g-1 in the char from a prescribed burn in pine forest.

It has been stated by Ahmed (1989) that "whilst biochar should contain systems of PAH, existing evidence indicates that no leachable PAH is present."
Source: Ahmed, A., Pakdel, H., Roy, C., Kaliaguine, S., 1989. Characterization of the solid residues of vacuum pyrolysis of Papulus Tremuloides. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis 14, 281-294

One noted researcher has noted that “thermophilic bacteria” (such as in manure composts) "seems to be best at assimilating these compounds”.

Of course we would never advocate breathing the uncombusted fumes from pyrolysis – there are plenty of known carcinogens in the exhaust. We would never advocate dumping the pyrolysis oil into the environment either. There are dangers, yes, but I would be much more concerned about breathing in black carbon particulates from candles burned indoors -- or incense sticks lit deliberately to make the air smell of scented smoke. (I use them all the time!)

Yet candles are producing “Fine particulates" like PM 2.5's (being 2.5 microns across or smaller). Unlike PAH's, PM 2.5's are considered a "Criteria Pollutant".
"Fossil fuel combustion sources dominate PM2.5 emissions" (so) “controlling PM2.5 means reducing our dependence on fossil fuels”.

Someone recently noted that “the reality observed in the field is that microbes scour fresh biochar and eat up the tars & resins. They get energy from those polycyclic rings (of PAH and VOM); eat it like candy, I hear…”.

In another anecdotal story it was said that, “Recently a group in MA got permission to truck charcoal from an old CT industrial site to spread on farmland. The state agency required tests of this industrial brownfield residue, certain it would contain all sorts of toxic chemicals. The results came back unspectular and near-zero. Whatever residues of pyrolysis the charcoal once contained, after a couple of decades, the PAHs etc. were gone -- presumably from biologial breakdown, not weathering and leaching.”

In summary:

-Incomplete combustion produces the highest levels of the most dangerous PAH.
-Pyrolysis is not combustion.
-The amount of PAH depends both on pyrolysis conditions (e.g. Temp) and feedstock composition (e.g. presence of Chlorine can create dioxins)
-Dangerous Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) are listed in EU Regulation 850/2004
-There is No evidence of dioxins and furans in biochar
-There is Evidence of PAHs formed at temperatures between 350-600°C but it is certainly less than burning pine. [PAH] (3-16 vs 28 µg g-1)
-PAHs are very strongly adsorbed to biochar (due to planar C=C bonds)

M. Jones, E. Lopez Capel, D. A. C. Manning: Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in biochars and related materials.

Yes, we must use "the precautionary principle" when it comes to biochar in soils -- but we must also move quickly, for (according to many climate scientists) we may not have very much time to waste.

The conclusion:
"A careful, unbiased, and critical examination of the issue of PAHs is necessary."

This absolutely must be part and parcel of a comprehensive research project.

But, meanwhile, I'm going to consider stopping my use of candles and incense -- and go ahead and use biochar again in the soil of my balcony garden next spring.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Engine of Capitalism

Capitalism is driven by greed. This is acknowledged.

Thus, greed is the “engine” behind how capitalism works. It is the motivation.
However, if we take the analogy of an automobile further, we realize that it is only the engine. It is not the steering wheel and the brakes.

These parts of Capitalism – embodied in Government and Non-governmental organizations – and in the limits imposed upon us by the finite resources of our planet – must be used and considered an integral part of a capitalistic society, or else the entire society will simply accelerate without any control – and will eventually crash.

In fact we are seeing it all around us already. The economic “automobile” that we have been driving and continually accelerating has gone out of control and crashed -- and continues to skid out of control.
The wreckage that results from this high speed reckless “driving” (that results from an almost total lack of control – lack of regulation) is having enormous consequences for almost everybody – including the people in the car (the richest countries) as well as the pedestrians on the street (developing countries).

It also has dire consequences for our infrastructure, which we most certainly need to rebuild. We also need to rebuild the “economic automobile”… and this time we have to build in some speed limiters and traction control systems.

This means that we need a tight regulatory framework that acknowledges that civil society, as reflected through representative elected governments, should be at the wheel and in control of the direction and speed with which we move forward ~ and can even decide whether we need to stop and turn around at some point and head in a different direction, as circumstances change.

We also need to incorporate an acknowledgement of the finitude of earthly resources and build into economic systems a way of acknowledging this in order to assist in their fair distribution.

It is essentially an acknowledgement that sharing is a virtue. Something that is completely lacking in the current “greed trumps all else” model.

It is this virtue that is commonly acknowledged among all religions and faiths – and what ties us all together, no matter what your belief system is (whether you are Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jewish, Baha'I or a Zoroastrian).

The biggest problems with the current system have come mostly because money == power.
And because power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely – it becomes very easy for capitalism to go astray.

But, then again, have we yet found any economic system that is not corruptible?
Certainly Communism was very corruptible. Certainly Fascism is and was extremely corruptible. Any system that concentrates power in the hands of the few can ultimately lead to corruption with potentially dire results.

Yet, in order to undertake large “communal works” – like building windfarms and railways – we need to somehow find a way of concentrating the capital. Individual people can’t build railways on their own – it’s impossible. Thus we need some sort of “collectivism” – some means of coordinating societal efforts toward a common goal.

Governments have not been good at it by themselves (too much politics). Businesses have not been good at it by themselves (if allowed to continue amassing capital unhindered they can end up raping the Earth of all its resources and causing enormous wealth discrepancies).

So what is a good model? Probably one that acknowledges both the need for large, strong and wealthy private capital while also acknowledging that we need large, strong and democratically controlled governments that work for ALL people – not for corporations or unions or any other kind of special interest, but for everyone.

This is why I joined the Green Party many years ago. It was the closest Political Party I could find that strove for this ideal.
And it is the only Global Political Party.

It is tied together by a set of universal values as described in the Charter of the Global Greens. (
Ecological Wisdom, Social Justice, Participatory Democracy, Nonviolence, Sustainability and Respect for Diversity.

The more I think about this the clearer it becomes for me. It just seems to make sense.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Biochar for Energy, Environment and the Soul

Many researchers are focused on Energy (production) as their primary focus and concern and are looking at Pyrolysis technologies and Biochar primarily from an energy perspective. This is probably because energy is a more attractive “topic” than “soils”, likely because everyone uses energy directly. Not many people seem to care much about soil.

There is also a genuine concern that our “way of life” might be jeopardized by an imminent (possibly severe) constraint on energy availability (“peak oil”) and the ensuing price increases. There is a strong motivation among many who understand that rising fossil fuel costs will also have a positive effect on alternative fuel (energy) prices, which would mean that getting into the bio-energy field now could reap substantial economic rewards in the (possibly quite near) future. Businesses are usually motivated to make money as their primary purpose, so this is not surprising.

This is part of the reason I try to bring the topic of “food” into the equation when I bring up the topic of Biochar – because everyone is intimately familiar with this topic of food. After all, everyone eats everyday, so couching biochar in terms of “Food security” will often result in Biochar getting far more attention than would be the case if I were to talk about Biochar in terms of soil alone. But the argument is essentially a progression from soil health / drought protection to crop improvement / increased stress tolerance / robustness to food security.

In this vein you could even continue the argument and say that lower food price / less reliance on food imports / food grown closer to the market results in less energy used overall and therefore increased energy security, so it's not too much of a stretch to say that Biochar for soils can indirectly improve energy security.

There are essentially two ways to try to adapt to the new and emerging realities of energy decline (increasing costs) and environmental degradation / stress and improve our energy security:

1. Try to “fight” or overcome the problem through increasing our (attempts at) control over the problem – i.e. increase our energy security via increases in total energy throughputs by whatever means we can find. While this often does result in diversification, this method of solving the problem attempts to force nature to conform to the way we would like it to behave. This is the ‘geo-engineering’, ‘genetic engineering’ or ‘chemical fertilizer / pesticide’ approach to managing nature.

2. Adapt to the new realities by working with the environment (nature) to let it (nature) do as much of the work for us as possible. This method of solving the problem emphasizes a diversified, small-scale ("powerdown", as Richard Heinberg puts it), ‘organic’ way of solving the problem. This method could allow us to prosper (if not grow) by working with and adapting to nature and conforming as much as possible to her realities in order to reach some sort of effective harmony or balance.

Although it may seem that Biochar falls into the first adaptation strategy when looked at purely from an energy security perspective, if looked at from a soils perspective, it is certainly the case that Biochar can be looked at as a means of achieving the second adaptation strategy.

Unfortunately the modern human mind seems to be acclimatized to option 1 rather than option 2. “Grow, grow, grow” (is the matra)… growth for its own sake.

But we must understand that “Progress” can be achieved in many ways. “Progress” in the economy does not have to only mean “Economic growth”. The literal term "Economic Growth", if we adjust for inflation, is really about counting the absolute number of economic transactions (trades) per unit time.
Although this can be one of the measures of prosperity, a saturation point will always be reached per “unit”, where the unit is an individual human being. In other words, the economic growth stops when the number of humans on earth stops to grow and the number of economic transactions per waking day (there will always only be 24 hours in a day) reaches a point where the individual is satisfied or satiated and/or is overwhelmed.

I think many people (in the modern world at least) are quickly reaching the point of being overwhelmed. ((For instance, just trying to read all of the messages on all of the four [biochar] Yahoo group lists every single day in addition to keeping track of the normal international, national, regional and local news and running a business and taking care of a family all at the same time means that I very quickly run out of time)).

I think it’s time we start to step back from this “race”. In the western world there is an insidious and almost ever-present notion that “competition” is the only and best way to achieve “progress” – although not necessarily progressive results. Instead we need to ask ourselves (as a species) what we are here on Earth to do.

Humanity and the Earth are not separate. Both are sacred. We are very often alienated from it through our belief that humanity is innately superior over nature and can exploit nature limitlessly for human ends – which seems to result in an expectation that the Earth must be treated harshly to gain the yield of human survival.

Instead, all work upon the Earth should be informed by a clear understanding of and respect for the Earth as an autonomous and valuable entity, the laws of nature on which the bounty of the Earth depends. Earth and its resources are for any generation a restricted gift held in trust for future generations.

In order for humanity to survive the multiple crises that seem to be bearing upon us (in the form of ecological collapse, energy depletion and climate change, for instance), we need to build for ourselves an ethic of stewardship – for we have an obligation to refrain from excessive consumption and waste and either to not exhaust nonrenewable resources or to provide accessible replacements, the necessity to improve our heritage (both cultural and natural) both modestly and carefully, and the greater responsibility of the advantaged to improve that which exists and to share.

If Biochar can do anything to further these goals I will wholeheartedly support its application and use. If it instead erodes these values, my support for it will quickly fade.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Plants and Soils have Wisdom

Mother Nature has had billions of years to evolve and adapt and has created the ecosystems we have today. The Soil supports human life and is alive with soil organisms, most of which are microscopic bacteria and fungi.

Healthy soil requires a wealthy diversity of microorganisms. Very little is known about how long-term agricultural land management affects the composition and genetic diversity of bacteria and fungi in soil. We know that forage, natural fertilizer applications, and cattle grazing increases the diversity of soil microorganisms and that conventionally tilled cropland with inorganic fertilizer results in a low diversity of soil microbes.

Conservation agricultural systems with wise use of animal manure is known to improve soil quality by increasing the number and type of soil microorganisms. Soil bacteria play a fundamental role in a vast array of ecological processes.

So if the diversity of soil bacteria in soils is reduced through stress these stresses could lead to a collapse of the soils ecosystems – and therefore to a consequent lack of productivity. It may not be leaching, erosion and runoff that are the primary culprits in worldwide soil fertility declines.

Even if there seem to be abundant “nutrients” to support vegetation, without the nutrient cycling and interaction with plant roots and other soil species (fungi, bacteria, nematodes, algae, yeasts, protozoa, turbellarians, tardigrades and rotifers...) the plants cannot thrive.

There was an interesting experiment done in November 2000 by the FAO.

Researchers in Brazil dug up a 25 x 25 cm block of degraded pasture land and buried it in a nearby forest, and in its place planted a similarly sized block of forest soil. A sort of “soil swap” you could say.

Within a year, the aggregate structure of the pasture sample had been completely restored to levels typical of native forests, while the "orphaned" block of forest soil had become compacted and had lost most of its porosity.

What did they conclude made the difference? Soil organisms. The forest earth was rich in "ecosystem engineers" - earthworms, termites, millipedes and ants. The native macro-faunal communities in the pasture land had been all but lost. What does this teach us?

Soil biodiversity plays an enormous role in sustainable agriculture.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Biochar and the Ontario Auto Sector

A number of interesting convergences are happening right now in Ontario.

The Ontario Environment Industry Association just released a report called "Time to Grow: Making Ontario's environment industry a world leader at home and abroad".

In it they note that "There is a worldwide trend toward sustainability and increased environmental protection. Globally, governments are increasingly investing in the environment, which could lead other jurisdictions to become the growth centres of the new green economy. Ontario may have already lost any advantage in photovoltaics (led by Germany) and wind power (led by The Netherlands, Denmark and others). Investment elsewhere is increasing rapidly, including in the US where more than $79 billion is being proposed for energy and the environment in the 2009 temporary stimulus bill and $150 billion in ongoing funding earmarked for improving green technology over the next decade."

The interesting part of this story is that while the traditional auto sector in Ontario is hemorrhaging (GM's Chapter 11 filing marks the biggest ever bankruptcy of an industrial company), companies like Google Launch their RechargeIT Plug-In Hybrid Car Initiative.

But look at what else is happening in Ontario.
The Zenn Motor Company just announced an increase in their equity investment in EEStor to the fullest extent possible in preparation for an electric vehicle rollout and Magna International, a company based out of Aurora and run by Frank Stronach, simultaneously announced that they have signed a memorandum of understanding to sell 65 percent of "Adam Opel" to a Russian-backed consortium -- and Frank Stronach wants Ottawa to loan him hundreds of millions of dollars so he can start manufacturing electric cars in Canada for a world market in as little as three years. He envisages that "in six years (2015) about 15 per cent of all vehicles sold will be electric, and in 12 years (2021) that will jump to 30 per cent".

This is an incredibly bold vision..

It seems like everyone else has plans to expand and transform the auto sector in Ontario at the same time that GM is going into bankruptcy.

Why is this? Perhaps it is because back in January Ontario announced that it would join the "better place" initiative. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty himself announced a new partnership to advance the cause of Electric Vehicles by building an electric car network across Southern Ontario and that they would help expand the network of electric-car charging ports and battery-swap stations to the rest of Canada.

But it means that in the period of transition between now and then Ontario will need to build huge additions to its electrical generation capacity to supply all of these automobiles with energy. Ontario needs to build 2,000 kilometres of new transmission corridors, at a cost of $2 billion, to carry new sources of wind and hydro energy from Northern Ontario to the cities of the south.

The catch is that Ontario has promised to close the coal plants. Their target is to close the last coal-fired power plant in 2014.

This means that Ontario needs to replace this coal with something else. Is conservation enough? Will we become so efficient so quickly that we will no longer need these coal plants? Ontario produces 6434 megawatts (MW) of electricity from coal power plants. Coal makes up about 16 percent of the power generated for Ontario.
This is actually down from a 25 percent share in 2003, but much of the difference has probably been made up through expansion of Nuclear energy and from imports, not from conservation.
Now, if we start adding electric cars into the province this will bring even greater demands onto the electrical system.

Can solar and wind make up the difference between reduced supply and increased demand? The Ontario Clean Air Alliance claims that "wind, solar, biomass, hydro, could meet 79 per cent of Ontario's projected energy needs in 2020", but how much is actually expected from solar and wind energy over the next six to twelve years?

Ontario's goal of installing 100,000 residential solar rooftop systems will amount to only about one per cent of Ontario’s supply mix. It is expected that 15 percent of Ontario’s energy will come from wind by 2025 (16 years from now), but wind only accounts for about one percent of Ontario’s power mix right now. We need 15 percent in only 12 years. That's 15X as much wind energy as we already have.
I expect that date for closing the coal plants may be pushed back if reliable delivery of power is not assured.

But Ontario has also said that it wants its greenhouse gas emissions to be six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014 and 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.
It's going to be tough to get from here to there without something else to offset these emissions.

When Magna says that "in six years (2015) about 15 per cent of all vehicles sold will be electric, and in 12 years (2021) that will jump to 30 per cent", that does not mean that 15% of the automobile fleet will be using electricity in 6 years.
Canada only ever produced between 2.5 and 3 million vehicles in any given year. The best year ever was 1999 when 3,056,616 vehicles were produced. But the “Big Three” have exported close to 90 percent of their Canadian vehicle production each year over the last decade. Most of these exports are to the U.S. and Mexico.

That means there is a turnover rate of only about 300,000 vehicles per year in Ontario.
There are about seven million vehicles in Ontario right now. If only 15% of all vehicles sold will be electric after six years this translates to only about 45,000 electric vehicles sold in Ontario after six years. That translates to about 0.1% of the vehicles on the road - about one in a thousand - after six years. Even after 12 years of cumulative increases in production Ontario might only have about 8% electric vehicles on the road. In fact, at this rate, it would take another 42 years to convert the entire automobile fleet over to electric vehicles. About the year 2050.

This means that gasoline vehicles will make up the bulk of Ontario's cars for the foreseeable future.

This also means that if we are unable to shut down our coal plants and it will take this long to replace all of our gasoline powered vehicles, and if we actually want to reach our GHG reduction targets something needs to give – either we reduce our total energy used (unlikely given the amount of economic activity that would result from this) or we need a carbon-negative industry to unfold in Ontario.

It doesn't make sense for Ontario to spend billions of dollars to undertake Geological Carbon Capture and Sequestration like they are in Alberta if we plan on shutting down the coal plants anyway.

If we consider the fact that biofuels are only "carbon-neutral", if we ramp up conventional biofuels production in Ontario to make up for reductions in coal use, Ontario would still not be able to actually reduce its emissions without using something carbon negative -- like Biochar -- to offset the increasing amounts of total energy required to run this electric fleet (the efficiency of simple-cycle combustion electrical generation is ghastly low, even if it is biomass powered).

In my mind, Biochar is probably one of the very the best (and possibly the only) significant option Ontario has left to reduce emissions given the realities of the situation.

So, perhaps Biochar could be a key tools used by Magna (and others in the auto sector) to sequester the carbon emitted from its worldwide automobile fleet as we transition to Electric vehicles? We have about 150 years of fossil carbon emissions to pull out of the atmosphere, after all. Companies like Magna could continue to use Biochar to offset emissions for the next several decades and even after the transition to electric vehicles is complete.

If we can improve the soil in the process it would be a win for everyone because biochar is especially useful in the tropical south -- the developing countries of the world. If emissions from the first world auto sector were offset with the production of biochar in the poorest countries of the world it would not only mean income and jobs for them it would hopefully also mean more robust soils, improved agriculture and, ideally, an improvement in their living conditions and economies at the same time.

So, if we could somehow get Magna onside with Biochar, this could really be a huge opportunity for Canada. If we could tie Biochar into the story of the resurrection of the auto industry in Ontario and Canada, we might actually eventually be able to claim that we are making “Carbon Negative Cars”.

We could start by getting the Canadian auto sector to support the development of a Biochar industry in Ontario.

For many people, particularly the Ontario government, Biochar’s main purpose is to sequester CO2, but this is also an economic stimulus opportunity for Ontario. And what a economic stimulus this would be! Not only for Ontario and Canada, but also for the rest of the world. It's also an export opportunity for Canada. Magna is eyeing the Russian auto market as well, so this could quickly go international. Magna currently operates 326 manufacturing plants, engineering centers and sales offices across North America, South America, Asia and Europe - and employs about 82,000 people in total.

Keep in mind also that when these coal plants are shut down in Ontario this could also mean significant further job losses in some Ontario communities (especially in Northern Ontario). The replacement of jobs lost running and servicing the coal plants could very easily made up by utilizing decentralized biomass / pyrolysis systems in communities across the north – not just select communities, but nearly all of them.

And a secondary income stream for these communities could actually come from the production and sales of Biochar to the southern Agricultural communities – not only southern Ontario but also southern Quebec, Manitoba and the Northeastern US (the Great Lakes States), who could all become carbon negative jurisdictions in a few short years (or decades) – using (Northern) Canadian biomass.

Possibly the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and/or the Great Plains Institute’s North Central Bioeconomy Consortium could tie into this as well.

If we could develop a protocol for a regulatory market for Biochar - both nationally and within Provincial Initiatives - and work to develop a set of procedures or rules for soil sequestration by char and soil type, we could quickly see Biochar become one of the Largest GHG emission offset markets in North America and around the world.

And Ontario could be the leader. Something we cannot claim for any other renewable energy. Not solar. Not wind. Not ethanol. And not conventional biomass combustion. Why not pyrolysis and Biochar?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The IAASTD, Liberalization and Agriculture

The "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD)” can be found here:

The report: “Towards Multifunctional Agriculture for Social, Environmental and Economic Sustainability” summarizes the main concerns necessary to achieve development and sustainability goals.

The primary animating question in the report:
How can Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (AKST) be used to reduce hunger and poverty, improve rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable development?

In the report it was recognized that AKST was important to “the multifunctionality of agriculture and the intersection with other local to global concerns, including loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, climate change and water availability”.

The IAASTD is unique in the history of agricultural science assessments, in that it assesses both formal science and technology (S&T) and local and traditional knowledge. It addresses not only production and productivity but the multifunctionality of agriculture, and recognizes that multiple perspectives exist on the role and nature of AKST.

For many years, agricultural science focused on delivering component technologies to increase farm-level productivity where the market and institutional arrangements put in place by the state were the primary drivers of the adoption of new technologies. The general model has been to continuously innovate, reduce farm gate prices and externalize costs. This model drove the phenomenal achievements of AKST in industrial countries after World War II and the spread of the "Green Revolution" beginning in the 1960s.

But, given the new challenges we confront today, there is increasing recognition within formal Science and Technology organizations that the current AKST model requires revision. Business as usual is no longer an option.

This has lead to rethinking the role of AKST in achieving development and sustainability goals; one that seeks more intensive engagement across diverse worldviews and possibly contradictory approaches in ways that can inform and suggest strategies for actions enabling to the multiple functions of agriculture.

Below are some of the conclusions of the IAASTD:

In order to address the diverse needs and interests that shape human life, we need a shared approach to sustainability with local and cross-national collaboration.

We cannot escape our predicament by simply continuing to rely on the aggregation of individual choices, to achieve sustainable and equitable collective outcomes. Incentives are needed to influence the choices individuals make.

Issues such as poverty and climate change also require collective agreements on concerted action and governance across scales that go beyond an appeal to individual benefit. At the global, regional, national and local levels, decision makers must be acutely conscious of the fact that there are diverse challenges, multiple theoretical frameworks and development models and a wide range of options to meet development and sustainability goals.

Our perception of the challenges and the choices we make at this juncture in history will determine how we protect our planet and secure our future.

Development and sustainability goals should be placed in the context of:

(i) current social and economic inequities and political uncertainties about war and conflicts;
-- this is not yet relevant to Canada; political uncertainty certainly, but not war and conflict (at least not yet; hopefully never)

(ii) uncertainties about the ability to sustainably produce and access sufficient food;
-- relevant everywhere

(iii)uncertainties about the future of world food prices;
-- this has has always been an issue but is becoming much more of a concern lately

(iv) changes in the economics of fossil based energy use;
-- An Extremely important issue for for "industrial" agriculture

(v) the emergence of new competitors for natural resources;
-- Mainly the “Food as Fuel” issue, driven by 1st World policies – see list of governments that did not fully approve the Executive Summary… (below)

(vi) increasing chronic diseases that are partially a consequence of poor nutrition and poor food quality as well as food safety; and

(vii)changing environmental conditions and the growing awareness of human responsibility for the maintenance of global ecosystem services (provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting).
-- this latter awareness is I think the most important aspect that will have any chance of bringing about real change.

The main challenge of AKST is to increase the productivity of agriculture in a sustainable manner.

AKST must address the needs of small-scale farms in diverse ecosystems and to create realistic opportunities for their development where the potential for improved area productivity is low and where climate change may have its most adverse consequences. The main challenges for AKST posed by multifunctional agricultural systems include:

• How to improve social welfare and personal livelihoods in the rural sector and enhance multiplier effects of agriculture?
• How to empower marginalized stakeholders to sustain the diversity of agriculture and food systems, including their cultural dimensions?
• How to provide safe water, maintain biodiversity, sustain the natural resource base and minimize the adverse impacts of agricultural activities on people and the environment?
• How to maintain and enhance environmental and cultural services while increasing sustainable productivity and diversity of food, fiber and biofuel production?
• How to manage effectively the collaborative generation of knowledge among increasingly heterogeneous contributors and the flow of information among diverse public and private AKST organizational arrangements?
• How to link the outputs from marginalized, rain fed lands into local, national and global markets?

It will require new institutional and organizational arrangements to promote an integrated approach to the development and deployment of AKST.

It will also need to recognize farming communities, farm households, and farmers as producers and managers of ecosystems.

These policies and institutional changes should be directed primarily at those who have been served least by previous AKST approaches, i.e., resource-poor farmers, women and ethnic minorities.

AKST can contribute to radically improving food security and enhancing the social and economic performance of agricultural systems as a basis for sustainable rural and community livelihoods and wider economic development. It can help to rehabilitate degraded land, reduce environmental and health risks associated with food production and consumption and sustainably increase production.

But success would require increased public and private investment in AKST, the development of supporting policies and institutions, revalorization of traditional and local knowledge, and an interdisciplinary, holistic and systems-based approach to knowledge production and sharing.

Success also depends on the extent to which international developments and events drive the priority given to development and sustainability goals.

A powerful tool for meeting development and sustainability goals resides in empowering farmers to innovatively manage soils, water, biological resources, pests, disease vectors, genetic diversity, and conserve natural resources in a culturally appropriate manner. Combining farmers’ and external knowledge would require new partnerships among farmers, scientists and other stakeholders.

The report also talked about Food security, Environmental sustainability, Human health and nutrition, Equity, Investments and the Themes of Bioenergy, Biotechnology, Climate change, Human health, Natural resource management, Trade and markets, Traditional and local knowledge and community-based innovation and Women in agriculture.

58 countries around the world approved the report.

But the following governments did not fully approve the Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report:
Australia, Canada and the United States of America

The reservations from Canada, which was represented by Lorna M. Butler, Sophia Huyer and John M.R. Stone was as follows:

“The Canadian Government recognizes the significant work undertaken by IAASTD authors, Secretariat and stakeholders and notes the Executive Summary of the Synthesis Report as a valuable and important contribution to policy debate which needs to continue in national and international processes. While acknowledging considerable improvement has been achieved through a process of compromise, there remain a number of assertions and observations that require more substantial, balanced and objective analysis. However, the Canadian Government advocates it be drawn to the attention of governments for consideration in addressing the importance of AKST and its large potential to contribute to economic growth** and the reduction of hunger and poverty.”

Thus, the issue for Canada, Australia and the USA again seems to come back to “Economic Growth” even though the Assessment clearly does not prioritize “Economic Growth” above any other issue.

In fact, the report clearly states that "development would depend ... on the extent to which small-scale farmers can find gainful off-farm employment and help fuel general economic growth" and acknowleges that "Large and middle-size farmers continue to be important and high pay-off targets of AKST". (under the current system).

Also, Canada is continually coming back to the issue of "market liberalization" (trade and economics) by stating that:

“Canada and USA would prefer the following sentence: “Provision of assistance to help low income countries affected by liberalization to adjust and benefit from liberalized trade is essential to advancing development agendas.”

In other words: “Don’t reverse the liberalization agenda. Help countries adapt to the realities of global markets.”

Economists like Joseph E. Stiglitz of the World Bank has already successfully argued the point that market liberalization actually produces instability, not growth, so why is this agenda still pursued?

Probably because liberalization pays off in the form of faster export growth.
It results in economic actors at home pulling back from the local market.
It results in the ability of large players to overwhelm small, local markets.

It is acknowledged that for the most part, “the adverse effects of capital market liberalization can easily overwhelm whatever small benefits trade deregulation may bring”.

UNCTAD in its Trade and Development Report 1997 had demonstrated that "globalization has been associated with increasing income inequality in several countries, both developed and developing." Even upper-income countries with comparative advantage in capital- and skill-intensive areas, showed a definite tendency for worsening income distribution.

Interestingly, “the good productivity performance in the Asian economies has been associated with outward-oriented, but distinctly not liberal, trade regimes”. - Chakravarthi Raghavan*

* Mr Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) and Editor of Third World Economics, and the representative of the Third World Network (TWN) in Geneva. The aim of the SUNS was to provide information and analysis on global events and developments from a Third World perspective. In 1989, TWN took over responsibility for publishing the SUNS. Subsequently, its name was also changed to South-North Development Monitor. As the Chief Editor of the SUNS, Mr Raghavan has been providing a critical and unique analysis of crucial international developments (such as the Uruguay Round negotiations and the subsequent developments in the WTO) from the perspective of developing countries.

So what can be done?

The IAASTD recommended:
- An increase and strengthening of AKST towards agroecological sciences ... to address environmental issues while maintaining and increasing productivity.
- Strengthening and redirecting the generation and delivery of AKST by addressing problems and opportunities associated with local and international flows of migrant laborers and increasing access to information, education and technology to poorer areas and peoples, especially to women.
- Greater and more effective involvement of women and use of their knowledge, skills and experience.
- Targeting small-scale agricultural systems by forging public and private partnerships and increasing public research and extension investment.
- Strengthening participatory research and extension partnerships, development-oriented local governance and institutions such as cooperatives, farmer organizations and business associations, scientific institutions and unions that support small-scale producers and entrepreneurs that can capture and add value to existing opportunities for on-farm, post-harvest and non-farm rural enterprises.

They state explicitly that "Opportunities lie in those small-scale farming systems that have high water, nutrient and energy use efficiencies and conserve natural resources and biodiversity without sacrificing yield, but high marketing costs".

They also recommend creating opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship, which explicitly target resource poor farmers and rural laborers by:
- investing in infrastructure
- facilitating access to:
o markets and trade opportunities
o occupational education and extension services
o capital
o credit
o insurance and
o natural resources such as land and water

Finally, they promote "new payment mechanisms" for environmental services by public and private utilities such as catchment protection and mitigation of climate change effects.

Therefore public policy, regulatory frameworks and international agreements are critical to implementing more sustainable agricultural practices, including setting up agreements on transboundary water issues, emerging human and animal diseases, agricultural pests, climate change, environmental pollution and the growing concerns about food safety and occupational health. This requires national and international regulations to address the multiple economic, environmental and social dimensions of these transboundary issues.

AKST arrangements must begin to privilege environmental and social sustainability and the multiple needs of the small-scale farm sector over short-term (and even some long-term) considerations of productivity only.

It requires innovative institutional arrangements that provide legal frameworks and forms of association that can provide secure access to credit, markets, land and water for individuals and communities with modest resources.

It means creating market-based opportunities for processing and commercializing agricultural products that ensure a fair share of value addition for small-scale producers and rural laborers.

Although developing countries could benefit from reduced barriers and elimination of escalating tariffs, without basic national institutions and infrastructure already in place, opening national agricultural markets to international competition leads almost exclusively to long term negative effects on poverty alleviation, food security and the environment.

Stronger rural economies come from increased public investment in local value addition, improved access for small-scale farmers to credit and strengthened regional markets.

Increased investments in AKST, particularly if complemented by supporting investments in rural development (for example, infrastructure, telecommunications and processing facilities) can have high economic rates of return and reduce poverty.

And while public private partnerships are to be encouraged, the establishment and enforcement of codes of conduct by universities and research institutes can help avoid conflicts of interest and maintain focus on sustainability and development in AKST when private funding complements public sector funds.

Finally, achieving sustainability and development goals must also involve creating space for diverse voices and perspectives and a multiplicity of scientifically well-founded options, through, for example, the inclusion of social scientists - including traditional knowledge and civil society experience - in the policy and practices of AKST.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Some of the Answers to the Future are in the Past

This morning I read a document written on the occasion of the 2009 International Day For Biological Diversity. It was written in Tokyo by Mr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, the Executive Secretary of the Convention On Biological Diversity. The article represents the perspective of the Japanese.

The document is available here:

It started out very eloquently. Mr. Djoghlaf wrote,
The Japanese have long appreciated the importance of nature. Nowhere is this more reflected than in the ancient practice of satoyama. Local agricultural communities and villages have been at the heart of Japan’s land-management techniques throughout much of its history, carefully preserving the forests that provided them with both wood and fertilizer in the form of leaves. Over time, satoyama has been applied to larger areas of forests, grasslands, streams and ponds, dry rice fields and rice paddies, and so has become a much praised model for the sustainable use of our biological resources.

I had never heard of satoyama before today, so I looked it up.
I found out that in Japan satoyama is very important historically and ecologically.
Satoyama (里山), whose literal meaning is Sato (里), “arable and livable land” or “home land”, and yama (山), meaning mountain, has been developed from centuries of small scale agricultural and forestry use. I also learned that these farming practices can also enhance biodiversity, if properly maintained by human activities.

The concept of satoyama has several definitions. The first definition is the management of forests through local agricultural communities. During the Edo era (running from about 1603 to 1868), young and fallen leaves were gathered from community forests to use as fertilizer in wet rice paddy fields. Villagers also used wood for construction, cooking and heating. More recently, satoyama has been defined not only as mixed community forests, but also as entire landscapes that are used for agriculture.

Various habitat types for wildlife have been provided by mixed satoyama landscape as a result of this Japanese traditional agricultural system. They system actually facilitates the movement of wildlife between a variety of habitats, and because of these ecosystems a rich biodiversity in the Japanese rural area has been maintained. Interestingly, it is the very disturbance of forests by humans -- such as harvesting trees for timber and charcoal, cutting shrubs for firewood and collecting litter as compost -– that has helped in the success of the satoyama ecosystems.

Yet satoyama have been disappearing in Japan due to the drastic shift in natural resources away from charcoal and firewood toward the use of oil, and the change from compost to chemical fertilizers. Importantly, the population decline of villages is considered a significant driving factor in the disappearance of satoyama from Japanese mountains.

The depopulation of villages has occurred because of recent economic events which have created significant social and economic gaps between people in modern cities and mountain villages. As a consequence, there are fewer people who can work in satoyama.

Understanding Japan

The Japanese understand how man and nature need each other and can thrive together. There are more than 500 environmental groups that are working for the conservation of satoyama in Japan, yet the main challenge for satoyama conservation today is rural depopulation.

For the Japanese, art and aesthetics are integrated within their daily life. They have an emphasis on process rather than product. They also do not separate art and aesthetics from ethics, religion, and daily life. There is an overlap with all other philosophies such as environmental ethics, ethics, and philosophy of the person.

Japan and Asia are of rapidly increasing importance in the world, so that from the point of view of self-interest, it behooves us to learn about them and what they know. Japan is completely different than China or Korea or any other Asian country and culture. Japanese culture is probably as different from our culture (however you define it) as a culture can be, and is almost as different from the other Asian cultures as it is from ours.

The paradox is that in spite of these worlds of difference, even for people from entirely different cultural backgrounds, when one works with the Japanese and one strives to learn and understand Japanese art and aesthetics, one can make connections. There will almost always be something you can find in common – something you can fall in love with.

And while Japanese culture is far from monolithic or uniform and most people find at least some of it infuriating or incomprehensible, there is so much that is compelling, and in so many different ways, that -- provided you strive to learn something from them -- you will come away in love with it.

If you spend the time to learn something new from them they will respect you, provided you never make the mistake of thinking you already know everything there is to know about a certain subject.

Back to the problem of the satoyama

The problem of rural depopulation is a difficult one to overcome. One of The most important things we can do is to make farming a more attractive job. Another important thing is to provide stable incomes for farmers.

Could the development and creation of an international Biochar industry actually help with the plight of the satoyama in Japan, by helping to secure these two critical conditions? Could it in fact lead to more people returning to the land... more farmers; with the consequent restoration of the satoyama? Could it in fact lead to the revival of a dying aspect of Japanese cultural and ecological history?

But more than this, could Japan's satoyama teach the rest of the world about what can be done? By utilizing the concepts of satoyama in the promotion and use of Biochar around the world, we have a chance to teach the world about how to achieve true sustainability.

Japan deserves to be known and understood in its own right because the use of charcoal in soils is not something new to the Japanese, who have been using charcoal in soils for thousands of years. They have different views of originality and obsolescence. Could ancient Japanese traditions teach the rest of the world about how to achieve a sustainable world?

Has the time come for Japan to shine again on the world stage?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Soil, stewardship, cosmos and the human condition

Humans have a significant influence on our biosphere. This I do not doubt.

What I am coming to realize is that even with all our science, we humans still have very little understanding about what we are doing. Even given all of the predictive accuracy we have gained from the hard sciences, when it comes to complex systems like the environment, we still have very little predictive ability. Even with our very best minds and fastest computers, we have so little ability to predict all of the subtle consequences of our actions on the biosphere.

So given our current state of ignorance, it’s probably best to at least try and slow down whatever we are doing that either has (or seems to have the possibility of having) serious negative consequences on the biosphere.

Why? Because many (if not most) of the large-scale changes that we can potentially cause are effectively irreversible, the most important being species extinction and widespread negative land use changes (degradation) that can make life more difficult if not unbearable in the future.*

*Yes, we could probably "fix" many many of the problems we create, but some could take a tremendous amount of work to do, and some, like species extinction, are permanent. We can never resurrect an extinct species. It is far easier to maintain something than to try and fix it later once it is broken.

Humans are a significant factor to be taken into consideration. We have the capability of doing harm and we have the capability of doing good.

It is our choice to make.

Take, for instance, the decision to build the Jonglei Canal in South Sudan. In the early ‘80's the canal project was funded by the World Bank. The contract for this massive project was given to "Grands traveaux de Marseille" in France. Apparently they had dismantled one of the biggest digging machines in Pakistan and had it shipped to a Port in Sudan then to Malakal.

The canal was a disaster in the making. More than 260 km of the canal was built (out of a total length 300 km), but by that point the canal (in the areas where it was constructed) had already started messing up the local ecosystem. The project managers had not even taken in consideration the migration of animals - nor any other impact on the ecosystems.

Locals from the area remember how much human suffering resulted from the canal. The digging machine was later destroyed during the South Sudan war. The people of south Sudan likely started the civil war in response to this and other projects because they considered that the government of Sudan was committing to possibly some of the worst environmental crimes in the history of south Sudan. The project would have drained one of the world's largest permanent swampy areas of south Sudan. This swampy area is a vast wetland that absorbs and dissipates about half the inflow from the upper catchments of the White Nile. The canal would have facilitated the drainage of about 4.7 billion cubic metres of water annually to the upstream environments of northern Sudan and on into Egypt.

The advantages of the Jonglei canal were never clear to the major population of south Sudan, although some experts had given cautions in regards to construction of the canal and its potentially drastic environmental effects on the ecosystem of the Sudd region – which included negative effects on aquatic, wild and domestic plants and animals, negative effects on the life of the people such as displacement and conflict at water points, and a regional reduction of rainfall due to the fact that moisture from the Sudd contributes to the formation of the rain in the region.

Even though I never did attend church regularly, I have learned that the Old Testament states that humans are meant to be the "Stewards of God’s Earth", not its owners.

Rolf P. Knierim wrote a book called “The task of Old Testament theology”. Knierim is a Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Claremont School of Theology and Avery Professor of Religion Emeritus at Claremont Graduate University Institute for Antiquity and Christianity in Claremont, CA.

In the book, Knierim states that, “Whatever the word 'God' otherwise means, in this context it means that the earth and its land are subject to criteria and priorities which can be discerned, but not determined, by humans, because these criteria determine humans themselves.
What determines all living creatures, i.e., their need for food to live, is fundamental to their right to and stewardship of the earth.

This perspective represents the fundamental conceptual level of theological significance already present in the distribution of the land by lot in Joshua 13-21, and also in Naboth’s defense of the meaning of his 'inheritance'.

Once this conceptual perspective is in focus, the question is no longer concerned with the modes and legalities of the possession of land as property but with the caretaking and management of the land’s own meaning and purpose as the support and supply system for the sustenance of human life. Thus, the criterion for ethos, law, and justice is no longer rooted in a worldview of irreducible human autonomy but rather in a worldview if irreducible human accountability to the always already given foundation of all life.

Since all life depends on the earth’s resources for the provision of food, the caretaking and management of actually or potentially fertile land for the production of food for all equally is conceptually and at least ethically, if not legally, the primary standard for justice in the relationship of humans to the earth.

This aspect of justice implies that the correspondence of land and food is fundamental and in opposition to the correspondence of land and hunger, and that all models of ownership of land are relative to the criterion of land for food. As soon as food supply, together with space of habitation, is understood as the just function of the land, the justice or injustice of the relationship of the various historical systems to land can be assessed in view of the extent to which they manage land, above all, for the purpose of food supply and the avoidance or abolishment of hunger.

This primary purpose also qualifies the very notion of management of stewardship.”

Thus, each successive generation inherits the earth, not as owners, but as stewards. This is the fundamental shift in consciousness we need to make if ever we are to restore the rightful function of the earth and achieve "sustainability".

Knierim further states that the Old Testament assumes that all humans are made “from the dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7) and that they “return to the ground” (Gen 3:19).

Humans are therefore from the ground and this earthly human condition is basic and universal. It precedes all other conditions. Moreover, those who came from the ground and return to the ground live from the ground while they are alive and in life they are related to the ground as their home.

Humans are cosmically restricted and ground-bound because we are of the ground of this earth. To be an intrinsic component of this earth is the human condition. The earth is not only the space for human life, it is the basis from which we constantly live. We are, therefore, wholly related to it in our origin, life, and destination.

The human condition and human existence do not stand vis-à-vis what we call “nature”, but we are an inherent part of it.

The replacement of this worldview with other worldviews (a subject-object worldview) leads to a split between human identity and nature, with the resulting subjugation of nature by humans and human alienation from nature – and with it, human self-alienation.

The Old Testament not only rejected the deification of nature over and above humans, it also rejected the concept of a rightful enslavement of nature by humans. It only means that both nature and humans are considered “created”, and that they exist together vis-à-vis and dependent on “God”.

Notwithstanding the distinctiveness of each, both belong first of all, to each other. In whatever sense humans belong to “God”, this “belonging” is not based on a separation from nature or in the opposition of God and humans over or against nature and whatever “the creation of humans in the Image of God” means, it means neither that humans are not also created, nor that God and his relationship to nature has been replaced by humans and their reign over nature.

It refers to human stewardship in accordance with God’s own reign over nature for the sake of both nature and humans.

We humans are, indeed, totally part of nature.
That which makes the sustenance of human life possible is the life of the ground itself -- the soil.

You could even say that the ground itself is "blessed", for this is the view of the Old Testament.
It – the soil – is uniquely empowered to create life-sustaining food. Ground/soil is a terrestrial realm prior to and transcending the boundaries of nations or individual property owners. It is related to the function of food for all life.

The totality of the ground is the substance from which humans in their totality live, just as humans in their totality belong to the totality of the ground.

Therefore, all humans depend on the lasting blessing of the ground, the “uninterrupted seasonal cycle” (Gen 8:21).

In turn, the seasonal cycle, and with it the life of the ground and its production of food, are themselves embedded in and dependent on the cosmic cycle.

The fertile land does not belong to us; it belongs to the cosmos, and we belong to it.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Jatropha - Miracle Bio-oil or not?

Recently, I read an article on the Newswire that said that the World’s Largest BioJet Fuel Contract was Signed between a company called "JatrophaBioJet" and another company called "Abundant Biofuels".

In the article they announced a jatropha oil sales contract for exclusive use as aviation bio-jet fuel with Abundant Biofuels Corporation that would have them "quickly producing 5 million barrels per year" of "aviation bio-jet fuel" sourced from the oils of the jatropha fruit. The article went on to state that, "Both companies expect demand from aviation for biofuels to exceed 200 million barrels annually."

But, if we look at these numbers critically, what do we find?

Through a quick internet search I was able to find some information on the historical Yield of different jatropha plants in different years. Using this data I was that the average yield from a jatropha plant varied between low of 9 and a high of 1295 grams per year. This is a yield difference of about 144X year-to-year.

The data also showed that the total yields for the entire crop (20 plants) varied between 102g and 432g in different years, which is a factor of about 4 (from year to year). I also found some data showing that jatropha seeds contain about 20% to 40% non-edible oil.

Assuming that all of this oil can be pressed out of a seed and on average an individual plant produced between 100g and 400g of seed, then each plant could theoretically only produce between 20g and 160g of jatropha oil (a factor of 8).
Since jatropha oil has a Density of ~0.92 g/cm3, this means that 1 g of jatropha oil has a volume of 1.087 cubic centimeters (cc) and 20g has a volume of 21.74cc and 160g has a volume of 173.9cc.

5 million barrels per year is 586,739 m3 = 586,739,000,000 cubic centimeters (cm3)
This 5 million barrels thus requires a minimum of 586,739,000,000 / 173.9 = 3,373,749,250 (3.37 billion) jatropha bushes to be planted and possibly as many as 586,739,000,000 / 21.74 = 26,988,914,443 (27 billion) plants.

I also found the crop density of jatropha and saw that the plants are grown at a density of between 4,000 to 6,700 plants per km for a single hedgerow and double that when two rows are planted. Actual field trials have shown satisfactory planting widths of 2 x 2 m, which is equivalent a to crop density of 2500 plants/ha.

Since we need up to 26,988,914,443 (27 billion) plants and these can be planted at densities of 2500 plants/ha, we therefore need 10,795,566 hectares to grow this crop. 10,795,566 hectares is 107,956 square kilometers.
This is an area about the size of Guatemala.

If we were to ramp up production to 200 million barrels annually (fourty times more), the area that would need to be planted in jatropha would be 431,822,640 hectares (4,318,226 square kilometers).
This is an area that is more than twice the size of Mexico.

Remember, the United States now uses more than 20 million barrels of oil -- per day.
200 million barrels of jatropha oil would satisfy only about 2.65% of total yearly demand.
Put another way, 200 million barrels of jatropha oil produced annually would only supply the United States for about 10 days.

Using two Mexicos.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Science of Biochar

The science of Biochar is just beginning. We've only just started thinking about restoring soils as a way to help both mitigate and adapt to climate change, but most people in the mainstream have hardly heard of Biochar.
Let alone understanding the implications and the potentially huge impact Biochar could have in helping our entire society become sustainable.

One of the primary reasons I put my career on hold and have been working full time trying to help start the Canadian Biochar Initiative was because I saw some potential with the technology, but it is only recently that I have begun to understand the magnitude of its potential for good.

I've been communicating a lot with people who have been talking about climate change recently. There are some who say that we don't have very much time before we need to start drawing down hard on atmospheric CO2.

It was Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University who first emphasized that Biochar "could remove billions of tonnes of carbon from the air each year".
That caught my attention, so I wanted to reproduce his calculations.

This is nothing to laugh at, because governments in Canada are now starting to spend increasing billions of our taxpayer dollars on schemes to reduce our "emissions intensity" with megaprojects like underground Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) which would only reduce the projected carbon emissions from the Alberta Tar Sands by about 7.5% after about six years -- and would require an additional 20 to 50 years of substantial investment in infrastructure to have any significant impact at all.

It might also require that we use an additional 900,000 gigawatt-hours of energy -- per year! This is equivalent to hundreds of new nuclear plants or hundreds of thousands of Wind turbines. All this at a time when governments are running multi-billion dollar deficits.

We could end up spending trillions of taxpayer dollars undertaking a monumental task that ultimately ends up being fruitless -- especially if we find out 10 years from now that CO2 wasn’t the primary cause of climate change.

After all, we could let nature do the sequestering for us – by allowing nature to thrive – and then pulling the carbon out of the atmosphere as we pyrolyze the residuals in a process that also provides us with an energy surplus. This is the "magic" of Biochar!

At worst it would be environmentally benign and at best it could be tremendously beneficial with respect to food security, secondary environmental contamination issues like fertilizer runoff and leaching (which affects our oceans and other water bodies as well as our groundwater) and could possibly even help reverse desertification.

So even if Biochar could conservatively sequester 1 or 2 Gigatonnes of CO2 per year, that would still be 3 to 4 magnitudes of order greater than CCS.

And, interestingly enough, the Alberta Research Council has calculated that we might actually be able to utilize Biochar at a profit -- particularly for farmers!

Now, I live in Ontario, so I was only recently introduced to the Palliser Triangle in southern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. I knew it was dry out west, but I learned that the Palliser Triangle actually covers more than 200,000 square kilometers of area and it's so dry that sand dunes actually cover more than 3,400 square kilometers of the region.

I completed a soil science course last year at the University of Guelph for the first time.
I've always been interested in Geography, so it was interesting to learned that only 5 percent (about 46 million hectares) of Canada's vast terrain is actually suitable for crop production and that 85 percent of this (about 39 million hectares) is in the Prairie Provinces.

I also learned that, in the long term, soil degradation is the most serious threat to the agriculture industry in Canada and that 5 percent of cultivated Prairie farmland is at high to severe inherent risk of water erosion, and that 20 percent of the cultivated land continues to be at risk of moderate to severe wind erosion.
Wow! Seems that our soils aren't robust and fertile as we once thought and we are degrading them at ever increasing rates.

What are the implications for future food security?

Now, getting back to the Palliser Triangle and Biochar.
200,000 square kilometers translates to 20 million hectares.

Now that I knew about the Palliser Triangle, I thought, "Well, if we could put 5 tonnes of Biochar on each hectare in this triangle this would translates to 100 million tonnes of carbon.
(Actually, if we assume that the permanently recalcitrant carbon in Biochar is only 80% then this is only 80 million tonnes.)

Since each tonne of carbon would be equivalent to 3.67 tonnes of CO2, this translates to 293.6 million tonnes of CO2.
Now, compare that to the "up to five million tonnes annually by 2015" for CCS.
That's more than Fifty Times (50X) the amount of carbon sequestered!

It also vastly exceeds the 67 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions that the Tar Sands might reach by 2015. In fact, it's more than four times more!

So what's the economics of it?
I've estimated that for $200 million -- for research to prove that Biochar is either neutral or even beneficial to Canadian soils, we could sequester these 293.6 million tonnes of CO2.
That works out to a cost for the taxpayer of only $0.68 per tonne of CO2.

Of course this is simplifying the costs, but... maybe not, if we consider the increased yields for farmers and reduced soil erosion and potentially reduced need (and cost) for fertilizers, among many other benefits like protecting watersheds.
And this is where I started to think, maybe this has real possibility.

So I came back to the question of soil carbon.
I knew that in the past century as we've been plowing and essentially 'mining' our soils of nutrients that we have seen the organic carbon content in most fields go from about 5 percent down to about 3 percent.
I also remembered that the "Terra preta" soils -- those pre-Columbian soils that were created by humans in the Amazon Basin -- had, on average, about three times more soil carbon than in the surrounding poor soils.
I remembered from my soil course that some soils in Canada were very carbon deprived, and found out that the soils of the Palliser Triangle actually have some of the lowest soil carbon content in Canada -- somewhere around 1% soil carbon, which is quite low.

So, based on what I learned about soils in my Guelph University course I did a few simple calculations and I found out that adding 5 tonnes of Biochar per hectare would actually only increase the carbon content of the soils in the Palliser Triangle by about 0.2%, and if the average soil carbon content is only 1% right now and our target is to double it (to only 2%) it would take at least four applications of Biochar (at 5MG/ha) to get to 2% carbon content in the soil -- and this would be equivalent to 1.174 Gigatonnes of CO2 sequestration!
This very closely matched Johannes Lehmann's calculations. Dr. Lehmann had once said that the Earth's soils could remove between 5.5 and 9.5 billion tonnes of carbon from the air each year.

This amount of CO2 sequestration capability – on less than half of the total cropland in Canada – was already enough to offset all of the CO2 emissions from the Tar Sands for at least the next 17.5 years. It didn’t even account for the other 26 million hectares of land suitable for crop production in Canada that might also benefit from Biochar!
And it didn’t account for the fact that we might be able to bring our soil carbon content up to 3% or even 5% or more.

So, with Biochar, Canada could actually very quickly reach our Kyoto commitments -- and even go far beyond them.
What I realized was that Canada could even become a carbon negative country.

After all, according to official government statistics, Canada only produced 721 Megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2006 (carbon dioxide equivalent emissions).

So if we could sequester almost 300 Megatonnes of CO2 on just 20 million hectares of land, what if we were to add 10 tonnes of Biochar on each of the 46 million hectares of croplands in Canada?
I would think that we could draw down carbon pretty fast.

And, remember, my contact at the Alberta Research Council said that we could do it at a profit!