Biochar is No Climate Change Miracle Cure: George Monbiot

photo: Carbonscape

I generally like George Monbiot's writing, but in his latest piece in The Guardian on the benefits and consequences of using biochar (aka, charcoal) buried in the ground to sequester carbon is a bit sloppy.

While I agree with his larger message that collectively there is the tendency to look for a techno-fix to our environmental problems, when the real solution is much more complex and has at least as much to do with behavioral solutions, Monbiot overreaches in blaming several leading scientists (James Lovelock and Jim Hansen among them) for stoking the fires of over-enthusiasm. Fortunately The Guardian gave room for rebuttal. Here's the back and forth:Growing Trees for Biochar = Destroying the Biosphere
Monbiot accuses proponents of biochar as looking for a new miracle cure for global warming (fair enough, I'd say, for some) and says Lovelock, et al have been taken in:

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

How would the biosphere be destroyed? Some companies, Monbiot singles out Carbonscape, have proposed making biochar from newly planted, fast-growing forests, that would cover several million or even more than a billion hectares—as in, so much of the planet that he wonders where the land would come from without "causing instant global famine, or double the cropped area, trashing the remaining natural habitats."

Which is fair criticism of such proposals, to be sure, but you can imagine how scientists who have made their life's work in considered, sober and reasoned statements might object to be tarred with that same brush.

Lovelock: You Don't Have to Plant Trees...
Lovelock responded:

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. [...]

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.

Hansen: We Never Said Biochar Was Miracle Cure
Hansen's response was equally clear,
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 [Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim?], 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.

Want to dig in more on the biochar debate in The Guardian: George Monbiot, James Lovelock, Chris Goodall, Jim Hansen
Carbonscape: Microwaved Biochar for Massive Carbon Sequestration
Betting on Biochar to Solve Our Super CO2 Imbalance
7 Geoengineering Solutions That Promise to Save Human From Climate Change
James Lovelock's One Last Change to Save Humanity From Climate Change: Burying Large Amounts of Charcoal in the Ground

Tags: Geoengineering | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Solutions