Friday, May 22, 2009

Biochar threatens biodiversity and soil biology?

Ross Garnaut lambasted Australian business leaders for not making the effort to understand the issues behind climate change and the CPRS. He could have included anyone who eulogises biochar as the miracle solution to biosequestration and soil fertilty. Hip Hooray for Stephen Joseph and his wonderful team to be given $1.5 million for research. It can;t be the only research being done on it. We suspect it is a drop in the ocean. Stephen's response to the announcement is revealing: He preferred to have the money put towards building a pyrolisis burner that can produce 10,000 tonnes: "There is not a facility in Australia that the research community has access to." Why not? How expensive are they? What will be the cost of biochar once it is up and running? Could it be that biochar doesn't need scientists, it needs market economists and management accountants?
Why are we questioning biochar? Because it threatens to distract government and industry attention from the soil carbon solution. Lumping soil carbon in with biochar is misleading. They are not brothers or even cousins. Biochar is primarily a manufacturing process producing fuel, energy and soil ameliorants. A side effect of the manufacturing process is hte conversion of vegetation into char - a stable form of carbon. Its stability is similar to that of humus. But it cannot be compared. Because in the next 10-15 years agricultural soil management can produce hundreds of millions of tonnes of humus and biochar will struggle to produce one million in that time. The relative performance as a process for reducing the "Legacy Load" can be see in the conclusion of 20 IPCC soil scientists in the Royal Society's Journal which decided that the world's soils can extract 5-6 billion tonnes of CO2e per year.

There is another reason we want to draw attention to biochar's limitations: it could have a negative impact on biodiversity and soil biology. This morning we had an enquiry from our CMA. A local farmer wants to put the dead and fallen timber on his property through a pyrolisis burner, creating char and offsets for the nearby cement manufacturer to buy. He mentioned that he had heard about biochar and the idea of using 'waste' vegetation on his farm from Tim Flannery during his visit to the Central West last week. Tim did suggest this idea during his lunch time speech to the 150 farmers on a bus tour of 'carbon cockys'' But after his visit to Michael Inwood and Graham Ross's properties, he heard many things about the importance of soil biology and the role fallen timber plays in providing living quarters to microbes and worms, et al. Tim described it as 'waste' because fallen timber is considered only as a source of methane as they decompose. In his latest book - Now Or Never - Tim arrives at accurate conclusions about soil carbon: Soil, he says, is ‘the fastest way of sequestering carbon’. He has reached a clear understanding of the reason why soil is so important: The Legacy Load: “Standing stock of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is around 200 gigatonnes... The strongest prospect of very large draw-down of atmospheric carbon lies in changes to our global agriculture and forestry practices," he says. He acknowledges capacity of the 4 billion hectares of rangeland. Increase the soil carbon in ‘world’s dry rangelands by a mere 2 per cent… we could pull down around 880 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere.”

It would be a tragedy if Biochar caused a battle for biomass.

2 comments:

Erich J. Knight said...

I feel there is plenty of biomass for both char and the soil wee-beasties.
Work by Dr. Brown at ISU is showing 2/3 of corn stover can sustainably be converted to biochar.

Wise Land management; Organic farming and afforestation can build back our soil carbon,

Biochar allows the soil food web to build much more recalcitrant organic carbon, ( living biomass & Glomalins) in addition to the carbon in the biochar.

Biochar viewed as soil Infrastructure; The old saw;
"Feed the Soil Not the Plants" becomes;
"Feed, Cloth and House the Soil, utilities included !".
Free Carbon Condominiums with carboxyl group fats in the pantry and hydroxyl alcohol in the mini bar.
Build it and the Wee-Beasties will come.
As one microbiologist said on the Biochar list; "Microbes like to sit down when they eat".
By setting this table we expand husbandry to whole new orders of life.

This is what I try to get across to Farmers, as to how I feel about the act of returning carbon to the soil. An act of pertinence and thankfulness for the civilization we have created. Farmers are the Soil Sink Bankers, once carbon has a price, they will be laughing all the way to it.

One aspect of Biochar systems are Cheap, clean biomass stoves that produce biochar and no respiratory disease. At scale, the health benefits are greater than ending Malaria.
A great example;
http://www.unccd.int/publicinfo/poznanclimatetalks/docs/Natural%20Draft%20Stove.pdf

The biochar Fund is also doing amazing work in the developing world;
http://terrapretapot.org/

Also , I would like Rebut the BioFuelWatch folk's recent criticisms with the petition of 1500 Cameroon Farmers to have the UN recognize Soil Carbon Sequestration as a CDM;
The Biochar Fund
http://biocharfund.org/
and to explain their program;
http://biocharfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=26&Itemid=46

The USDA-ARS have dozens of studies happening now to ferret out the reasons for char affinity with MYC fungi and microbes, but this synergy is solidly shown by the Japanese work, literally showing 1+1=3.
The 1996 Japanese paper; Microbial Fertilizers in Japan. It contained quite a bit on charcoal (no use of the term "biochar" - so this wouldn't likely show up in most google searches), and some interesting synergistic results from pot trials. It proved again to me that we need to be in better communication about biochar with the Japanese. Much of the paper is on AMF -arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.

http://www.agnet.org/library/eb/430/

Also,
Mycorrhizal responses to biochar in soil – concepts
and mechanisms
Daniel D. Warnock & Johannes Lehmann &
Thomas W. Kuyper & Matthias C. Rillig
http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/publ/PlantSoil%20300,%209-20,%202007,%20Warnock.pdf

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