Thursday, March 26, 2009

George Monbiot: Cats, Pigeons, James Lovelock and Biochar.

In an article entitled "Woodchips with Everything" (Published in the Guardian, 24th March 2009) [1] George Monbiot has put the cat among the proverbial pigeons now fluttering above the biochar camp, probably singing around a fire whose wood is turned partially into a form of charcoal often called biochar to emphasise its biological merits, in particular to lock-up carbon taken from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, and in the process to produce useful fuels in the form of gases and liquids (bio-oil). It is reckoned, in analogy with the original terra preta - a highly fertile black soil (hence the name) - found in Amazonia, that adding biochar to soil encourages the growth of microbes (including fungi like mycorrhiza), which further increases the gravity of carbon in the soil and makes for better soil health. The soil also retains nutrients and water better, thus relieving the impetus of demand on these increasingly restricted resources.

In his inimitable way, Monbiot opens the batting: "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). The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet’s surface into charcoal." Monbiot makes the point that huge areas of land would need to be turned-over to the production of biomass and biochar, and its likely negative environmental impacts:

"Carbonscape, a company which hopes to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting 930 million hectares. The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4 billion ha. The arable area of the United Kingdom is 5.7m hectares, or one 245th of Read’s figure. China has 104 m ha of cropland. The US has 174m. The global total is 1.36 billion. 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."

The Article is also at [2]. Monbiot does make a fair point about scale, as I have contributed on this blog and my monthly column at [3,4] about biochar (and indeed other schemes of "geo-engineering"). The sums are enormous indeed, and I finally concluded that biochar has its best chance if it is produced within localised communities as I gave to the Guardian in a letter which they probably won't print. The Independent newspaper have published a good few of my letters but they seem more interested in detail than the Guardian, anyway you can read it here:

In his article (March 24th), "Woodchips with everything", George Monbiot points out correctly that growing and converting biomass to biochar and other products, on the grand scale is no mean feat. I have done the sums, and they are staggering:

The truth is that, as fossil energy wanes, we will need to live in less transport-intensive small communities - thus de-globalising the world - within which local production of biochar (including growing algae as biomass for it) is feasible. Such small scale efforts would amount to significant proportions when multiplied by the multitude of humans there is on planet Earth.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Chris Rhodes."

Now, in today's (March 26th) Guardian [5], there is a rebuttal of Monbiot's article by James Lovelock (of Gaia fame), entitled: "James Lovelock on Biochar: let the Earth remove CO2 for us," which contends that Monbiot is right that it would be a false economy to have plantations devoted to the production of biochar, but if other biomass sources - that are simply waste otherwise - could be used, then burying carbon in the ground is a good move toward addressing the problem of climate change.

Lovelock is sceptical about carbon capture and storage (CCS) strategies, e.g. from power stations and industry, but he notes:

"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."

Now I like this, because it's pretty much what I was saying about small-scale biochar production in "Thinking Positive - Carbon Capture" on [4]. I'm pleased to be thinking along the same lines as the guru of Gaia.

The International Biochar Initiative (IBI), who are effectively the "industry body" for the biochar movement, have also issued a response to Monbiot, in a press release today [6] which makes the point that it is not fair to simply dismiss biochar out of hand because it is maybe one of a hundred different "solutions" to the environmental problems that are posed to human ingenuity on the planet. Here we are really coming back to the matter of "scale" and that making maybe 12 billion tonnes of biochar each year for the next 50 years is probably not a credible prospect. But one billion tonnes per year as the sum total of many local productions, along with several other "biological" carbon capture schemes, as I allude in my "Thinking Positive - Carbon Capture" article [4] could create a viable mix of activity.

There is no single solution to our problems either in terms of environmental pollution by carbon, climate change or the limited store of fossil fuels, most pressingly oil and natural gas, but in the combination and symbiosis of different approaches we can find a new way.

Related Reading.
[6] I can't find a link to this yet, but I received the IBI press release this morning by e.mail:

Press Release: IBI Response to Recent Guardian Article on Biochar March 25, 2009: For Immediate Release:

IBI has taken note of an article by George Monbiot in the UK Guardian on March 24, 2009 that questioned the validity of biochar as a climate mitigation tool and the scientists and others who support the development of biochar.

The Guardian has published responses from several of those biochar supporters mentioned by Mr. Monbiot, including James Hansen, Chris Goodall, and James Lovelock.

IBI sent The Guardian the response below written by IBI staff members Stephen Brick and Debbie Reed. For more information, contact: Stephen Brick, IBI Executive Director, Debbie Reed, IBI Policy Director, Thayer Tomlinson, IBI Communications Director,

George Monbiot is right on the mark about our seemingly irresistible tendency for embracing miracle cures. And it is refreshing to have the press remind us that the laws of thermodynamics will continue to apply in our quest to reduce global carbon emissions. But his diatribe against biochar-like most such screeds-would have us throw the baby out with the bathwater.
This has been said often, but it needs to be said again: there is no magical pathway for cutting global carbon emissions. There is only a collection of steps-complex, costly, and, politically challenging. Put another way, there is no single remedy for the whole problem; but there are, very likely, one hundred different actions that can each bear one percent of the burden. Serious people have understood this for some time, and this would include, we believe, a large fraction of the general public that Mr. Monbiot presumably wishes to warn.

Biochar, produced and used appropriately, should be considered amongst the hundred. Done right, biochar produces four value streams: waste reduction, energy production, soil fertilization and carbon sequestration. Biochar can be made from animal manures and food processing wastes. These residuals are costly to those who produce them, and create greenhouse gas emissions if left untreated. Bio-gas and oil can be used for heating, generating electricity and transportation. Biochar can reduce the need for conventional, fossil-fuel based fertilizers. Finally, biochar can lock up carbon in the soils for extended time periods.

We don't have all the answers on biochar production and utilization; indeed, the mission of the International Biochar Initiative is to seek these answers, objectively and quickly. We know that there are bad ways to make biochar, that crop monoculture for producing feedstock is not a good idea, and that biochar does not affect all soils equally. None of this should rule biochar out of court, however, as we also are assembling a body of knowledge on how to produce and use biochars that are beneficial. In this way, biochar resembles many other carbon-cutting technologies that face uncertainties. In our case, all we seek is an opportunity to be heard fairly as we move towards Copenhagen. We have no doubt that exaggerating the benefits of biochar is not helpful. On the other hand, the potential of biochar deserves serious consideration. Mr Monbiot's glib dismissal of this potential is unwarranted.

Stephen Brick is the Executive Director of the International Biochar Initiative
Debbie Reed is the Policy Director of the International Biochar Initiative


Mark said...


When you mentioned that we must live in a less transportation intensive and globalized societies, how do you propose we wean ourselves from our disposable society mentality?

Western society in general and especially here in the United States we are addicted to cheap products that last only a year or two. Of course when these products breakdown it makes no sense to repair them because it is cheaper just to buy new ones. Also the vast majority of these products are just thrown away instead of being recycled.

My gut feeling is that as long we continue to have a Walmart philosophy where cheaper is always better and who cares about how Chinese workers are treated, switching to a localized economy will be incredibly difficult.

energybalance said...

Hi Mark,

a very salient point. The "throw-away society." However, these goods will only remain cheap for as long as there are the cheap reserves of energy and raw-materials, principally derived from oil and natural gas.

As these wane and prices soar, harsh economy will make the accepted "buy another" cheap replacements less so, and then we will need to find localised alternatives, that are not supported by imports from China and as you say, a whole Walmart mentality that we can just carry on importing cheap goods from countries were conditions and wages are desperately poor.

I think it will be a stick rather than a carrot that drives the transition, but I doubt too that it will be easy.

There is no leadership at nation level because no one country wants to be the first to face the inevitable, or disadvantage itself while the rest of the world remains in denial.

Even for single governments, telling the electorate that it's bye-bye Walmart would be seen as a form of dictatorship, and get them kicked out at the next election.

And yet, the first government to lay out a clear plan of campaign would go down in history as a saviour body.

I use the word campaign deliberately as the present situation has been likened to an impending state of war (against a manner of living that is unsupportable)- and the scale of retooling necessary to re-engineer society to cope with that is indeed of wartime proportions.

That Walmart mentality is an addiction to cheap oil (and cheap energy; hence those cheap goods we all can throw away - for now, at least), and the sooner we adopt a programme of recovery the easier it will be to adapt, as eventually we must... or fight resource-wars to the bitter end.

Neither approach is easy, but only one is ultimately viable.