The concept behind biochar is a bit complicated but very interesting. Based on an ancient Amazonian practice of burying carbon in the soil, the industry plans to sequester vast quantities of carbon in the soil and sell the latent emissions as credits on the worldwide carbon market. The theory is that if terra preta (charcoal enriched soil) is created on a global scale as much as 6 billion tons of CO2 would be prevented from entering the atmosphere every year. Although this is only about half of the 8 to 10 billion tons of carbon emitted yearly by human activity it is still substantial enough to be investigated. In fact, scientists around the world are saying that burying biochar would not only slow the rate of global warming it would also enhance the soil and make a side dish of sustainable biofuels as well.

Last year, the UN drafted a text for Copenhagen which specified that biochar should be considered eligible as an advanced mitigation option under a post-Kyoto treaty. Regardless of the lackluster results of that meeting and the ongoing struggle over a viable treaty, biochar is already a legitimate source of tradable carbon credits. This is a a good deal for all of us because, unlike some of the more technologically complex methods of sequestering greenhouse gases, such as carbon capture and storage, biochar could, in theory, be easily adopted worldwide and managed by small- and medium-scale operations.

The newest twist on biochar is being developed as I write this. The use of giant microwave ovens to “cook” wood into charcoal are being developed. By burying the charcoal produced from microwaved wood, the carbon absorbed by a tree as it grows can remain safely locked away for thousands of years. This new technique could take out billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year! This is amazing new technology and must be explored.

More amazing facts include processing facilities that could be built right next to forests grown specifically to soak up CO2. Theoretically, we could cut down trees, “carbonise” them and then plant more trees. The forest could act on an industrial scale to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. I realize it is already doing that just by being there, but this puts the process on steroids. Consider this. Then, at this stage, the biochar could be placed in disused coal mines or tilled into the ground to make soil more fertile. Imagine turning coal mines into aerable land for food! The porous structure of biochar is ideal for trapping nutrients and beneficial micro-organisms that help plants grow. I have used charcoal to feed my plants myself so I know this is true. It also improves drainage and can prevent up to 80 per cent of greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxides and methane from escaping from the soil. It is the perfect gas mask for the planet.

But despite its astounding potential, caution is warranted in implementing biochar on a large scale. Though re-creating terra preta sounds simple, current students have found it possible that modern-day soils respond less well to the treatment and that the carbon may escape sooner than anticipated. So there is no doubt, at this very moment in time, that not all the evidence is in on the case for biochar. However, overall, the evidence is positive and there is no reason to halt forward movement on this idea just because there may be a few tiny holes in the fabric.

The current excitement over biochar must remain in check, however. We have had all past highs and then let downs, such as with corn based biofuels. Biochar shares one common problem with corn, it requires a lot of land. Land that is in demand from other industry. There is bound to be disruption and dispute along the way as the developers of this project seek out what is needed to make it happen. And as they do this, they will have to lay out a set of rules, code of ethics, so to speak, as to what is acceptable and what is not. Where do we draw the lines? This is all still up in the air and if we are reasonable as well as expedient, I believe we are capable of getting this done.

For more information on biochar and it’s possibilities, go to BioChar International.

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