However, in complex systems we can (and should) look for synergistic solutions – positive activities that also generate more positive side-effects. We’ve been talking about this with regard to Village Corps, and the possibility of helping to generate some economic activity through animal husbandry, which could provide food and income, and could help the chances of reopening a processing plant which would create jobs, and the animal waste could be used in an anaerobic digester to generate methane for cooking fuel, which is cleaner burning and more healthy than wood fires, and would help stem deforestation in the area, which would help stop erosion and improve agriculture, which would provide more food and jobs, etc. etc.
Well, a similar kind of synergistic solution with tremendously exciting global potential is biochar – essentially charcoal derived from any kind of biomass that acts as a carbon sink for thousands of years. It is essentially a way to lower the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (currently at 387 parts per million) back down to what more and more scientists are sighting as a safe level – 350 ppm. The process of creating it generates carbon neutral electricity (displacing the current common sources like coal, that has a whole host of other negative side effects) and the char itself provides a powerful organic soil amendment (displacing the current common sources of chemical based options that deplete soils over time and pollute oceans and water tables). While the reasons are fully understood (because the complex world of soil science isn’t fully understood), the biochar provides a great habitat, essentially, for the diverse array of soil microorganisms that create healthy, fertile soils.
This article from the Financial Times last month provides a great overview on how this technique was “rediscovered” by studying patches of fertile soil left by ancient peoples of the Amazon: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/67843ec0-020b-11de-8199-000077b07658.html.
There is lots of exciting research and development going on around the world. Our colleague Scott Grierson in Australia has been doing research on the potential of algae feedstocks for biochar. Universities in the US are looking into as well, including Cornell, UGA, and Iowa State.
And there are some young companies looking to commercialize this process and bring it to scale, including Best Energies and Eprida (who we had a chance to see present at Bioneers last year – very exciting results). The International Biochar Initiative is keeping track of the developments in this rapidly growing area and has a lot of great information.
It’s no silver bullet, but estimates for how much CO2 this process could remove from the atmosphere each year range from 2-4 Gigatonnes –that’s a billion tonnes – and a significant percentage of the approximately 8.8 GTs humans emit annually. And with all of the positive ‘side effects’ – like clean renewable energy, and healthy, productive soil gives biochar great potential as a synergistic solution on the path to sustainability.