The Biochar Wars Heat Up

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A recent article in the Guardian UK published by author George Monbiot has ignited a firestorm (pun completely intended) across the biochar community. In his article, Monbiot criticises the growing fervor over biochar, challenging a proposal by the energy lecturer Peter Read to create 1.4bn hectares of global biochar plantations:

Were we to follow Read’s plan, we would either have to replace all the world’s crops with biomass plantations, causing instant global famine, or double the cropped area, trashing most of the remaining natural habitats.

Monbiot’s assertion has been quickly challenged by biochar proponents such as James Hansen and James Lovelock. Lovelock points out that the majority of biochar researchers, support the production of biochar from waste feedstocks such agricultural residues, not large-scale deforestation:

What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don’t need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. Charcoal making might even work instead of landfill for waste paper and plastic.

Monbiot has since printed a response acknowledging the merits of waste pyrolysis, but is this indicative of a greater problem that must be addressed before the biochar well is permanently poisoned? The ethanol industry has been damned by public opinion. While corn-based ethanol may not be an economically viable technology, claims that it alone was responsible for recent global fluctuations in grain prices are largely hyperbole. In an era where competition for grant and stimulus monies is at an all-time high, biochar could be unfairly categorized as the next black sheep (no pun intended this time).

Naturally, The Biochar Wars raise an important question for the community: How do we effectively promote biochar without sounding like ‘charleaders?’ In a grass roots industry championed by amateur inventors, presenting a clear and unified voice is absolutely crucial. We welcome any ideas or suggestions in the comments.

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