Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book Review: The Biochar Debate by James Bruges

Book Review:

The Biochar Debate: Charcoal’s Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility

By James Bruges

Review by Lloyd Helferty, Engineering Technologist
Steering Committee member, Canadian Biochar Initiative
President, Co-founder & CBI Liaison, Biochar-Ontario
Advisory Committee Member, IBI

James Bruges book, The Biochar Debate, is an excellent review of the technology and potential of Biochar that has been written for the layman. It outlines many of the most important global phenomenon, to the uninitiated, in an easily understandable way. Major issues like Global warming, Peak oil, the limits of chemical and mineral fertilizers and the rapid erosion and loss of global soil fertility as a result of industrial agriculture, which is leading to impending worldwide food shortages, are all outlined in a way that makes it very clear that we are very close to nearing some of the physical and ecological limits of our Earth. He makes clear that the challenge before us is daunting, yet he does hold hope for one new and potentially very powerful technology: Biochar.

Bruges is able to weave the story of how Biochar could help to tackle all of these issues at their core and sounds a note of caution that we must use this technology for the betterment of the world and not just as another tool to enrich the few while continuing to marginalize the many. And although he does have a good grasp of the “big picture” social policy issues, he is also able to accurately convey complex scientific details in the context of what these would mean for us in a practical way.

His cautions about applying carbon credits to Biochar seem a little farfetched however. His expectation that “carbon markets” would be “flooded with credits and their price would tumble” if “global carbon markets were introduced for burying Biochar” is unlikely, since he himself also acknowledges that it would be “unlikely” that the practice would spread “in a reasonable timescale” (even with carbon credits for Biochar).

This latter conclusion is probably right because the current (and even future) price of carbon credits is not expected to fully offset the costs of producing and applying Biochar in many cases, particularly in places where the soil fertility is already quite reasonable or good. Biochar will likely only become “economically viable” when all of the other lifecycle cost savings and attributes are taken into account, with or without carbon credits. However, carbon credits can ‘help the economic case’ for the *earlier* adoption of Biochar in the most marginal and degraded soils and can also help to make biochar much more commonly understood around the world because recognizing ‘Biochar offsets’ would suddenly elevate its status within the international business and financial world – and beyond. It is likely that it would very quickly become a “household term”.

Also, Bruges discounts the important role of regulation and enforcement when he states that “credits would lead to monoculture land management and the destruction of existing woodlands”… leading to negative carbon sequestration and reduced biodiversity. While there is a need for “sustainability protocols” to be in place for Biochar, it is much more likely that the value of Biochar will only be realized when all of the other “environmental attributes” associated with the appropriate use of Biochar for soil and land management and improvement are monetized. Again, carbon credits alone are unlikely to lead to any of the aforementioned negative and destructive practices / outcomes because, as indicated, the value of carbon credits alone is unlikely to fully compensate for the cost of producing and applying Biochar on a wide scale basis.

While it is true that there are uncertainties, it may be premature to discount the future recognition of Biochar in carbon markets, such as within local cap-and-trade schemes.

However, his idea of utilizing the “twin solutions” of “upstream regulation on mining of fossil carbon” and a “Carbon Maintenance Fee” merits serious consideration, and if Carbon Markets cannot be made to work, this should be our preferred system of carbon accounting, monetization and reward for those who wish to utilize Biochar appropriately.

But utilizing a “Carbon Maintenance Fee” does not entirely negate the need for sound management and “sustainability protocols” for Biochar nor does it negate the need for strong and sustained regulation and enforcement. We will need every tool at our disposal to make Biochar work for us and we must be diligent in ensuring it is applied using the best management practices and highest standards possible in order to ensure we are not inadvertently causing harm or degradation to biodiversity or landscapes (since it is very unlikely that "remote sensing satellites" will ever be able to determine with any level of accuracy the value or level of biodiversity or "ecosystem services" within a specific landscape).

Our tools may seem powerful and the policies may seem simple and benign, however we must be diligent and ever wary of distortion, misinterpretations and outright abuse within any system we might design that is meant to assist us in the transition away from fossil fuels, the reduction of (CO2) emissions and the restoration of a climate that is more amenable to the long-term maintenance of a sustainable human civilization.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Invitation to The Huntsville Project

TODAY, Earth Day 2010 -- the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we are launching a campaign called The Huntsville Project to inform the global public about Biochar, one of the most promising developments in our fight against climate change.

This Earth Day we can look back on a year in which James Cameron’s Avatar, a film about environmental crisis and restoration, swept box offices around the globe.

What if there were a real-life answer to help solve the real world problems of climate change, peak oil, and global food security?

Would you want the leaders of the G8 and the G20 to know about it and endorse it?

At our new website,, you can find out about biochar and sign our petition:

We are asking global leaders to support this important new clean technology.

On June 25, 2010 the G8 will meet in Huntsville Ontario. On June 26 and 27 the G20 will then meet in Toronto.

Our goal is to publicize and gain support for Biochar and Biochar offsets. We want to help implement and scale up the global Biochar industry by creating public awareness and new markets for Biochar.

We are asking G8 and G20 delegations to make a commitment to recognizing Biochar carbon sequestration and offsetting with Biochar.

Our website features a public petition that we hope you will sign.

I would like to encourage you to sign our "Huntsville Petition":

... and help put Biochar on the global agenda.

The following description of Biochar from the newcarboneconomy website is a good place to start.

It is being cited around the web as an authoritative non-technical definition of Biochar:

If you have skills or content to contribute, we would love to hear from you!

If have contacts and ideas for the Huntsville Project, and want to help with the effort for Huntsville, you are most welcome to contact me.

Please check out our website, sign the Huntsville Petition, and circulate this link to your friends and members of your social networks:

Help us out, let people know about our website, and have a beautiful 40th Anniversary of Earth Day.

Happy Earth Day!


To join our Huntsville Project team, go to:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Cap and Share & Carbon Markets

Recently I have been in some discussions about the best way to create a Carbon Trading system for Biochar. There has been a heated debate about "Cap and Trade" and other mechanisms to ratchet down CO2 emissions -- and to try and decide what would be the best method of doing this.
Someone had noted that some people who propose for a carbon tax (*like Jim Hansen) had "probably the best arguments" because a tax would be "refunded equally to all citizens" and would be transparent. The argument was that the "transparency arises because it is simple to understand and simple to implement. This is a significant advantage, especially in that we need to act rapidly".
It was also argued that a tax is "cost effective". Cap and trade, where units of carbon reduction need to be "certified" for trust to be established in the market, "leaks a substantial amount of money to those involved in certifying the reductions and those involved in trading the certificates".
Because "Certifying GHG emission reductions in thousands of scenarios involving multiple greenhouse gases is a highly complex undertaking." While the people who do it are intelligent, skilled with complex detail, and deserve to be paid well, in the end, it becomes (essentially) "a tax on emissions" anyway ... but it "becomes less effective because a substantial portion of the leverage available is diverted" (to the task of certifying the emissions reductions).

For anyone who has taken the time to review “Cap and Share” – which is not at all the same as “Cap and Trade” – they should understand that the way Cap and Share is configured is much more closely aligned to the pure "Carbon Tax" scenario that is being advocated.
One should notice that the word “trade” is not used in the "Cap and Share" system.
This is deliberate. With “Cap and Share” there is no emission reduction “certification” required (and hence no money “leaks” to the emission traders), just like with a tax; and it is transparent, and it is very simple to implement and it means that the market can free up those “smart people” to “work on developing renewable energy systems”**, and it is Shared “equally to all citizens” (hence the name) – and finally, it is very likely to be far more “politically palatable” because it now opens up “free-market” mechanisms that allow for trading.

But the “trading” is not for carbon emissions reductions (i.e. “counting an absence”), nor does anyone need to keep track of a single molecule of carbon or CO2 -- because the trading that does occur is a trading of the “emission certificates” that the fossil fuel point-source carbon extractors must buy in order to mine the fossil fuels in the first place (there are only a few hundred of those types of companies around the world).

This now becomes much, much, much easier to regulate if and when it is necessary to do so.
Please review “Cap and Share” if you have not already done so.

** Now, if we come back to the issue of freeing up resources, a "Cap and Share" system should also be able to free up huge amounts of money. Money that could be used by those “smart people” to “work on developing renewable energy systems”.
I know that I (personally) would much rather be designing and testing renewable energy systems than spend my precious time getting myself involved in the highly politically charged “carbon trading“ game.

And it is a "game".
More and more these days I am starting to believe that we are simply playing "mind games" with each other ~ with money [and hence resources] as the “tool” by which to do it.
We are pretending that we can count an absence of CO2 molecules is part of that money game.
This type of game is played very well by the big trading houses like Morgan Stanley – but it is just a game of shuffling around money in a false “economy” and allowing certain people (those who control the playing field -- who control the "market") to skim money off the top.

But we are just “rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic” as the oft-quoted phrase goes…
To make real reductions we must employ a system that is simple – and one that gets the money into the right hands; i.e. those who are actually implementing the change. Otherwise, we are just “playing on the margins”. And the big energy giants know it.***

*** And this is why they forcefully endorse “carbon capture and sequestration” (CCS).
The energy companies who effectively control the resources know that schemes like CCS will never be implemented. It’s not practical and it’s much too expensive and energy intensive.
So they play games with the public and with governments and the “moneyed class” to try and convince them that they have the technologies that can “reduce emissions” – yet they themselves are the source of the emissions in the first place!

They are playing a game because everyone is focused on the Carbon and CO2 problem; so their strategy is to focus on a “Carbon and CO2” solution.
But this is false [not only a false solution but the focus of our attention is false!].
We should not be looking for solutions to our problems by looking only at the effects of our actions (rising atmospheric CO2), but rather, we need to look at the real causes of the problem, which is rooted in the money system that controls the resources (and hence controls how much time and effort is spent within the “economy”; i.e. how much human activity is devoted to certain tasks).

“Carbon Markets” (as they have been implemented – i.e. attempting to track every molecule of carbon in the biosphere) is just a shell game. Especially since we are attempting to “Track an Absence” (of emissions).
While it does create huge amounts of “economic activity” ~ this activity is not actually “economical”!
It’s actually a waste of our time and efforts; which are both precious right now.
And by diverting our attention away from the real issues of energy and resources (and their inherent physical limits on a finite planet), we allow those who already control them to continue doing so (and make ever greater profits doing so).