The Carbon NEGATIVE Option: Why Tim Flannery & James Lovelock Love Biochar

climatefriendlysoil“Sustainable” isn’t sustainable. It isn’t even achievable, according to several researchers presenting at the annual meeting of the  American Association for the Advancement of Science. Global carbon emissions have accelerated so dramatically over the last eight years, we are “now outside the entire envelope of possibilities” reviewed by the IPCC. Sure enough, sea levels are rising and rising faster than predicted. Meanwhile, biofuels, the great green hope of so many, have only made things worse, leading to a increase in slash & burn farming in the tropics. Indeed, we could find ourselves “effectively burning rain forests in our gas tanks,” noted one scientist.

TrackerNews has been full of  stories over the last few months painting the same grim picture:

  • The Sea of Japan absorbs only half has much CO2 as it used to. Scientists suspect warmer water temperatures have changed the pattern of vertical currents known as “ventilation.” The water on top has essentially become saturated with CO2.  If it turns out this is happening in other oceans, the ramifications are immense. Oceans absorb about a quarter of human-generated CO2
  • All this CO2 is making the oceans more acidic, which is destroying coral reefs, along with anything else unfortunate enough to rely on a calcium carbonate shell. That, in turn, is making it more difficult for stressed fisheries to recover, leading to higher food prices and hunger. The circle may be even more vicious. Researchers have just discovered that fish play a key role in marine carbon sequestration. Fish excrete vast quantities of calcium carbonate as a result of drinking seawater. Scientists speculate that climate-warmed seas would speed up fish metabolism leading to increased excretions. But fewer fish means a net decrease and less calcium carbonate in the water to neutralize acidity.
  • Canadian forests are now carbon emitters. A combination of drought, logging, beetles, milder winters (warm enough to allow beetles to survive) and fire have turned 1.2 million square miles-worth of carbon sink solution into part of the problem.

Clearly, if we are going to make any headway with this disaster, we are going to have to come up with goals considerably bolder than “carbon neutral.” Optimistically, we are thisclose to an irreversible tipping point. According to yet another depressing study, global warming could trigger massive marine “dead zones” persisting for thousands of years.


Soil holds more carbon than the combined totals of the vegetation than grows in it and the atmosphere above it. And soil laced with biochar, a special charcoal made in a low oxygen burn, is particularly good at sequestering carbon. It also reduces nitrous oxide emissions, which is significant because molecule for molecule, nitrous oxide packs about 300 times the greenhouse gas punch as CO2.

That’s not why pre-Columbian Amazonians, who were the first to figure out how to make it, liked it. Bichar improves soil fertility. Its porous structure provides an inviting matrix for microbes and nutrients. It holds water more efficiently. Rootlets and other soil dwellers have an easier time navigating the depths.

Pockets of Terra Preta can still be found in South America – soil that is strikingly black amidst washed out, nutrient-poor rain forest dirt. Even after thousands of years, it still hold its richness and ability to sequester carbon. In short, biochar is a proven long-term option for reducing atmospheric carbon, with the added bonus of improving crop yields.

Tim Flannery (“The Weathermakers“) suspects it may be “the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future,” while James Lovelock (“The Revenge of Gaia“) suspects it may be our only chance:

So are we doomed?

JL: 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.

Would it make enough of a difference?

JL: Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. 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…. (“We’re doomed, but it’s not all bad”)


"This book, I believe, provides the basic information required to allow implementation of the single most important initiative for humanity's environmental future" - Tim Flannery

"This book, I believe, provides the basic information required to allow implementation of the single most important initiative for humanity's environmental future" Tim Flannery

Interest in biochar has increased over the last few years, though it is still mostly soil scientists talking excitedly to one another.  The International Biochar Initiative, chaired by Cornell’s Johannes Lehmann, has helped focus efforts. There are currently research projects in nine countries, several conferences on the calendar and a new book due out in March.

Yet the big dollars for underground carbon sequestration about going into drilling projects. The U.S. Department of Energy has spent nearly a half billion dollars trying to figure out how to inject CO2 from coal plant smokestacks into rock deep beneath the surface — with precious little to show for it so far.

Imagine if that money had been invested into wind, solar, geothermal, smart grids and biochar. Reduced emissions. Increased carbon sequestration. Let’s aim for carbon negative! Given the alternative, it certainly seems worth a try.

So tell your friends. Tell everybody. Biochar: better climate through charcoal.

* related post: Matchmaking: On Soil, Lost Ideas, Terra Preta, Carbon Sequestration and Amy B. Smith

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12 Responses

  1. All this talk about biochar, carbon, and emisions makes me gag (pun intended) — a bigger threat to sustainability is disease and pathogens. What drove those hard-farming native peoples toward extiction? Climate change? No — disease. Give a thought to Asian Bird Flu, and new strains of small pox, plague, and ebola when you do your silly calculations. Better hurry! In short, we need a better triage for environmental problems associated with long-term sustainability. Carbon may be important on the list — let’s see? TS

  2. Hi Tom,

    The issues are interconnected: climate change, ocean acidification, habitat shifts, disease.

    Yes, disease was a significant factor in the decline the pre-Columbia civiliations. That is a separate issue from terra preta (biochar), which was used to improve soil fertility – and it worked liked a charm for a long time. (Charles Mann wrote about it in “1491” and also in a National Geographic story, “Our Good Earth,” last September:

    Addressing climate change and ocean acidification is one part of the puzzle. Species under stress are more vulnerable to disease. But trade, travel, habitat destruction, bushmeat, drug resistance – all of which are non-climate-related factors – also play major roles in disease emergence, reemergence and spread. I don’t in any way underestimate the seriousness or complexity of the issue.

    It is not an either/or proposition. Climate change is serious. Pandemic threats are real. Both need to be addressed quickly.

    I am not sure what you mean by “silly calculations.”



  3. I agree that all these environmental issues are interconnected. Howver, some are FAR more important to our sustainability than others. Human population growth and disease issues were curiously avoided in the 10 minute video, perhaps leaving an impression to viewers that charcoal in soil will save us from climate warming and sustainability is just around the corner. Reductionist approaches to local sustainability are a good thing (Australia soils need charcoal — the world would be a better place with carbon negative technologies — I get it). It’s a tiny — and maybe insignifucant piece of the puzzle for sustainability, in my estimation. It’s worth pursuing, AFTER controling human population growth, disease, and direct habitat distruction. Where are they going to get these “fast growing species” to create the coal? How much habitat loss do they cause? Will globalization of the technology and species create other problems? I see no triage. Sustainability with shotgun science may not be enough. A very convincing 10-minute film on one aspect MAY take our eyes off other, more impotant issues–like magicians, we may be after the illusion of sustainability if we are not careful. By “silly calculations,” I refer to reductionist science. “If S = sustainability; and C = charcoal, then S = C” That’s what I learned from the YouTube movie. However, C also may equal GMO-fast growing weeds, fields of avocados covering Australia (mighty fine habitat for native species, I’m sure), and water diversions for the GMO’s — so many good things on our happy way to profitable sustainability. I don’t really want to rain on their parade — but they do need the water!

  4. Tom,

    The video was a segment about biochar that included several interviews from a soil conference. If you looked at a video from an infectious disease conference, it would be all about infectious disease.

    There are several links later in the post where readers can find out more about biochar research. As Lovelock notes, it can be made from plant waste. You certainly do not have to grow special crops for it.

    In fact, Amy Smith’s D-Lab at MIT has been working on ways to produce charcoal from a variety of plant wastes in an effort to create cleaner cooking fuels in the developing world, while also providing an alternative to de-forestation. Although Smith’s focus hasn’t been on creating biochar for soils, it is essentially the same process: a low oxygen burn of plant waste.

    The “fast growing species” and habitat destruction issues have more to do with biofuels. The downstream questions you raise are critical. But to the extent that biochar improves soil productivity, theoretically at least, it relieves some of pressure to increase farm field acreage. However, given a burgeoining human population, crashing fisheries, increased salinity of coastal region soils due to rising sea levels due to global warming, droughts exacerbated by climate change and depleted aquifers, there’s going to be plenty of pressure…

    I actually don’t think we have time to put problems such as human overpopulation, disease emergence, habitat destruction and climate change in a priority order. They all need to be addressed now.

  5. In the real world, it is impossible to address (and solve) all the world’s problems NOW, as you seem to suggest. In the best of economic times, priorities are still necessary– in the worst of times, they are essential. The National Science Foundations never has an open budget. Scientists must take it upon themselves to meet our highest priority needs first. Some will fall through the cracks. It is simply irrisponsible not to conduct a triage at every level of decision making. Scientists seem to spend more time patting themselves on the back (at each conference) than they do asking “was a different type of conference needed.” Some solutions never scale-up as proposed. Biological control of invasive species works better in the lab under controlled conditions than it does in the real world. Biofuels looked great on paper, less great in the real world, where food prices matter. Please calculate the total carbon created by all the little prototypes in use now compared to the how much carbon is currently stored in soils. How many other research areas will fall through the cracks while we are busy in the conversion process to reach 1%. How many farmers on the edge of financial disaster will be able to invest. If tax subsidies are given, what opportunity costs are lost. Will there be fewer subsidies for education? Planned parenthood? Disease prevention? Oh, I forgot, we can do it all. Sure, there are other problems out there, but this is my favorite one, or the one that pays my bills, or the one where I have expertise. If we don’t put our major issues and specific objectives in priority world we have a world much like today–one where chronic problems are ignored in favor of hobby science (even if some of it is great!) and local solutions. The real problem as I see it stems from our different definitions of “Think globally, act locally” — many peoples’ globes are on their desks! They are really saying, “Think globally in my profession, and act locally in my field.”
    That may not be good enough to save the world.

  6. These are all good questions, Tom. There is lot of research looking at just these issues. In terms of subsidies, well, Lovelock didn’t elaborate in the excerpt quoted, but no subsidies required. This isn’t biofuels. I am looking forward to the “Biochar: Environmental Management” book coming out next month. *Anything* that gets such a strong endorsement from the likes of Tim Flannery – I want to know all about it!

  7. You got me there! Tim Flannery is one of my heros — and one of the few Great Generalists of our day. He gets climate, ocean-overuse, people, land use, — most of the big issues. His recommendation tells me this is one important piece of the puzzle — and I was impatiently hoping for the grand picture on the puzzle box with 10,000,000 pieces.
    He, they (the biocoal-people), and you provided much discussion today with my research team. It made us think! Damn it!– TS

  8. Made you think! Made you think! I know – you think anyway… It is fun, though. btw, did you catch the links on TrackerNews a few weeks ago on seawater greenhouses? I meant to blog about them and still might. Here’s a teaser in the meantime:

    cheers, Janet

  9. Saw the seawater greenhouse — I called it “A Brave New Whorl” — imagine the Evapotranspiration savings if all of Las Vegas was one big water-positive greenhouse.–TS

  10. Not all charcoal is biochar. True biochar is the result of heating biomass in an emission free pyrolysis reactor devoid of oxygen. Biochar has been shown to be a very effective soil amendment in numerous studies in South America and Japan. It is becoming popularized enough in the US that Biochar Xtra is now even being sold on Ebay. Others are using the bio-oils derived from biochar production to replace fossil fuels. Some folks are alarmed at the possibility of vast tracts of land being denuded to produce biochar. This is not a valid concern because, due to its very low density of from 20 to 35 pounds per cubic foot, the transport of biochar over long distances is not economically feasible.

  11. […] “The Carbon NEGATIVE Option: Why Tim Flannery & James Lovelock Love Biochar” (TrackerBlog post) […]

  12. The world is a great place, but it is falling apart and we all are responsable for this. Be responsable now and try to make it better.
    Biochar, one of the newest option can contribuate to atmospheric CO2 reduction. Find out more:
    The Biochar Revolution is exactly what it says !

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