Have 15 Minutes for Biochar in Australia?

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ABC Lateline, an Australian news program, did a report on May 24 discussing the status of biochar’s prospects on the island (click to view the video and/or read the transcript).  Prominent Australian scientist Tim Flannery contributes, as does the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries biochar team leader Lukas Van Zwieten, several Australian farmers, Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke, and Opposition Leader Malcom Turnbull.

Wanted: Biochar

Though the research thus far has been enormously promising, reporter Bronwyn Herbert notes an imbalance between supply of biochar and demand. “Researchers have been forced to import a third of their biochar from the Philippines, just to keep trials running,” she says.  A number of farmers and scientists alike agree that localized, small-scale biochar production might make the most sense.  This is a pillar of re:char’s mission, and concept we support globally.  Installing a pyrolyzer on-site and integrating it into the farm’s recycling and energy infrastructure would eliminate shipping costs for biochar while simultaneously reducing the farm’s energy expenditures.

Next Steps

It is now illegal in Australia to dump bio-waste, or as they call it “green waste,” into landfill. Despite this progressive stance on bio-waste, the nation has been slow to move forward with soil-based sequestration technologies. Herbert notes, “The charcoal technology has been lumped with agriculture in Australia’s carbon trading landscape and isn’t eligible for carbon credits until 2015.”  Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke explains, “It’s important that we, when designing our rules, use the international rules. If you have rules that are separate from the international rules for how you count your credits, then you can effectively cut yourself out of the international trading system.”

Lateline also reports that the Agriculture Minister has “found nearly $1.5 million for research into biochar [and is coordinating a] the three-year project, looking at both biochar’s potential to reduce carbon emissions and boost farm productivity.”  Bronwyn Herbert remarks, “In some ways the Government is playing catch-up because biochar has been the centrepiece of the Coalition’s climate change commitments since Malcolm Turnbull became leader.”

We hope that the situation in Australia will work itself out favorably, and that the importance of soil-based sequestration will outweigh political infighting. Finally, a few choice quotes on biochar from the people at the center of the debate in Oz:

“I see it as being one of the most significant things Australia can do. The best benefit is that we actually draw down some of the pollutant out of the atmosphere and put it into the soil where it stays for hundreds if not thousands of years.”

Tim Flannery

“We’re getting very significant improvements in yield in our cropping situation. We’ve increased yield of sweet corn from 16 tonnes up to 35 tonnes of fresh cob per hectare and we’ve more than doubled our yield of fibre bean crops as our winter crop. So we’re getting quite significant and also economic returns on the investment of applying biochar to soil… Certainly in these situations your application of 10 tonnes to 20 tonnes per hectare of the biochar is having very significant benefits to the soil chemistry and also the crop production. And economically, we’re showing that farms are still gonna make money over the application of the biochar at between $100 and $300 a tonne. So economically, it still makes a lot of sense applying 10 tonnes per hectare in these farming systems… It might translate to less nitrogen fertiliser and improved yield.”

Lukas Van Zwieten

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