Sunday, September 20, 2009

Can “Biochar” make a country carbon Neutral?

Hemantha Withanage

Executive Director, Centre for Environmental Justice

Several patent applications have been made for industrial charcoal use in soil and for “Pyrolysis” for charcoal production. Industrial Charcoal or “Biochar” is one of the solutions sug­gested by the corporations to mitigate climate change. The promoters suggest “biochar” is similar to the “Terra Preta” a mixture of charcoal and varieties of bio­mass developed by the Central Amazo­nians thousands of years ago.

These “biochar” producers suggest that this is the “silver bullet” for reducing glob­al greenhouse gases thereby mitigating climate change. This has been already proposed to the UNFCCC and for clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Sev­eral African governments also proposed this in order to promote private sector involvement in climate Mitigation.

The Maldivian Government is targeting to become the first Carbon Natural na­tion by developing three small islands producing waste into “Biochar”. The com­pany involved in this business is Carbon Gold, a UK based entity.

However, many environmentalists dis­agree with this approach and suggest not including “biochar” in climate miti­gation proposals. One argument is that industrial “Biocharcoal” is not close to “Terra Preta”. New science has so far not unveiled the techniques used by the ancient people to produce it. If the new companies granted patents, those will ensure that any future profits from the technology will go to companies, not communities. According to the FOEI and other groups, given that successful strat­egies for combining charcoal with di­verse biomass in soils were developed by indigenous peoples, ‘biochar’ patenting raises serious concerns over bio piracy. The inclusion of soils in carbon markets, just like the inclusion of forests in carbon trading will increase corporate control over vital resources and the exclusion of smallholder farmers, rural communities and indigenous peoples.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) has perpetuated, rather than re­duced fossil fuel burning by permitting industries to purchase “rights to pollute” and further delaying the social and eco­nomic changes which are essential for addressing climate change. The climate impacts of fossil fuel burning are irre­versible, yet so-called ‘soil carbon sinks’ are highly uncertain and impermanent.

“Biochar” producers suggest production of gigatones on “biochar” will reduce the CO2 into pre industrial levels. How­ever environmentalists state that it will require millions of hectares of lands to convert into biomass production which will be mostly monoculture plantations which are already problematic. This is not different from the controversial “Agro­fuel” production. A UNEP report found that industrial charcoal release most of its carbon content in 30 years time, al­though the “Biochar” producers suggest that this carbon will remain in soil for thousands of years.

There is no consistent evidence that charcoal can be relied upon to make soil more fertile. Industrial charcoal produc­tion at the expense of organic matter needed for making humus could have the opposite results.

Combinations of charcoal with fossil fuel-based fertilizers made from scrub­bing coal power plant flue gases are be­ing marketed as ‘biochar’, and those will help to perpetuate fossil fuel burning as well as emissions of nitrous oxide, a pow­erful greenhouse gas. According to the experts the process for making charcoal and energy (pyrolysis) can result in dan­gerous soil and air pollution.

Using waste for composting is the best solution for carbon minimization. How­ever, turning waste into “biochar”, perhaps will be better than burning them. How­ever, carbon in waste is not the problem for climate change. The biggest problem is burning fossil fuel. However “biochar” is not an alternative to fossil fuel. There are many scientific uncertainties over “biochar”. It is not a proven technology for making a country carbon neutral.


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