Best Practise for Biochar

It has taken less than two years, but many voices are now been heard on the biochar front in support of using the method as a way to best sequester carbon and plausibly gain an advantage from the effort.

There continues to be some lingering concern as to the method’s efficiency for all prospective soils. My answer to that is very simple. First every farmer will want to do his own conformation of the process. Thus after one is able to convert available biomass into biochar one starts with a one acre patch or strip. This allows you to draw biomass from a much larger field and to readily concentrate the input. That way you can take it up to as high as fifteen percent and to test it out over three years. You can also then continue to broadly augment the remaining fields with a very low level of input to commence the process.

Once you understand the effect of fifteen percent, spread the acre out over two acres and repeat the process. This brings the concentration down below seven percent. Again evaluate the effect on the crops over three years. At this point, you fields are likely at one to two percent if you had plenty of biomass to work with and you have a fair comfort about were you want to end up at. At that point you adjust the two acres to the level you want.

This simple process allows the farmer to develop his own confidence in the process and never risk any thing more than a single acre if that. It is a lot less scary than using roundup, and I assure you that most farmers acted just like I described with that. After all, few could read the related scientific literature very well.

This editorial confirms that others are connecting the dots when it comes to biochar. No one has picked up yet on my method of forming an earthen kiln from dried out corn stover and using the roots to form the kiln walls. I suspect that was the method used to expand its usage by the Amazonian Indios. It was not overly necessary in the garden itself but its application would generate a best result for little extra effort. In the fields however, it was a necessity. Maize and cassava were the two principal crops according to the archeological record over the time periods involved and maize is otherwise a surprise in this environment.

Most likely, state taxation drove its adoption and the establishment of larger fields. Thus a method that also preserved fertility was core to the economy.

We so far have no cultural confirmation of the three sisters culture used in North America and little in the archeological record, but it seems reasonable that method also dominated there.

The reason that I bring this topic up is that a family with only the land and no significant tools for making biochar can easily make it with their bare hands if it is necessary and thus secure a patch of fertile tropical soils to themselves. Therefore, it is simple to encourage this technology world wide. In fact, it is the farmers already practicing industrial farming who will likely have the most difficulty in implementing this method.


Nature Reports Climate Change

Published online: 2 June 2009 doi:10.1038/climate.2009.53

Best practice for biochar

Olive Heffernan

With just six months left to go, all sectors are vying for a place at the table in Copenhagen, where negotiators will begin sketching what should eventually become an all-embracing climate deal. While some players are seeking assistance in adapting to the impacts of climate change (page 68), others are hoping to stake a claim in the emerging green economy (page 72).

The prospects of the latter are bright for those involved in the nascent biochar industry, which plans to sequester vast quantities of carbon in soil using an ancient Amazonian agricultural practice and to sell the latent emissions as credits on a global carbon market.

The concept is simple: if terra preta — or charcoal-enriched soil — was re-created globally, as much as 6 billion tonnes of CO2 could be prevented from entering the atmosphere annually, a substantial fraction of the 8–10 billion tonnes emitted each year by humans. Proponents, who include no small number of world-class climate scientists, say that burying biochar not only would slow the rate of warming, it would enhance soil fertility — and the charcoal-making process could produce sustainable biofuels to boot.

In late May, the United Nations released its draft negotiating text for Copenhagen (
UNFCCC document FCCC/AWGLCA/2009/8), which specified that biochar should be considered eligible as an advanced mitigation option under a post-Kyoto treaty. Should negotiators — who will discuss the document over the coming weeks in Bonn and again in Copenhagen — find the suggestion favourable, the biochar industry will unavoidably become a legitimate source of tradable carbon credits.

And why not? Burying biochar could be the closest contender yet for a silver-bullet solution to climate change (
Guardian 13 March 2009), in which case its deployment can't come quickly enough. And unlike some of the more technologically complex methods of sequestering greenhouse gases, such as carbon capture and storage, it could, in theory at least, be easily adopted worldwide through small- and medium-scale operations.

But despite its astounding potential, caution is warranted in implementing biochar on any sizeable scale. Though re-creating terra preta sounds simple, recent research suggests that modern-day soils may respond less well to the treatment and that the carbon may escape sooner than anticipated. On these questions alone, all of the evidence is not in. Yet we clearly don't have the luxury of time to answer them definitively.

The recent exuberance over biochar is reminiscent of the earlier fervour over biofuels, as critics have been eager to highlight (
Guardian 24 March 2009). But both face some of the same problems — most controversially, the need for land should carbon credits command a high enough price — suggesting there is scope here to learn from previous errors.

What's now needed is an international code of best practice for biochar that evolves as knowledge comes in. For a start, this would clearly define acceptable land-use policy for plantations, as well as a lower limit on carbon sequestered from those claiming certification. Inclusion in a global climate deal will certainly speed the adoption of biochar, but it can also help ensure that this solution is applied responsibly.

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