A Climate Solution that is not a Double Edged Sword – Biochar

A reality that is becoming clearer and clearer is that the environmental challenges we are facing interact in unexpected ways and if we are to adequately deal with these challenges, our technologies and policy instruments must be able to account for interactions and ensure that a targeted, narrow solution to address one problem does not inadvertently cause the worsening of a linked problem.

One of the clearest examples of this law of unexpected consequences is first generation bio-fuels which have been implicated in everything from undermining food security to causing deforestation. Indeed, it is difficult to morally defend a technological innovation that allows us to drive our cars on grain while reducing human food production in the face of the need to feed a growing population.

Recently, sustainable processes are being developed and deployed that are able to deal with more than just one problem and in fact, can have positive effects on a number of interlinked environmental challenges. I would like to introduce to you one such process, Biochar. Although there are many promising technologies and innovations in aid of sustainability, few hold such promise as Biochar. Professor Tim Flannery, President of the Copenhagen Climate Council puts its potential in perspective when he states:

”Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future.”

He is outdone by Professor James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis and a recognised giant of an outspoken and impassioned approach to preserving our natural environment so as to safeguard human civilisation. Professor Lovelock has this to say about Bioochar:

”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.”

But what is Biochar and why is it being heralded as central to our ability to work towards solving climate change and related challenges?

Before we answer this question in detail, an evocative way to conceptualise why Biochar is generating so much excitement is to share the words of Bill McKibben founder of 350.org. He characterises Biochar as being able to (almost) reverse the dirty legacy of our fossil fuelled economy:

” If you could continually turn a lot of organic material into biochar, you could, over time, reverse the history of the last two hundred years…We can, literally, start sucking some of the carbon that our predecessors have poured into the atmosphere down through our weeds and stalks and stick it back in the ground. We can run the movie backward. We can unmine some of the coal, undrill some of the oil. We can take at least pieces of the Earth and – this is something we haven’t done for quite a while – leave them Better Than We Found Them.”

To explain what Biochar actually is and why it is exciting specifically, I am going to provide you with the explanation as formulated by the International BioChar Initiative:

“Biochar is a practice that has been used for over 2000  years to convert agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.”

“Biochar is found in soils around the world as a result of vegetation fires and historic soil management practices. Intensive study of biochar-rich dark earths in the Amazon (terra preta), has led to a wider appreciation of biochar’s unique properties as a soil enhancer.”

“Biochar can be an important tool to increase food security and cropland diversity in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies.”

“Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization. More nutrients stay in the soil instead of leaching into groundwater and causing pollution.”

There is a lot more technical detail around the elegant Biochar Process and for those that are interested in the science behind biochar, I can refer you to an article in Nature Communications (Part of the ‘Nature’ Scientific Group) by Woolf et al. (2009): Sustainable Biochar to mitigate global climate change. The figure below is taken from this article and is a valuable illustration of the process and its benefits:


Figure 1: Overview of the sustainable biochar concept (Woolf et al., 2009)


Biochar then is quite different to many process and technologies that aim to address the grave environmental challenges we face as it is a solution that is able to address a number of related issues together. The ability to aid soil formation, sequester carbon and enhance related ecosystem services is remarkable and I for one will be keeping a very close eye on Biochar.

At Globe Forum Dublin, Biochar will be in all our minds as a cutting edge sustainably innovative process that is beginning to gather momentum. I will leave you with a video from the International Biochar Initiative which eloquently lays out exactly why Biochar is so promising:



  1. Posted November 14, 2010 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    Good biochar article – nice depth and clear for the layman

    • TheGreenMerrie
      Posted November 15, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Mike, I appreciate that. It helps that there are a lot of excellent resources available to articulate what Biochar actually is and why it is so exciting.

  2. bob_dewan
    Posted December 26, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    I hope this it will help you
    “The Biochar Revolution” with “The Biochar Solution”
    I want to call this book: “All about Biochar” because “The Biochar Revolution” collects the results and best practical advice that these entrepreneurs have to offer to the biochar community.

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