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Forest biomass-derived Biochar can profitably reduce global warming and bushfire risk

Forest biomass-derived Biochar can profitably reduce global warming and bushfire risk

 

 In late January 2009 SE Australia suffered a record-breaking heatwave (3 days in Melbourne with temperatures over 43oC) that killed over 200 Australians in SE Australia and a consequent devastating bushfire tragedy in Victoria on Saturday February 7 that killed 209 people, with 500 injured, 100 in hospital with burns, over 1,834 homes destroyed, thousands of homes damaged, and over 450,000 hectares burned. [1, 2].

 

Top Australian climate scientists are saying that this dual tragedy is associated with man-made global warming due to greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution as summarized by the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group in “Global warming and Victorian bush-fire tragedy” and elsewhere. [3, 4].

 

Unfortunately, while top UK climate scientists have calculated that a 6-8% annual reduction in GHG pollution is needed to avert a catastrophic 450 ppm atmospheric CO2, Australia (the world’s biggest coal exporter and a world leading per capita GHG polluter) is committed to increasing Domestic and Exported GHG pollution by 2% annually and ignores pleas by top climate scientists for an urgent global reduction of atmospheric CO2 to about 300 ppm. [5, 6]

 

Biochar is a major component of reducing atmospheric CO2, global warming and bushfire risk. Biochar can be made from pyrolysis of biomass from expertly-advised bushland fuel hazard reduction harvesting (e.g. straw, wood waste, woody weeds) and thus (a) reduce bushfire threat; (b) provide a valuable, soil-enriching and crop productivity-enhancing product for producing “terra preta” soil; (c) help combat man-made global warming by drawing down atmospheric CO2; and (d) provide rural employment and farm income supplementation. [7]

 

It has been long recognized that man-made global warming (anthropogenic global warming, AGW) has been due to increased greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide, CO2) in the atmosphere. Data from the US  NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies shows a  0.8oC rise in average global surface temperature since 1880.  [8, 9].

 

This has paralleled increased atmospheric CO2 concentration from 280 (pre-industrial) to a current 387 ppm.  [9].

 

Dr Andrew Glikson (an Earth and paleo-climate research scientist at Australian National University, Canberra, Australia): “The continuing use of the atmosphere as an open sewer for industrial pollution has already added some 305 GtC to the atmosphere together with land clearing and animal-emitted methane. This raised CO2 levels to 387 ppm CO2 to date, leading toward conditions which existed on Earth about 3 million years (Ma) ago (mid-Pliocene), when CO2 levels rose to about 400 ppm, temperatures to about 2–3 degrees C and sea levels by about 25 +/- 12 metres”. [10].

 

Professor John Holdren (Harvard University, former chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, Chief Science Adviser to President Barack Obama) uses the term “climate disruption” to describe the worsening impact of AGW on the Planet. In particular AGW has been associated with a greatly increased impact of forest fires, from 0.5 million acres burned in the Western US in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to 2.5-4.5 million acres burned in the 21st century. Further, the 14 hottest years on record have been since 1990 and recent decades have seen a huge increase in the severity of flooding in particular zones around the world. [11, 12].

 

According to a seminal study on forest fires in the Western US by Dr A. L. Westerling and colleagues: “large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s, with higher large-wildfire frequency, longer wildfire durations, and longer wildfire seasons. The greatest increases occurred in mid-elevation, Northern Rockies forests, where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks and are strongly associated with increased spring and summer temperatures”. [13].

The State of Victoria, Australia, has just suffered record-breaking heat wave temperatures (100 excess deaths in Melbourne and over 200 SE Australia excess deaths in late January 2009) and a tragic bushfire disaster (209 people dead, 500 injured, 100 in hospital with burns, over 1,834 homes destroyed, thousands of homes damaged, over 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) burned). [1,  2].

The week before the Black Saturday February 7 bushfire disaster saw a sustained heat wave in SE Australia with temperatures exceeding 43oC for 3 successive days in Melbourne (Wednesday January 28, Thursday January 29 and  Friday  January 30) - in the late January 2009 heatwave over 100 people died in Melbourne and over 200 died in South East Australia (Victoria, South Australia and Northern Tasmania) as determined by Professor Neville Nicholls, Monash University, by comparing before and after Monday and Tuesday Death Notices. [2].

These tragedies occurred on top of a contributory background of sustained drought, man-made global warming and global and Australian government inaction. A detailed list of comments from leading climate scientists on climate change and  the Victorian bushfire tragedy has been placed on the Web by the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group. [14].

Thus Dr Andrew Glikson (earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University, Canberra): “The near-18 degrees C temperature spike (relative to mean base period 1971-2000) in southern Victoria on the 7 February, 2009 (http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/02/), needs to be looked at in a global as well as an Australian perspective…The increase in atmospheric energy (heat) by 1.6 Watt/m2 due to emission of >305 Gigaton Carbon since 1750, an increase of near-38% in atmospheric CO2 levels, enhances the heating of the cross-continental air current, reaching heavily timbered regions of SE Australia where vegetation, not acclimatized to extreme heat waves of 45 degrees C and higher and reaching tinder box conditions, as on the 7th February, 2009 (http://www.bom.gov.au/cgi-bin/silo/temp_maps.cgi?variable=maxave&area=nat&period=daily&time=history&steps=4)”. [15].

Professor Barry Brook (University of Adelaide)  (re the January-February  2009 weather event and the Victorian bushfire tragedy): “The Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has released a detailed analysis of the 2009 southern Australian heatwave. Some of the figures presented are staggering, with numerous temperature records smashed. Indeed, a colleague at BOM pointed out just how exceptional this event was: “Given that this was the hottest day on record on top of the driest start to a year on record on top of the longest driest drought on record on top of the hottest drought on record the implications are clear. It is clear to me that climate change is now becoming such a strong contributor to these hitherto unimaginable events that the language starts to change from one of “climate change increased the chances of an event” to “without climate change this event could not have occurred.” I couldn’t have said it better. With the shifting climate we are rapidly moving into uncharted territory with unknown return times (but surely already well above what the long-term records might lead us to expect)”. [16].

 

Professor David Karoly (University of Melbourne; Victorian Government's chief climate change adviser): “It's very difficult to attribute a single event to climate change or to natural variability. What we have to do is really look at the balance of probabilities or the risk or likelihood of these events. And what we can say is it is possible to get extreme events like this, like the firestorms, just due to natural variability. But what we're seeing now is that the dice have been heavily loaded so that the chances of these sorts of extreme fire weather situations are occurring much more rapidly in the last 10 years due to climate change. So climate change has loaded the dice. And what we're seeing is a much greater occurrence of this extreme fire weather. And certainly in some situations, we're seeing unprecedented extremes. The hot temperatures on Saturday in Melbourne and in many parts in south eastern Australia were unprecedented. The records were broken by large amount and you cannot explain that just by natural variability. And climate change due to increasing greenhouse gases has been a major factor in increasing the temperatures and likely contributing to the drought in south eastern Australia.” [17].

 

Professor Will Steffen (director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University , ANU) has commented : "Events like this, severe heatwaves and severe fires, become more likely with an underlying change in climate …People better prepare for the fact that the risk is increasing ... (for) more frequent extreme events that are related to temperature, like heatwaves, like bushfires … Our climate is getting warmer, as it is in the rest of the world, and I think there's no doubt about that”. [18].

 

Despite the warnings from top climate scientists around the world, governments are failing to respond  to the climate emergency. Thus the Australian Rudd Labor Government has failed to take requisite action in response to the 2008 letter to PM Rudd from top US climate scientist Professor James Hansen. [19].

 

Australian climate scientist Dr Andrew Gliksen has written an Open Letter to PM Rudd (9 February 2009), stating: “Less than one year elapsed since Hansen’s letter was sent, and while isolated weather events are not necessarily related to climate change, a dangerous trend has developed consistent with projections of atmospheric science, relegating southern Australia to droughts and fire and the north to intense cyclones and floods [these events occurring simultaneously in January-February 2009 in Australia]. Given the gravity of the matter, I suggest you consider to urgently convene a climate summit, where your government can listen to reports of severe climate disruption around the globe and in Australia, and to what the science says regarding future generations your government was entrusted to protect.” [20].

The actions required in this mounting Climate Emergency include the following set out by the Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: 1. Change of societal philosophy to one of scientific risk management and biological  sustainability with complete cessation of species extinctions and zero tolerance for lying; 2. Urgent reduction of atmospheric CO2 to a safe level of about 300 ppm as recommended by leading climate and biological scientists; and 3. Rapid switch to the best non-carbon and renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tide and hydro options that are currently roughly the same market price as coal burning-based power) and to energy efficiency, public transport, needs-based production, re-afforestation and return of carbon as biochar to soils  coupled with correspondingly rapid cessation of fossil fuel burning, deforestation, methanogenic livestock production  and population growth. [21].

Biochar.

Biochar is a major element of required actions to draw down atmospheric CO2 concentration to a safe and sustainable level of about 300 ppm, as perceived by top US climate scientist Professor James Hansen and his colleagues: “Carbon sequestration in soil also has significant potential. Biochar, produced in pyrolysis of residues from crops, forestry, and animal wastes, can be used to restore soil fertility while storing carbon from centuries to millennia . Biochar helps soil retain nutrients and fertilizers, reducing emissions of GHGs such as N2O. Replacing slash-and-burn agriculture with slash-and-char and use of agricultural and forestry wastes for biochar production could provide a CO2 drawdown of ~8 ppm in half a century.” [22].

Professor James Hansen and colleagues cogently state the urgency of the problem “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm [i.e. to about 300 ppm]. The largest uncertainty in the target arises from possible changes of non-CO2 forcings. An initial 350 ppm CO2 target may be achievable by phasing out coal use except where CO2 is captured and adopting agricultural and forestry practices that sequester carbon [e.g. return of carbon to the soil as as biochar  as well as fallow, minimum tillage, and reforestation]. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects. “ [22]

 

Unfortunately Federal Government policy is for (a) an indirect Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme (RTS) “market forces mechanism” (notwithstanding the current market failure and Sir Nicholas Stern’s description of man-made global warming as the greatest failure of market forces)  and (b) the as yet  hypothetical proposition of sequestration of CO2 from coal burning, while (c) rejecting biochar.  However top UK climate scientist Professor James Lovelock FRS strongly contradicts Australian policy on (a) carbon emissions trading: “Not a hope in hell. Most of the "green" stuff is verging on a gigantic scam. Carbon trading with its huge government subsidies, is just what finance and industry wanted. It's not going to do a damn thing about climate change, but it'll make a lot of money for a lot of people and postpone the moment of reckoning. “; (b) on carbon sequestration: “That is a waste of time. It's a crazy idea - and dangerous. It would take so long and use so much energy that it will not be done. “; and (c) on biochar: “There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal [biochar]”.  [23].

 

Professor James Lovelock FRS  holds out some hope for the planet through returning carbon fixed by plants to the soil as biochar (charcoal produced through oxygen-free pyrolysis e.g. in non-polluting electric furnaces): “There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast … The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes [550 billion tonnes] of carbon [carbon dioxide, CO2] yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes [CO2]. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it. “. [23]

 

Professor Lovelock’s estimates are consonant with those of Dr J.A. Harrison, specifically a terrestrial carbon fixation of 121.3 GtC/y (449 Gt CO2 = 449 billion tonnes of CO2) of which about half returns annually to the atmosphere through respiration and most of the remaining half returns to the air through the action of soil fungi and bacteria . [24].  

 

Similarly, Dr J. Schloerer estimates that about 120 Gt C (444 Gt CO2) is fixed by terrestrial vegetation each year and 99% of this is returned to the atmosphere through plant, animal, fungal and bacterial respiration.  [25].

 

The agricultural efficacy of biochar was well established by pre-Columbian Amazonian Indians and the European settlers referred to biochar-enriched soil as  as Terra Preta. [7].

 

The technology for biochar generation by pyrolysis of biomass waste in the absence of oxygen (O2) is well established. [26-33].

Extensive research shows that biochar addition improves soils and agricultural productivity in the following ways: increases the cation exchange capacity (CEC) in soils; enhances soil microbial functions (the porous structure of char forms a safe haven for microbes that make nutrients available to crops); improves the nutrient retention capacity of soils by preventing leaching and erosion (allowing farmers to use organic and inorganic fertilizers cost-effectively); improves water retention;  capacity of soils (the porous structure of the material holds water and prevents the moisture from evaporating);and increases the pH of acidic soils (depending upon soil type, similar to the effect of adding of lime). [31].

“Best Energies” has a biochar pilot plant in NSW, Australia ) and has provided details of its system for low oxygen  pyrolysis of all kinds of biomass (including straw, wood waste, woody weeds) with generation of  biochar (charcoal, including mineral nutrients)  and syngas generation (CO, N2O, CH4, H2, lower molecular weight hydrocarbons, N2, and CO2). [26, 27].

Debbie Reed, executive director of the International Biochar Initiative (IBI; a US-based non-profit organisation, headquartered in Bowdoinham, Maine): “It’s a carbon-negative technology … and while removing carbon from the atmosphere, you are also helping food production.” [28].

Dr Evelyn Krull (CSIRO, Australia):  “Other countries have taken a lot more action with regard to biochar research, for example the New Zealand Government had put about $3.12 million into Massey University. [33]

Dr Stephen Joseph (University of NSW, Australia): “Realistically we could pack a big tonne of carbon out of the atmosphere every year. And what I'm doing is to analyse the composition of the biochar. I'm finding it has a high carbon content, mineral matter and clay on the surface…Our research is to come up with a range of product that use wastes that can be put on very low application rates to improve the yields from different crops, and that are a stable carbon that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. And more importantly is to help farmers overcome the problems of reduction in rainfall and increase in temperatures”. [33]

Professor Tim Flannery (palaeontologist, mammalogist, climate activist, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia):  “You can quantify it [biochar] to the nearest kilogram as you make it, put it in the soil, we know it will stay there for thousands of years, we know it's safe, good for agriculture. Why wouldn't you recognise that when you're happy to recognise a technology [CO2 sequestration from coal-fired power stations] that isn't in existence yet? Which, you're spending $600 million on just to develop. I see it as being one of the most significant things Australia can do. We should be seeking to offset our emissions, I would argue using these technologies to repay our historic debt to the world, calculate how much carbon pollution we've put in the atmosphere over the last century and seek to repay it using biochar and other biological carbon options”. [33]

Adriana Downie (Chemical Engineer, Best Energies biochar compoany, NSW, Australia): “Feeds in through a conveyer into the main dryer which is a rotary dryer you can see they’re spinning around … The volatile gases come off, we use that for energy generation, we're left with a very high carbon stable product we call biochar. It looks black like charcoal essentially … If biochar were to become accredited and be able to generate permits within the scheme that would be a real benefit to us to be able to justify the economics of rolling out the technology”. [33]

What Australian non-scientist politicians and other laypersons are saying about biochar.

Federal Government Agriculture Minister Tony Burke: “Mr Burke said the government was examining "soil carbon", but [incorrectly] stressed biochar was an untested and unproven technology. "In terms of the importance of sequestering carbon in soil, we've been absolutely on the front foot on this the whole way through," he told Sky News on Friday. "Biochar is but one of those technologies, and Malcolm has certainly decided to put all of his eggs in one basket very early on, and certainly a long way in advance of where the scientists are at."” [34].  

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong  : “Soil carbon (including biochar) does not fit within the scope of the current Kyoto Protocol accounts, so is not included at this time in the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme … [biochar] It's a policy without costings, without detail and without hard data [incorrect]. It's policy which does not deal with what Mr Turnbull himself when a minister said was the best thing to do. That is emissions trading”. [33].

Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Turnbull: “The Minister for Climate Change, Senator Wong, has dismissed the Coalition’s Green Carbon Initiative on the grounds that “soil carbon (including biochar) does not fit within the scope of the current Kyoto protocol accounts”. The objective of Australian Government policy in this area must be to address climate change as soon and effectively as possible at the lowest possible cost. That means pursuing the best available options for abating greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of whether they are referenced by current international agreements or not. The task is to reduce emissions – not to adhere to arbitrary and outdated constraints contained in a complex treaty negotiated more than a decade ago. Does Senator Wong really believe it is in the national interest to completely ignore low-cost, high-impact, job-creating opportunities to improve the environment simply because they fall outside her narrow focus on an emissions trading scheme? Does Senator Wong really believe it is in the national interest for her backward-looking, bureaucratic mindset to limit the practical tools available to Australia to address climate change? Rather than glibly dismissing the Coalition’s approach, Senator Wong would be better off educating herself on the immense potential for biochar to contribute to lower emissions and a better Australian environment by speaking to the many experts who believe this to be true. Rather than using the narrow scope of previous international agreements as an excuse for inaction, Senator Wong should be working to ensure future agreements recognise that a broad range of tools can contribute to greenhouse gas abatement.” [35].

Green Carbon, carbon sequestration by natural forests, bushfires & biochar

Deforestation and forest degradation are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Thus Sir Nicholas Stern (the Stern Review) has estimated that 18% of annual man-made GHG emissions derive from de-forestation but that it would cost relatively trivial amounts to reduce this problem e.g. as summarized by Lisa Bachelor in the UK Guardian: “One major source of global emissions that needs to be tackled was identified by the Stern review: deforestation. This accounts for the equivalent of 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions - more than the transport sector. Stern believes that the costs of preventing further deforestation 'would be relatively cheap' compared with other types of mitigation. If deforestation were to cease in the eight countries (Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Bolivia, Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Malaysia) responsible for 70 per cent of land-use emissions, he said, it would cost them around $5bn to $10bn a year. Action to address deforestation would also incur monitoring and enforcement costs, estimated to be around $12m to $93m”. [36].

 According to Sir Nicholas Stern: "The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay. Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delayed action is now overwhelming. We risk damages on a scale larger than the two world wars of the last century. The problem is global and the response must be a collaboration on a global scale… For $10-15bn (£4.8-7.2bn) per year, a programme could be constructed that could stop up to half the deforestation [that contributes 15-20% of annual GHG emissions]". [37].

Sir Nicholas Stern: “The problem of climate change involves a fundamental failure of markets: those who damage others by emitting greenhouse gases generally do not pay. Climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction is now overwhelming. We risk damage on a scale larger than the two world wars of the past century. The problem is global and the response must be collaboration on a global scale. The rich countries must lead the way in taking action … there should be an international programme to combat deforestation, which contributes 15-20% of emissions. For $10bn-$15bn per year, half the deforestation could be stopped“. [37].

 

It should be noted that other man-made (anthropogenic) damage to forests in addition to deforestation (e.g. man-made climate change, drought, disease burden, biodiversity loss) could substantially increase this estimate of 15-20% of GHG emissions due to deforestation..

 

A very important scientific contribution to Carbon Accounting is “Green Carbon” by Mackey (2008) as summarized by the publisher, ANU E Press: “The colour of carbon matters. Green carbon is the carbon stored in the plants and soil of natural ecosystems and is a vital part of the global carbon cycle. This report is the first in a series that examines the role of natural forests in the storage of carbon, the impacts of human land use activities, and the implications for climate change policy nationally and internationally. REDD (“reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation”) is now part of the agenda for the “Bali Action Plan” being debated in the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009. Currently, international rules are blind to the colour of carbon so that the green carbon in natural forests is not recognized, resulting in perverse outcomes including ongoing deforestation and forest degradation, and the conversion of extensive areas of land to industrial plantations. This report examines REDD policy from a green carbon scientific perspective. Subsequent reports will focus on issues concerning the carbon sequestration potential of commercially logged natural forests, methods for monitoring REDD, and the long term implications of forest policy and management for the global carbon cycle and climate change.” [38, 39, 40].

 

Some of the key findings of this scientific study are “that (1) Australia’s  remaining intact natural forests constitute a significant standing stock of carbon that should be protected from carbon-emitting land use activities; and (2) there is substantial potential for carbon sequestration in forest areas that have been logged if they are allowed to re-grow undisturbed by further intensive human land use activities.” [39, 40].

 

Some of the key numerical findings of the “Green Carbon” Report are “the effect of retaining the current carbon stock [in the 14.5 million ha of eucalyptus forest in SE Australia] (equivalent to 25.5 Gt CO2 (carbon dioxide) is equivalent to avoided emissions of 460 Mt CO2 yr-1 for the next 100 years. Allowing logged forests to realize their sequestration potential to store 7.5 Gt CO2 is equivalent to avoiding emissions of 136 Mt CO2 yr-1 for the next 100 years. This is equal to 24 per cent of the 2005 Australian net greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors which were 559 Mt CO2 in that year [excluding the Exported GHG pollution, notably the Australia’s world leading coal exports of 426 Mt CO2 in 2005-2006 as compared to 559 Mt CO2-e domestically]”. [39, 40].

 

To put this 25.5 Gt CO2 in the 14.5 million ha of eucalyptus forest in SE Australia] on a global scale, the total post-industrial release of soil carbon due to new agricultural practices since the Industrial Revolution has been about 200 GtC ; the annual world fossil fuel pollution is 8.06 Gt C (of which Brazil annually produces 0.1 Gt C plus a further 0.2-0.4 GtC  from deforestation). [4, 11].

 

The “Green Carbon” Report has some astonishing findings on the much greater carbon storage by Australian forests than hitherto realized “The report draws an interesting comparison with the estimated carbon stocks from the National Carbon Accounting System and also with the default estimates by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) . Stocks of carbon in Australia’s native forests are on average three  times grater than the IPCC estimates and can be sas muchj as twenty times greater in the most carbon dense forests”.  [38].

 

According to the  “Green Carbon” summary flier: “analysis shows that the stock of carbon for intact natural forests in south eastern Australia is on average about 640 tC ha-1 of total carbon (biomass plus soil) . The average net primary production (NPP) of these undisturbed, natural forests was 12.1 Gt  C ha-1”. [38].

 

According to the “Green Carbon” Report: “[Natural forests] are more resilient to to climate change and disturbances than plantations because of their genetic, taxonomic and functional biodiversity … The carbon stock of forests subject to commercial logging, and of monoculture plantations in particular, will always bee significantly less on average (~40 to 60 percent depending upon the intensity if land us and forest types) than the carbon stock of natural, undisturbed forests. …The highest biomass carbon stocks, with an average of more than 1,200 t C ha-1 and maximum of over 2,000 t C ha-1, are in the mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) forests of Victoria and Tasmania. This is cool temperature evergreen forest with a tall eucalypt overstorey and a dense Acaciaa spp. (wattle) and temperate-rainforest tree understorey”. [39].

 

Crucial to such discussions are the extraordinary findings by top biologists and environmental economists and published in the top scientific journal Science that the total economic return from major biomes (ecological systems) studied can be typically about 50% greater when there is sustainable use and that the economic return from preserving what is left of wild nature is over 100 times the cost of so doing. The total economic value (TEV) of wild nature (e.g. pollination, forestry, fisheries, tourism) was estimated in 1997 as about $18-$60 trillion (average  $38 trillion)  as compared to a total World GDP (2007) of about $55 trillion . [40].

 

A major issue in bushfire management is fuel reduction, noting that logging, other land use, fuel reduction burning and post-fire salvage logging can impact upon the fuel load. The Wilderness Society has argued in a submission to the 2002/2003 Victorian Bushfire Inquiry for the importance of expert scientific assessment. [41].

 

The Wilderness Society argues for science-based assessment of forest management “Australia has some of the most magnificent and biodiverse forests in the world. New science also shows they are some of the largest carbon banks on Earth, helping to reduce climate change as well as maintain our water supplies. Yet many of these ancient forests, particularly in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales, are clearfelled, burnt, and turned into millions of tonnes of woodchips for paper and cardboard every year … More native forest is logged in Tasmania than the rest of Australia combined - including some of the tallest old growth forests in the world ... Victoria's forests are some of the most effective carbon stores in the world, and provide crucial water supply areas …Along the Murray River are the largest remaining red gum forests on Earth. With 75% stressed, dead or dying, these Australian icons urgently need to be protected ”. [42].

In response to the devastating Black Saturday 7 February  Bushfires, The Wilderness Society  has reiterated the importance of  scientifically-based fuel reduction: “Fuel reduction burning has an important place in the fire management toolbox, and we support its place in scientifically underpinned fire management for the protection of life, property and the environment.  The issue of fuel reduction burning often dominates the fire debate, as if it is the only fire management tool. But it’s important to remember that this is only one tool in fire management, and not the silver bullet that will fire proof the landscape.
Environmental groups want to see the science that supports the current fuel reduction program, including a scientific justification for so-called hazard reduction burns in specific areas and the scientific justification for the route and extent of fire break establishment. Environmental groups are particularly concerned about the lack of impact assessment of these programs on biodiversity, particularly given their uncertain benefits to reduce the extent, frequency and severity of fire. Views on these measures tend towards two extremes. One extreme is that we should fuel reduction burn all forest areas every 20 years and carve out thousands of kilometres of fire breaks, the other is that all our forests are wilderness areas which should just be allowed to burn and not manage our forests for fire at all.
For the Australian bush to be healthy and to protect people, property and nature we need a scientifically based balance between these extremes”. [43].

Professor Jared Diamond in his important book “Collapse” has argued (p437) that “ The problem of catastrophic forest fires in dry parts of the U.S. Intermontane West [an order of magnitude greater now than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s] could probably brought under control by management techniques that reduce the fuel load, such as by mechanically thinning out new growth in th understorey and removing fallen dead timber. Unfortunately carrying out that solution on a large scale is considered prohibitively expensive.” [44].

 

Biomass for Biochar would be  more efficiently generated from economcally “best case” crop agriculture-based biomass production from growth region-adapted plants (photosynthetically Crassulacean Acid Metabolism or CAM plants in deserts, photosynthetically C4 plants in the tropics, photosynthetically C3 plants in temperature zones, arid zone-adapted plants in arid zones and in general plants growing in climes and ecosystems to which they have been evolutionarily adapted). Further, such biomass production  could be coupled to collateral production of valuable plant products  - indeed my encyclopaedic pharmacological reference text “Biochemical targets of plant bioactive compounds. A pharmacological reference guide to sites of action and biological effects” is a key reference world to such “high value” natural ecosystem or plantation crops.  Thus, for example,  growing indigenous, arid zone-adapted  sandal wood [Santalum] species for timber, oil and biochar would be vastly  more cost-effective in terms of financial return and environmental benefit  than growing water use-intensive cotton or rice in Australian arid zones; harvesting of introduced pests such as Mimosa pigra could have the dual benefit or pest eradication as well as biochar production, especially if biochar production was effectively “on-site”by biomass low oxygen smouldering combustion or by renewable energy-run furnaces.  [45].

 

The use of forest biomass to reduce forest fire  hazard and to produce biochar is being actively pursued in the US and can be economic depending on circumstances and proper social costing of the value of biochar and bushfire mitigation. Thus Sustainable Obtainable Solutions: “Biochar is made by pyrolysis: heating biomass (wood chips or pellets, bark, manure, crop residues, etc.) with limited oxygen. Energy crops, such as short rotation woody plants or grasses, can be grown for biomass, or biomass waste can be collected. In the West, insects are killing trees in unprecedented numbers. This build-up of forest fuels increases wildfire risk dramatically. In the wildland/urban interface, converting dead and dying forest biomass to biochar can improve forest health while reducing fire hazards, sequestering carbon and producing energy”. [46].

 

According to Guillermo Rein (BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh) “One process that promotes biochar conversion with the advantage of minimal or zero energy costs is the [low oxygen] smouldering process where the energy supply is released from the slow oxidation of a part of the biomass itself. Small, easy to operate and maintain reactors can be designed to be run by small local communities.” [47].

A number of geo-engineering proposals to lower atmospheric CO2 have been compared by Lenton and Vaughan  at the University of East Anglia (UEA). “By 2050, only stratospheric aerosol injections or sunshades in space have the potential to cool the climate back toward the back toward the pre-industrial state , but some land carbon cycle geoengineering options are of comparable magnitude to mitigation “wedges”. Strong mitigation, i.e. large reduction in CO2 emissions, combined with global-scale air capture and storage, afforestation, and biochar production, i.e. enhanced CO2 sinks, might be able to bring CO2 back to its pre-industrial level by 2100, thus removing the need for other geoengineering. Alternatively, strong mitigation stabilising CO2 at 500 ppm [dangerous],  combined with geoengineered increases in the albedo of marine stratiform clouds, grasslands, croplands and human settlements might achieve a patchy cancellation of radiative forcing. Ocean fertilisation options are only worthwhile if sustained on a millennial timescale and phosphorus addition probably has greater long-term potential than iron or nitrogen fertilisation. Enhancing ocean upwelling or downwelling have trivial effects on any meaningful timescale”.[48, 49].

According to a recent report in the UK Guardian, Professor Chris Turney (professor of geography at the University of Exeter, UK; founder of biochar company Carbonscape) has built a 5m-long prototype microwave, which “produces a tonne of CO2 [carbon i.e. biochar?] for $65”. Tim Lenton (UEA) calculated that by 2100 a quarter of the effect of human-induced emissions of CO2 could be sequestered with biochar production from waste organic matter, giving a net reduction of 40ppm in CO2 concentration. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University has calculated that it is realistically possible to fix 9.5bn tonnes of carbon per year using biochar, noting that global annual production of carbon from fossil fuels is 8.5bn tonnes. [50, 51].

In an Australian context, Crucible Carbon is developing high efficiency pyrolysis technology for the mass production of biochar. According to Inside Waste Weekly: “Managing director Matthew Warnken says … potential carbon abatement of 100-200 million tonnes annually is “extremely reasonable and would be very achievable”… first commercial demonstration plant, with construction to begin at a site in regional NSW early next year. That plant will process around 20,000-40,000 tonnes of feedstock annually, producing electricity and a biochar product that would be used to improve degraded soils … assuming realistic prices for the value of the biochar and energy outputs of the plant, a value of $20-30 per tonne of carbon sequestered would allow commercial biochar plants to be built with a three-year payback period”. [52]. 

Summary

Man-made global warming from greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution has increased average global temperature by 0.8oC since 1900. Top climate scientist say that there is an urgent need to cut GHG pollution and reduce atmospheric CO2 from the present dangerous 387 ppm to a safe and sustainable level of about 300 ppm. Unfortunately Australia (the world’s biggest coal exporter and a world leading per capita GHG polluter) is committed to increasing Domestic and Exported GHG pollution by 2% annually whereas top UK climate scientists say that an annual GHG pollution reduction of 6-8% is needed to avoid a catastrophic 450 ppm CO2. . Top climate scientists say that global warming has contributed to the January-February 2009 SE Australia heatwave that killed over 200 people and the consequent February 7 2009 Victorian bushfire tragedy that killed 209 people and burned 450,000 hectares.

Generation of biochar (charcoal from oxygen-free  pyrolysis of waste biomass) is a major component of reducing atmospheric CO2, global warming and bushfire risk. Biochar can be made from low oxygen pyrolysis of biomass from various sources including expertly-advised bushland fuel hazard reduction harvesting (e.g. straw, wood waste, woody weeds) and thus (a) reduce bushfire threat; (b) provide a valuable, soil-enriching and crop productivity-enhancing product for producing “terra preta” soil; (c) help combat man-made global warming by drawing down atmospheric CO2; and (d) provide rural employment and farm income supplementation.


[1]. Wikipedia "2009 Victorian bushfires": http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_Victorian_bushfires .

[2]. Melissa Fyfe (2009), quoting results of research by Professor Neville Nicholls, Monash University, in "Heatwave left hundreds dead ", The Age:  http://www.theage.com.au/national/heatwave-left-hundreds-dead-20090221-8ea4.html .

[3]. Gideon Polya (2009) “Global warming and Victorian bushfire tragedy”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group website:  http://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/global-warming-and-victorian-bushfire-tragedy .

[4]. Gideon Polya (2009), “Australian bushfire inferno. Global warming impacting humanity”, MWC News: http://mwcnews.net/content/view/28518/42/ .

[5].Gideon Polya (2009), Green Blog, “Gaza, lying and climate genocide”: http://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/global-warming-and-victorian-bushfire-tragedy .

[6].Gideon Polya (2009). Green Blog, “Letter to ALL Federal MPs over Climate Emergency and LYING”: http://www.green-blog.org/2009/02/03/letter-to-all-australian-federal-mps-over-climate-emergency-and-lying/#more-1056 .

[7]. “Biochar”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar .

[8]. NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) (2008): http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/  .

[9]. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policymakers (2007): http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf . 

[10]. Andrew Glikson (2008), “The Methane Time Bomb and the Triple Melt-down": http://www.countercurrents.org/glikson101008.htm ).

[11]. John Holdren (2008), “The Science of Climatic Disruption” (power point lecture): http://www.usclimateaction.org/userfiles/JohnHoldren.pdf .

[12]. Gideon Polya (2009), “Global warming,climate emergency” U3A course notes: http://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/global-warming--global-emergency-course .

[13]. A.L. Westerling, H. G. Hidalgo, D. R. Cayan, T. W. Swetnam , Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity,  Science 18 August 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5789, pp. 940 – 943 (DOI: 10.1126/science.1128834; see: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/313/5789/940 .

[14]. Gideon Polya (2009), “Global warming and Victorian bushfire tragedy”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: http://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/global-warming-and-victorian-bushfire-tragedy :

[15]. Dr Andrew Glikson (earth and paleo-climate scientist, Australian National University, Canberra), “The Global warming connection of SE Australia’s heat wave” (Group e-mail, February 13, 2009).

[16]. Professor Barry Brook (2009), “Heatwave update and [Dr Andrew Glikson’s] Open Letter to the [Australian] PM”: http://climatechangepsychology.blogspot.com/2009/02/australian-january-february-2009.html .

[17]. Professor David Karoly and Dr Greg Holland, interviewed by ABC Lateline (2008), “More severe weather forecast, David Karoly warns”: http://www.news.com.au/story/0,27574,25033531-421,00.html .

[18]. James Hansen et al. (2008), “Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim?” , Open Atmos. Sci. J. (2008), vol. 2, pp. 217-231: http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126 .

[19]. James Hansen (2008), Professor James Hansen, Letter to Australian PM Rudd  (2008): http://www.aussmc.org.au/Hansen_letter_to_Rudd.php .

[20]. Dr Andrew Glikson (2009), Open Letter to the Prime Minister of Australia” (February 9, 2009) : http://climatechangepsychology.blogspot.com/2009/02/australian-january-february-2009.html .

[21]. Gideon Polya (2009), “Climate emergency facts and required actions”, Yarra Valley Climate Action Group: http://sites.google.com/site/yarravalleyclimateactiongroup/climate-emergency-facts-and-required-actions .

[22]. James Hansen et al, (2007), “Target atmospheric CO2: where should humanity aim?”, Open Atmos. Sci. J. (2008), vol. 2, pp. 217-231  : http://arxiv.org/abs/0804.1126  and http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf .

[23]. Gaia Vince (2009), “One last chance to save mankind“, New Scientist, 23 January 2009: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126921.500-one-last-chance-to-save-mankind.html?full=true and http://biocharfund.com/images/hansen%2C%20target%20atmospheric%20c02.pdf .

[24]. J.A. Harrison, “The carbon cycle “, Vision Learning: http://www.visionlearning.com/library/module_viewer2.php?mid=95&l=&let1=Ear .

[25].  J. Schloerer, 1996:  http://www.radix.net/~bobg/faqs/scq.CO2rise.html .

[26].  “Adriana Downie talks about Best Energies pyolysis gasifier and making biochar (terra preta) “, Beyond Zero Emissions (2008): http://www.beyondzeroemissions.org/2008/06/03/adriana-downie-best-energies-bio-char-agri-char-pyrolysis  .

[27]. “Best energies” (pilot plant, NSW) on biochar: http://www.bestenergies.com/companies/bestpyrolysis.html .

[28]. “Biochar industry seeks backing for climate-saving process”, Bioenergy Business, 10 December 2008: http://www.bioenergy-business.com/index.cfm?section=international&action=view&id=11751 .

[29]. Dr Evelyn Krull, “Biochar”, CSIRO Land and Water: http://www.csiro.au/files/files/pnzp.pdf .

[30]. Chris Goodall “Ten technologies to save the Planet” (Green Profile, 2008).

[31].  Biochar Fund – fighting hunger, energy poverty, deforestation and climate change simultaneously: http://biocharfund.com//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=37 .

[32].  USDA, Bioenergy Lists, “Sustainable forest bioenergy production using in-woods fast-pyrolysis conversion including bio-oil production and bio-char”: http://terrapreta.bioenergylists.org/usfsewnewsrmrs .

[33]. “Opposition supports biochar research”, 7.30 Report, 26 January 2009: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2008/s2474577.htm .

[34]. Sydney Morning Herald, January 30, 2009“Govt is not ignoring biochar says Burke”: http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-national/govt-is-not-ignoring-biochar-says-burke-20090130-7tcd.html )

[35]. Malcolm Turnbull, “Why is Wong ignoring biochar?”: http://www.malcolmturnbull.com.au/Pages/Article.aspx?ID=97947 ).

[36]. Lisa Bachelor, “The cost of compliance: will Stern Report hurt the developing world? “, The Guardian”, 2007: http://business.guardian.co.uk/windofchange/story/0,,2217315,00.html .

[37]. Alison Benjamin (2007), “Stern: Climate change a “market failure””, The Guardian, on Sir Nichols Stern’s Royal Economic Society (RES) lecture in Manchester: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/nov/29/climatechange.carbonemissions and  Nicholas Stern (2007) “Bali: now the rich must pay”, The Guardian,: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/nov/30/comment.climatechange .

[38]. ANU E Press (2008), press release re Mackey et al. (2008) “Green Carbon. The role of natural forests in carbon storage

Part 1. A green carbon account of Australia’s south-eastern Eucalypt forests, and policy implications”: http://epress.anu.edu.au/green_carbon_citation.html .

[39]. Brendan G. Mackey, Heather Keith, Sandra L. Berry and David B. Lindenmayer (2008), “Green Carbon. The role of natural forests in carbon storage. Part 1. A green carbon account of Australia’s south-eastern Eucalypt forests, and policy implications” (ANU E-Press, Canberra) (see: http://epress.anu.edu.au/green_carbon_citation.html ).

[40]. Andrew Balmford et al, :Economic reasons for conserving wild nature”, Science, 9 August 2002:
Vol. 297. no. 5583, pp. 950 – 953, DOI: 10.1126/science.1073947: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/297/5583/950 and http://www.uvm.edu/giee/publications/Balmford_et_al.pdf .

[41]. The Wilderness Society Submission to the Victorian [2002/03] Bushfire Inquiry: http://www.dpc.vic.gov.au/Bushfires/101-McFadzean,%20G.pdf .

[42]. The Wilderness Society, “Australia’s Forests”: http://www.wilderness.org.au/campaigns/forests .

[43]. The Wildernness Society”, “A bushfire action plan that protects people, property and nature” (20 February 2009): http://www.wilderness.org.au/articles/bushfire-action-plan .  

[44]. Jared Diamond, “Collapse” (Penguin, 2005).

[45]. Gideon Polya, “Biochemical targets of plant bioactive compounds. A pharmacological reference guide to sites of action and biological effects”(Taylor & Francis/CRC Press, London & New York, 2003).

[46]. Sustainable Obtainable Solutions, “Biochar”: http://www.s-o-solutions.org/biochar.html .

[47]. Guillermo Rein, “Gains and threats from smouldering combustion to biochar production and storage”, BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh: http://www.biochar-international.org/images/Session_1_Rein.pdf .

[48]. T.M. Lenton & N.E. Vaughan, The radiative forcing potential of various climate geoengineering options, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions, 9, 2559-2608, 2009: http://www.atmos-chem-phys-discuss.net/9/2559/2009/acpd-9-2559-2009-print.pdf .


[49].  Biochar and reforestation may offer better global cooling potential than ocean fertilization, Mongabay (28 January 2009): http://news.mongabay.com/2009/0128-geoengineering.html .


[50]. Alok Jha, “”Biochar’ goes industrial with giant microwaves to lock carbon in charcoal”, Guardian (13 March 2009): http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/13/charcoal-carbon  .


[51].  Johannes Lehmann, Biochar for mitigating climate change: carbon sequestration in the black”: http://www.geooekologie.de/download_forum/forum_2007_2_spfo072b.pdf .


[52]. Opposition throws support behind biochar, Inside Waste Weekly (27 January 2009): http://www.insidewaste.com.au/StoryView.asp?StoryID=892422 .

For more on Carbon cycle and Biomass  see “Carbon cycle”: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/~bitz/111/L2_Carbon_cycle.pdf  and D.S. Chahal (editor) (1991) “Food Feed and Fuel from Biomass”, Oxford & IBH Publishing, New Delhi).

Postscript - further comments by top scientists re global warming and bushfires.

Professor Will Steffen (Executive Director of the Climate Change Institute, Australian National University, Canberra and contributor to IPCC reports), March 2009: “But nevertheless, all the modelling suggests, and indeed the observations suggest in the other parts of the world as well, that as the climate warms - and particularly in those areas where it is drying as well as warming - the risk of severe fires goes up. We've always had severe fires in Australia, but I think the likelihood of them is increasing. We'll see more of them. We saw a really bad one in the Canberra area in 2003; now we see Victorian fires in 2009. That's only a six year interval. That's not a long interval at all. And the likelihood of these big fires continues to go up so long as the climate shifts that we're seeing continue… Now just to put this in context, we're now seeing since pre-industrial temperatures arise of between 0.7 and 0.8 degrees. So we're coming up on one degree already. Now there's already, as I mentioned, inertia in the climate system, so we're committed to further change even if we cut emissions tomorrow. Now that further temperature rise will bring us to about 1.3 or so, so we're already getting right up to the 1.5 that some people are getting - are considering to be dangerous, and we're pushing - now pushing pretty hard at the two degrees… But the longer we wait and the longer we put in new carbon emitting infrastructure, the worse the problem is gonna get. Now, in terms of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, what does two degrees mean? It means we need to cap carbon dioxide at somewhere around 350 to 400 parts per million, and we're sitting at about 385 now. And we need to cap carbon dioxide equivalent, which means we take into account the other greenhouse gases - somewhere around 450 to 500, and we're sitting about 440. So, that really, really does put the accelerator on in terms of getting to grips with the problem”.  (see ABC TV Lateline , 11 March 2009: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2008/s2513666.htm ).

Further Postscript -   George Monbiot (see “Woodchips with everything” “: http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/03/24/woodchips-with-everything/  ) has set up an incorrect  “straw man” argument against a global biochar solution based on asserted huge areas of land required for biomass for biochar production.

Thus the key argument of Monbiot is as follows and implies that virtually ALL the arable land of the world would have to be used.: “But that’s just the start of it. Carbonscape, a company which hopes to be among the first to commercialise the technique, talks of planting 930 million hectares(8). The energy lecturer Peter Read proposes new biomass plantations of trees and sugar covering 1.4 billion ha (9). The arable area of the United Kingdom is 5.7m hectares, or one 245th of Read’s figure. China has 104m ha of cropland. The US has 174m. The global total is 1.36 billion(10)”.

However is George Monbiot correct? NO – he ignores a potential total GtC (billions of tonnes of C) from forestry, grassland and agricultural waste (from 1.34 billion ha of arable land).

Thus p224, Progress in Thermochemical Biomass Conversion, volume 1, IAE Bioenergy, ed. A,V, Bridgewater (Blackwell Science) (see:  http://books.google.com.au/books?id=rdqGX0LEg7sC&pg=PA224&lpg=PA224&dq=Gt++biomass+%22arable+land%22&source=bl&ots=KfEmoUUg6T&sig=EuLvPTf4uJHK6Wq7jbpQ3WLHcnM&hl=en&ei=UdzISZXlDpmMsQPH3cyMAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPP1,M1 )  informs us that we could obtain 1.7 GtC/yr  (straw from agriculture) +  4.2 GtC/yr  (total grass upgrowth from grasslands upgrowth)  + 6 GtC/yr (possible sustainable woodharvest) = 11.9 GtC/yr.

From this one can see why biochar expert Professor Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University is correct  calculating that it is realistically possible to fix 9.5bn tonnes of carbon per year using biochar, noting that global annual production of carbon from fossil fuels is 8.5bn tonnes. According to a UK Guardian report: "Johannes Lehmann of Cornell university has calculated that it is realistically possible to fix 9.5bn tonnes of carbon per year using biochar. The global production of carbon from fossil fuels stands at 8.5bn tonnes" (see: Alok Jha, “”Biochar’ goes industrial with giant microwaves to lock carbon in charcoal”, Guardian (13 March 2009): http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/13/charcoal-carbon  and   Johannes Lehmann, Biochar for mitigating climate change: carbon sequestration in the black”: http://www.geooekologie.de/download_forum/forum_2007_2_spfo072b.pdf  ).

One can see also why Professor Lovelock FRS is also correct in his assessment: ““There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste - which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering - into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast … The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes [550 billion tonnes] of carbon [carbon dioxide, CO2] yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes [CO2]. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won't do it” (see Gaia Vince (2009), “One last chance to save mankind“, New Scientist, 23 January 2009: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20126921.500-one-last-chance-to-save-mankind.html?full=true and http://biocharfund.com/images/hansen%2C%20target%20atmospheric%20c02.pdf  ).  

 Professor Lovelock’s estimates are consonant with those of Dr J.A. Harrison, specifically a terrestrial carbon fixation of 121.3 GtC/y (449 Gt CO2 = 449 billion tonnes of CO2) of which about half returns annually to the atmosphere through respiration and most of the remaining half returns to the air through the action of soil fungi and bacteria  (see J.A. Harrison, “The carbon cycle “, Vision Learning: http://www.visionlearning.com/library/module_viewer2.php?mid=95&l=&let1=Ear )..  

In short, George Monbiot is INCORRECT in this instance through setting up a “straw man” argument (pun intended).

PPS. Dr James Lovelock FRS has recently said  what I have said above: "I usually agree with George Monbiot and love the way he says it but this time – with his assertion that the latest miracle mass fuel cure, biochar, doses not stand up  – he has got it only half right.

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.

I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten.

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 " (see "James Lovelock on Biochar: let the Earth remove CO2 for us", UK Guardian, 24 March 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/mar/24/biochar-earth-c02 .

PPPS. In my view biochar (charcoal) is very likely what can save the Planet's biosphere.

The technology is straightforward and has been used by charcoal makers for thousands of years, specifically heating plant material to 400-700 degrees Centigrade in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic pyrolysis) to generate carbon (C) from plant cellulose (roughly (CH2O)n) .

Carbon (C) is stable (unless you set fire to it and have plenty of oxygen - neither being likely underground) whereas plant cellulose (roughly (CH20)n) is oxidized by soil organisms to yield the GHGs CO2 and H2O or worse still, converted by anaerobic bacteria to methane, CH4, which is about 20 times worse than CO2 as a greenhouse gas (GHG) on a 100 year time scale.

The amount of biochar that can be made from plant waste each year is roughly the same as the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere each year from carbon burningby man.

Jim Amonette, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (Richland, Washington, USA) , PNW Biochar Initiative Meeting, 21 May 2009: “29% of all C fixed by photosynthesis aboveground (ca. 10.2 GtC/yr) is currently used by humans! Of this 1.5 GtC/yr is unused crop residues, manures, etc. An additional 1.8 GtC/yr) is not fixed due to prior human activities (e.g., land degradation) and current land use. Current fossil-C emissions are ca. 8 GtC/yr. Increased productivity and expanded use of residues from biochar production could have a significant impact on global C budget…To balance the C cycle, annual human harvest of fixed biomass would have to double from about 8.2 Gt C currently (Haberl et al., 2007) to more than 15 Gt C. This would amount to harvesting about 40% of above-ground biomass C, and is comparable to levels of biomass C appropriation seen in India today (Haberl et al., 2008). The annual diversion of 11.3% of global biomass carbon (7 Gt C, roughly one-fifth of all above-ground biomass C produced) to a pyrolysis industry would have a profound impact on the global ecology and would be considered a last resort.” (see Jim Amonette, “An introduction to biochar with an emphasis on its properties and potential for climate change mitigation”, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, PNW Biochar Initiative Meeting, 21 May 2009: http://www.scribd.com/doc/23611995/An-Introduction-to-Biochar-With-an-Emphasis-on-Its-Properties ; Haberl, H. Heinz Erb, K., Krausmann, F., Gaube, V., Bondeau, A., Plutzar, C., Gingrich, S., Lucht, W., and Fischer-Kowalski, M. 2007.
‘Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth’s terrestrial ecosystems.’
Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.104, 12942-12947).

 

   
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