'Biochar' danger

Down to Earth No.80-81, June 2009

The following CSO declaration was issued in March 2009 to urge governments to take a cautious approach to claims that charcoal - called 'biochar' by its promoters - can be a means of storing large amounts of carbon and mitigating climate change. Instead, 'biochar' could mean more land-grabbing, human rights violations and forest destruction.

Keep 'biochar' and soils out of carbon trading Caution urged against proposals for large scale use of charcoal in soils for climate change mitigation and soil reclamation

Adding charcoal ('biochar') to the soil has been proposed as a 'climate change mitigation' strategy and as a means of regenerating degraded land. Some even claim that this could sequester so much carbon that the Earth could return to pre-industrial carbon dioxide levels, i.e. that all the global warming caused by fossil fuel burning and ecosystem destruction could be reversed. Such large-scale production of charcoal would require many hundreds of millions of hectares of land for biomass production (primarily tree plantations). This is an attempt to manipulate the biosphere and land use on a vast scale in order to alter the global climate, which makes it a form of 'geo-engineering'. As the unfolding disaster of agrofuels clearly demonstrates, such major land-conversion poses a major threat to biodiversity and ecosystems that play an essential role in stabilising and regulating the climate and are necessary to ensure food and water security. It threatens the livelihoods of many communities, including indigenous peoples.

'Biochar' and agrofuels are closely linked: Charcoal is a byproduct from a type of bioenergy production which can also be used to make second-generation agrofuels, i.e. liquid agrofuels from wood, straw, bagasse, palm kernel residues and other types of solid biomass.

Eleven African governments have called for agricultural soils in general and 'biochar' in particular to be included into carbon trading. Their submission indicates that they seek to increase "private sector financing" (and by implication corporate control) over rural areas in the South, and to link this to proposals for including forests in carbon trading (i.e. the mechanisms for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation or REDD being negotiated at present). Those REDD proposals have met with opposition on the basis that they commodify forest ecosystems with dire implications for indigenous peoples and biodiversity. The inclusion of soils into those mechanisms would further extend such serious impacts.

Proposals for 'climate change mitigation' through large-scale adoption of 'biochar' are a dangerous form of geo-engineering based on unfounded claims.

A lobby group (the International Biochar Initiative) made up largely of startup 'biochar' and agrofuel companies and academics, many of them with related commercial interests, are behind the push for 'biochar'. Their extremely bold claims are not founded in scientific understanding. It is not yet known whether charcoal in soil represents a 'carbon sink' at all. Industrial charcoal is very different from Terra Preta, the highly fertile and carbon-rich soils found in Central Amazonia which were created by indigenous peoples hundreds and even thousands of years ago. 'Biochar' companies and researchers have not been able to recreate Terra Preta.

'Biochar' advocates are promoting 'targets' which would require the use of 500 million hectares or more of land to be used for producing charcoal plus energy. Industrial monocultures of fast growing trees and other feedstocks for the pulp and paper industry and for agrofuels are already creating severe social and environmental impacts which worsen climate change. This very large new demand for 'biochar' would greatly exacerbate these problems.

There is a risk that 'biochar' could in future be used to promote the development of genetically engineered (GE) tree varieties specifically engineered for 'biochar' production or to try and extend the range of fast-growing trees, both of which could have very serious ecological impacts.

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 fertilisers made from scrubbing coal power plant flue gases are being promoted as 'biochar', and those will help to perpetuate fossil fuel burning as well as emissions of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The process for making charcoal and energy (pyrolysis) can result in dangerous soil and air pollution.

Turning soils into a commodity is profitable to industry but disastrous for the poor.

Several patent applications have been made for charcoal use in soil and for pyrolysis with charcoal production. If granted, those will ensure that any future profits from the technology will go to companies, not communities. Given that successful strategies for combining charcoal with diverse biomass in soils were developed by indigenous peoples, 'biochar' patenting raises serious concerns over biopiracy. The inclusion of soils in carbon markets, just like the inclusion 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 temporary.

We strongly oppose the inclusion of soils in carbon trade and offset mechanisms, including in the Clean Development Mechanism.

The 'biochar' initiative fails to address the root causes of climate change: Fossil fuel burning and ecosystem destruction, including deforestation and the destruction of healthy soils through industrial agriculture.

Small-scale agro-ecological farming and protection of natural ecosystem are effective ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change. These proven alternatives should be fully supported, not risky, unfounded technologies promoted by vested commercial interests. Indigenous and peasant communities have developed many diverse means of caring for soils and biodiversity, and living sustainably. Those locally and culturally adapted methods depend on regional climate, soils, crops and biodiversity. Attempts to commodify soils and impose a "one-size-fits all approach to soils and farming risks appropriating, undermining and destroying this knowledge and diversity just when it is most critically needed.

DTE has produced an Indonesian language version of this statement - see DTE translation.

To see a list of signatories to the declaration, or to sign on, go to www.regenwald.org/international/englisch/news.php?id=1226


Biochar' included in draft UNFCCC text

In the first release of draft negotiating text for the Copenhagen climate summit in December, the UNFCCC has included biochar in a section entitled: "Enhanced Action on Mitigation" as follows:

134. Parties shall cooperate in R&D of mitigation technologies for the agriculture sector, recognizing the necessity for international cooperative action to enhance and provide incentives for mitigation of GHG emissions from agriculture, in particular in developing countries. Consideration should be given to the role of soils in carbon sequestration, including through the use of biochar and enhancing carbon sinks in drylands."

The text is included in the Negotiating Text for the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action Under the Convention (unfccc.int/resource/docs/2009/awglca6/eng/08.pdf).

(Source: Biofuelwatch)


Briefing from Biofuelwatch

A full briefing by UK-based NGO Biofuelwatch called Biochar for climate change mitigation fact or fiction? is at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/biocharbriefing.pdf