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.