Of the many geo-engineering schemes gaining attention at the moment, mirrors in space and fertilisation of the oceans with iron among them, the biochar production would appear to seem one of the less wacky solutions to climate change.
New Zealand has numerous researchers investigating biochar, many of them grouped in the Australia and New Zealand Biochar Network and based at Massey University. One of the leading proponents of biochar, and in fact the man who coined the term, in Dr Peter Read, an English scientist who is also an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Energy Research at Massey University.
However Read has recently locked horns on the issue of biochar with Guardian columnist George Monbiot in an argument on what the impacts of changing land use dramatically to accomodate biochar production might be.
Writes Monbiot: “Just burying carbon bears little relation to the farming techniques that 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 overlooked or obscured. Nor does this mean that charcoal can’t be made on a small scale, from material that would otherwise go to waste. But the idea that biochar is a universal solution that 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 there is an easy way out.”
Peter Read responded in the Guardian a week later: “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.
“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.”
Read is interviewed on biochar and on Monbiot’s criticisms here (Real player required).
Monbiot wasn’t willing to leave it there – he responded ot Read on his Guardian blog.