Tim Flannery
Tim Flannery

FAVOURITES – 23 July 2009 – Biochar, a system of carbon capture by turning organic matter into charcoal, has been storming the news circuit as a breakthrough technology. But it’s controversial.

Australian author and leading scientist in the climate change debate, Tim Flannery explained the system to the ABC’s Lateline program on 30 June, and is strongly positive about its potential. Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull is a fan.

Australian carbon farmers say there is a more practical integrated way, (see our recent posting from Michael Kiely of the Carbon Farmers of Australia).

And in the UK Guardian journalist and blogger George Monbiot has stirred up a response from the world’s leading scientific voices on climate change, NASA scientist, James Hansen and James Lovelock.

Following are some highlights of key views:

From a transcript of ABC’s Lateline on 30 June, on the program’s website:

TIM FLANNERY: Look, the specific technologies, I think, are yet to be debated, but I would be surprised if biochar weren’t included in there, [the emissions trading system].

If you look at a tree, it’s basically just congealed carbon, you know, that’s what it is, effectively. And there’s people overseas developing some very ingenious ways of permanently capturing that carbon as charcoal. One of the best plans I’ve seen is out of Sweden where an agronomist is developing a thing called a “charvestor”. And a charvestor would simply go along and harvest a crop, but also harvest a crop waste. It’ll put the crop waste into a charcoal making machine and it’ll bin the synthetic gas you get out of that machine, which is a valuable protect, and the crude oil substitute’ll go into another bin, and the charcoal’ll get spat out the back and be put back into the field and give you a better crop yield next year.

TONY JONES: But how do you do it? I mean, it seems to require some kind of furnace that burns without oxygen or without using very much oxygen. How does that work?

TIM FLANNERY: Well, charcoal making’s a really ancient technology. And all you do is basically heat up any biomass – wood or crop mass or whatever – in the absence of oxygen and that basically cooks it. And so you get a gas given off which you can capture, you get a gooey, oil-like substance given off, and that’s a crude oil substitute, and at the bottom of the machine is all of the charcoal which is the carbon-dense part, it’s almost all the carbon in the plant, which is then in a mineralised form so it won’t rot away, and that’s the key to it. Because crop waste, normally, if it’s just put back on a field, tends to rot away and escape back to the air as carbon dioxide, whereas if it’s turned into charcoal it’ll stay in that field for many thousands of years. So it’s locked away permanently out of the system.

From postings generated by Guardian journalist and blogger George Monbiot

George Monbiot
George Monbiot

GEORGE MONBIOT (24 March 2009):

“Whenever you hear the word miracle, you know there’s trouble just around the corner. But however many times they lead to disappointment or disaster, the newspapers never tire of promoting miracle cures, miracle crops, miracle fuels and miracle financial instruments. We have a bottomless ability to disregard the laws of economics, biology and thermodynamics when we encounter a simple solution to complex problems. So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the new miracle. It’s a low-carbon regime for the planet which makes the Atkins Diet look healthy: woodchips with everything.

Biomass is suddenly the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. Its advocates claim that it will become the primary source of the world’s heating fuel, electricity, road transport fuel (cellulosic ethanol) and aviation fuel (bio-kerosene). Few people stop to wonder how the planet can accommodate these demands and still produce food and preserve wild places. Now an even crazier use of woodchips is being promoted everywhere (including in the Guardian(1)). The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet’s surface into charcoal.

Sorry, not charcoal. We don’t call it that any more. Now we say biochar. The idea is that wood and crop wastes are cooked to release the volatile components (which can be used as fuel), then the residue – the charcoal – is buried in the soil. According to the magical thinkers who promote it, the new miracle stops climate breakdown, replaces gas and petroleum, improves the fertility of the soil, reduces deforestation, cuts labour, creates employment, prevents respiratory disease and ensures that when you drop your toast it always lands butter side up. (I invented the last one, but give them time).

They point out that the indigenous people of the Amazon created terras pretas (black soils) by burying charcoal over hundreds of years. These are more fertile than the surrounding soils, and the carbon has stayed where they put it. All we need to do is to roll this out worldwide and the world’s problems – except, for the time being, the toast conundrum – are solved. It takes carbon out of circulation, reducing atmospheric concentrations. It raises crop yields. If some of the carbon is produced in efficient cooking stoves, it reduces the smoke in people’s homes and means they have to gather less fuel, curtailing deforestation(2).

This miracle solution has suckered people who ought to know better, including the earth systems scientist James Lovelock(3), the eminent climate scientist Jim Hansen(4), the author Chris Goodall and the climate campaigner Tim Flannery(5). At the UN climate negotiations beginning in Bonn on Sunday, several national governments will demand that biochar is eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial stimulus required to turn this into a global industry(6). Their proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to save it.

In his otherwise excellent book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, Chris Goodall abandons his usual scepticism and proposes that we turn 200 million hectares of “forests, savannah and croplands” into biochar plantations. Thus we would increase carbon uptake, by grubbing up “wooded areas containing slow-growing trees” (that is, natural forest) and planting “faster-growing species”(7). This is environmentalism?

But that’s just the start of it. Carbonscape, a company which hopes to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting 930 million hectares(8). The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4 billion ha(9).

The arable area of the United Kingdom is 5.7m hectares, or one 245th of Read’s figure. China has 104m ha of cropland. The US has 174m. The global total is 1.36 billion(10). Were we to follow Read’s plan, we would either have to replace all the world’s crops with biomass plantations, causing instant global famine, or we would have to double the cropped area of the planet, trashing most of its remaining natural habitats. Read was one of the promoters of first-generation liquid biofuels(11,12), which played a major role in the rise in the price of food last year, throwing millions into malnutrition. Have these people learnt nothing?

Of course they claim that everything can be reconciled. Peter Read says that the new plantations can be created across “land on which the occupants are not engaged in economic activity”(13). This means land used by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers and anyone else who isn’t producing commodities for the mass market: poorly-defended people whose rights and title can be disregarded. Both Read and Carbonscape speak of these places as “degraded lands”. We used to call them unimproved, or marginal. Degraded land is the new code for natural habitat someone wants to destroy.

Goodall is even more naïve. He believes we can maintain the profusion of animals and plants in the rainforests he hopes to gut by planting a mixture of fast-growing species, rather than a monoculture(14). As the Amazon ecologist Philip Fearnside has shown, a mixture does “not substantially change the impact of very large-scale plantations from the standpoint of biodiversity”(15).

In their book Pulping the South, Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann show what has happened in the 100m ha of industrial plantations planted around the world so far(16). Aside from trashing biodiversity, tree plantations have dried up river catchments, caused soil erosion when the land is ploughed for planting (which means the loss of soil carbon), exhausted nutrients and required so many pesticides that in some places the run-off has poisoned marine fisheries.

In Brazil and South Africa, tens of thousands of people have been thrown off their lands, often by violent means, to create plantations. In Thailand the military government that came to power in 1991 sought to expel five million people. Forty thousand families were dispossessed before the junta was overthrown. In many cases plantations cause a net loss of employment. Working conditions are brutal, often involving debt peonage and repeated exposure to pesticides.

As Almuth Ernsting and Rachel Smolker of Biofuelwatch point out, many of the claims made for biochar don’t stand up(17). In some cases charcoal in the soil improves plant growth; in others it suppresses it. Just burying carbon bears little relationship to the complex farming techniques of the Amazon Indians who created terras pretas. Nor is there any guarantee that most of the buried carbon will stay in the soil. In some cases charcoal stimulates bacterial growth, causing carbon emissions from soils to rise. As for reducing deforestation, a stove that burns only part of the fuel is likely to increase, not decrease, demand for wood. There are plenty of other ways of eliminating household smoke which don’t involve turning the world’s forests to cinders.

None of this is to suggest that the idea has no virtues; simply that they are outweighed by hazards, which the promoters have either overlooked or obscured. Nor does this mean that charcoal can’t be made on a small scale, from straw or brashings or sewage that would otherwise go to waste. But the idea that biochar is a universal solution which can be safely deployed on a vast scale is as misguided as Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Backwards. We clutch at straws (and other biomass) in our desperation to believe that there is an easy way out.

For references, go to Guardian link to this story.

…with responses from JAMES LOVELOCK:

james lovelock
James Lovelock

I usually agree with George Monbiot and love the way he says it but this time – with his assertion that the latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, does not stand up – he has got it only half right.

Yes, it is silly to rename charcoal as biochar and yes, it would be wrong to plant anything specifically to make charcoal. So I agree, George, it would be wrong to have plantations in the tropics just to make charcoal.

I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550 billion tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9 per cent of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten.

What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don’t need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. Charcoal making might even work instead of landfill for waste paper and plastic.

Incidentally, in making charcoal this way, there is a by-product of biofuel that the farmer can sell. If we are to make this idea work it is vital that it pays for itself and requires no subsidy. Subsidies almost always breed scams and this is true of most forms of renewable energy now proposed and used. No one would invest in plantations to make charcoal without a subsidy, but if we can show the farmers they can turn their waste to profit they will do it freely and help us and Gaia too.

There is no chance that carbon capture and storage from industry or power stations will make a dent in CO2 accumulation, even if we had the will and money to do it. But we have to grow food, so why not help Gaia do the job of CO2 removal for us?

James Lovelock is an independent scientist, author, researcher, environmentalist. He is known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis.
Jim Hansen
Jim Hansen


It is unfortunate that George Monbiot has insinuated that one of us (Jim Hansen) is a believer in biochar as a “miracle” solution for the climate crisis. If he is basing this on our published papers, then he has grossly misunderstood them. An attentive reader would know his insinuation is false by simply examining our land use-related assumptions in our recently published peer-reviewed paper, Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?

Broadly speaking, our climate change mitigation scenarios are strictly illustrative in nature, in other words, they serve to convey the types, magnitude and time frame of mitigation measures needed to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide amounts. Although we do mention waste-derived biochar as a possible mitigation option, it certainly does not mean we are advocating that as the panacea. Indeed, as we very clearly outline in the paper, our scenarios assume waste-derived biochar provides only a very small fraction of the land use-related CO2 drawdown, with reforestation and curtailed deforestation providing a magnitude more. Nowhere do we assert or imply plantations should be grown specifically for biochar, or that reforestation should be at the expense of food crops, pristine ecosystems or substantially inhabited land. Furthermore, all relevant numbers used in our mitigation scenarios are derived from the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

On the issue of land use changes in general, our paper clearly states any biofuels approach must be very carefully designed, and we cite two major critiques of current biofuels approaches.  We agree there are still fundamental uncertainties associated with biochar as a mitigation option, but the peer-reviewed papers we cite describe these uncertainties.

Monbiot’s piece might leave readers with the impression that human-assisted reforestation is a lose-lose situation everywhere on the planet. However, there are numerous scientific assessments that indicate there are hundreds of millions of hectares of suitable, sparsely inhabited lands — lands degraded by human activities in the first place. Given that reforestation occurs on a large scale even in nature (for example natural succession), it makes perfect sense to promote sensible, anthropogenic reforestation, among other reasons to undo the damage caused by large-scale deforestation.

Pushker Kharecha and Jim Hansen are at the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute

…a new posting from GEORGE MONBIOT:
Well that got ‘em going. So far James Lovelock, Jim Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, Chris Goodall and Peter Read have all responded in the Guardian to my column on biochar.

Reading their responses, I realise that it was unfair of me to include James Lovelock and Jim Hansen on the list of those who have been suckered by the charleaders. Their position is more nuanced than I made out. Chris Goodall, to his credit, has accepted that he was too bullish about the technology. The points he makes in its defence seem fair and well-reasoned.

On the other hand, I wasn’t harsh enough about Peter Read. In his response column today   (posted below) he uses the kind of development rhetoric that I thought had died out with the Indonesian transmigration programme.

To him, people and land appear to be as fungible as counters in a board game. He makes the extraordinary assertion that “degraded land” – which he wants to cover with plantations – is uninhabited by subsistence farmers, pastoralists or hunters and gatherers. That must be news to all the subsistence farmers, pastoralists and hunters and gatherers I’ve met in such places. Then he repeats the ancient canard that, by denying such people the opportunity to have their land turned into a eucalyptus plantation/hydroelectric dam/opencast mine/nuclear test site/re-education camp or whatever
project the latest swivel-eyed ideologue is trying to promote, we are keeping them in poverty.

Has he learnt nothing from the past 40 years of development studies? Does he not understand that development is something that people must choose, not something that can be imposed on them from on high by megalomaniacs?

As for the “unused potential arable land” he wants to use, that could apply to most of the surface of the planet that possesses a soil layer: rainforest, wetland, savannah – you name it. From my office window I can see a perfect candidate for his attentions: the brakes and thickets of the Cambrian Mountains. I can also see the kind of crop with which Read would cover them: the sitka spruce plantations that blight the lives of everyone who loves the countryside here. Yes this land is degraded, overgrazed and poorly managed. But is there anyone who would prefer that it was all converted to plantations?

But at least a debate is taking place. For far too long this technology has gone largely unchallenged by environmentalists, fooled perhaps by Read’s cunning rebranding of charcoal as biochar, on the grounds – wait for it – that this stuff is “finely divided”. By all means, as Hansen and Kharecha recommend, let’s use genuine waste – whether from crops, forestry, sewage or food – to make charcoal. But let’s stop the charleaders from pyrolising the planet in the name of saving it.

with response from PETER READ:

I believe that George Monbiot, in rubbishing the concept of biochar, misrepresents my work (Woodchips with everything. It’s the Atkins plan of the low-carbon world, 24 March). “The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet’s surface into charcoal. Sorry, not charcoal … Now we say biochar.” I coined the word about four years ago. It doesn’t mean charcoal like you burn on the barbecue, but finely divided pyrolysed (OK, George, “cooked” if you like) biomass prepared for soil improvement.

Monbiot says that I propose “new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4bn hectares … Read says the new plantations can be created across ‘land on which the occupants are not engaged in economic activity’”. But this degraded land is former forest that has been logged over and abandoned – not, as Monbiot says, “land occupied by subsistence farmers, pastoralists, hunters and gatherers”. Given the chance, impoverished people often opt for a waged income. Does Monbiot wish to keep them impoverished for ever?

In reality there is not the shortage of land Monbiot implies but a desperate shortage of investment in the land. His “global total” of 1.36bn hectares of arable land does not include 2.38bn of unused potential arable land reported by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, into which such investment, eg irrigation, might go. Moreover, the productivity of the 1.36bn could be raised with biochar pyrolysed from currently wasted agricultural residues, thus linking carbon removal with increased food supply and incomes.

Monbiot misses the point that the need for land-use improvements comes from the threat of climatic catastrophe. With too much carbon in the atmosphere and oceans, some of it has to be removed and put somewhere safer. Using the gift of nature – photosynthesis which enables green plants to use the sun’s energy to absorb atmospheric carbon – is the only economic way.

One threat arises from the accumulation, summer after summer, of melt-water flowing down crevasses in Greenland’s ice sheet to the rock surface under the ice, lubricating glacial flows into the oceans. Studies of pre-historic climate show that this happens suddenly, when the last sticking point gives way, raising sea levels by a metre or so, possibly in a decade. Arctic temperatures have to be brought down, not just stabilised. Emissions reductions alone, however drastic, cannot do that job.

The remedy is not “an easy way out” but needs hard work and good policy resulting in, to quote last year’s Sustainable Biofuels Consensus, “a landscape that provides food, fodder, fibre, and energy; that offers opportunities for rural development; that diversifies energy supply, restores ecosystems, protects biodiversity, and sequesters carbon.”

I do not want my grandchildren to be conscripted into the food, land and water wars that will break out unless an effective plan is devised and implemented. This would not involve usurping the rights of existing occupiers of the land but, since their rights and livelihoods will be extinguished anyhow in such wars, such usurpation would, if necessary, be preferable to catastrophic climatic change. Get your priorities sorted, George.

honorary research fellow at the Centre for Energy Research, Massey University, New Zealand  

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