To: Biofuelswatch blog
The recent "Biochar" report, announced by Almuth two days ago on this list, is the only negative biochar report with extensive biochar references I have yet seen. I've been studying this for a week, other biochar references for at least five years. Because I feel the world must seriously consider every possible technology that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, I below provide beginning rebuttal comments on this report. On the positive side, I can appreciate and applaud the BFW strong emphasis on preserving forests and biodiversity. However, after a pretty careful search, I found nothing to substantiate your dismissing biochar nothing except that you believe biochar is a "biofuel". I disagree with this classification. No other biomass-related approach is capable of either (much less both) reducing atmospheric CO2 economically or improving soil productivity. Fortunately biochar also has a carbon-neutral energy aspect but that is not enough to lump it with all other biofuel approaches.
Your strong belief that biochar is going to be harmful to the environment would have been bolstered by at least one or two citations to other technical negative literature. Your fifty-some references to frog, toads and amphibeans is not germane these unfortunate reptiles have zero connection to biochar. If there were some connection, I expect the connection to be positive not negative. If there were such a negative, one of the most well-known biologists (20 books, 130 articles), Prof. Tim Flannery would not have strongly endorsed biochar (see http://www.biochar-international.org/timflannery.html). Prof. Flannery was at the second IBI conference only hours away from London - a few months ago.
It is unfortunate that you chose to not attend this conference, nor cite any of the 70 plus posters - a majority of which are also available at the IBI site, along with many others from the 2007 IBI Conference. Similarly, it is unfortunate you did not apparently read either of the two large volumes covering the highly positive Amazonian history (both entitled "Amazonian Dark Earth"). Of course you can't read everything, but your list of biochar citations is amazingly short. Even then, you quote from authors who are almost uniformly positive about biochar. If you were not inserting your own negative views, almost everything you quote would prove biochar has a very bright future. In your reference 58, you have cited one paper as being deficient in details, but you have failed to note that there were about 30 such biochar papers this year at this major soils conference - that the year before had none. I guess it all depends on whether you view the glass as half full or half empty. Biochar is a very new field with close to zero public consciousness and the fantastic excitement about biochar of both climate and soils scientists does not come through in your review.
The roughly 25% of your report devoted to biochar in Section 4 is an inappropriately small proportion, especially when you make serious negative allegations. As near as I can tell, none (repeat none) of the even smaller percentage of references in Section 4 (28 out of a report total of 189) support any of your concerns. The most authoritative negative article you have cited was by Dr. Wardle (your reference # 60). But Dr. Wardle was only urging caution and furthermore you only provided half the story. The other half (a response by Prof. Lehmann and a rejoinder by Dr. Wardle should/could have been provided (all three are at: http://www.biochar-international.org/aboutbiochar/articlesonchar.html. ).
Assuming that the authors (Almuth and Deepak) will disagree with my analysis of this report, I ask that they list the top few references that have led to, or support, this so-negative opinion on biochar. I especially ask that they exclude references that are only critical of biofuels. I grant that the biofuels topic deserves criticism but the traditional biofuels areas have neither of the climate and soils improvement attributes of biochar which prompt this note to this blog
To those who have not yet read this report, I especially ask that you look carefully at how this BFW report dismisses Dr. Jim Hansen's recent endorsement of biochar. To me, the authors dismiss Hansen's endorsement solely because he can (reluctantly) live with biochar from plantation forestry. If BFW has a different reason for dismissing Hansen's views on biochar, they have not made it clear. Similarly, BFW is simply wrong about not being able to achieve Hansen's (and IBI's) goals for atmospheric carbon reduction. Those goals are large - but realistic and a small portion of annual biomass production.
Finally, here are three examples of improper analysis that I hope the authors will also address in a rebuttal:
a. From p 9: "This, of course does not mean that the same proposals are not also promoted by those who see them as an alternative to reducing fossil fuel burning."(underlining of four negatives added for emphasis)
It took me some time to figure out what this quadruple-negative sentence was intended to convey. I think they meant this (all-positive) statement: "These same proposals are promoted by those wanting to retain fossil fuel burning." While undoubtedly true about a few future biochar proposals (however, I have met no biochar proponent ever saying this), carbon credits can transfer considerable dollars from the fossil to biochar (necessarily forest-preserving and fossil-fuel reducing). I know of no better way to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. This whole topic of carbon credits for biochar was mentioned only once (negatively) by BFW, so a plus for biochar is turned into a negative with this double-double-negative sentence.
b. From p 51: "Currently, the terrestrial biosphere absorbs a net 300 million to 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon per year.117 . even taking account of losses due to deforestation and fires etc."
The authors have misread Reference 117 (An IPCC technical document which I found at http://ipcc-wg1.ucar.edu/wg1/Report/AR4WG1_Print_Ch07.pdf). In the right-most column of Table 7.1 their "net 300 million to 1.5 billion tonnes" is shown as 0.9 +/- 0.6. This poorly defined number is itself the subtraction of two equally poorly known even-larger numbers (for deforestation and CO2-augmented growth). Thus Almuth and Deepak have "thrown the baby out with the bath water". That is, land use changes have been relegated to the unimportant - as they now have thrown away the annual deforestation loss - that they so (correctly) abhor. In other parts of this IPCC chapter (for instance Figure 7.3) , it is clear that the IPCC thinks the average annual increase in atmospheric carbon content due to land use changes is about 1.6 Gt C/yr. And it is here that biochar can have just as large a positive impact a correlation BFW disputes. (This Table shows "n.a" for the most current period, whereas the changes MUST be much like the prior 5-year period also showing the 1.6 Gt C/yr mean value of Figure 7.3.)
c. Lastly, also from the report's p 51, two paragraphs later: "Additionally, even if it was possible to speed up the terrestrial carbon cycle, in the first couple of decades the emissions from biomass loss would far outweigh the gains from new biomass."
Biochar makes the most sense when working with residues mostly agricultural. The authors insist on equating biochar only with energy plantations newly planted following the deforestation of old-growth natural forests. Nothing could be further from the truth. With a little boost from the UN, and a modest amount of training, the biochar march could begin in 2009. Already, we hear of new biochar projects every month soon likely to be every week.
In sum, my perception is that the authors are so adamantly opposed to biofuels that they have not been sufficiently diligent in analyzing biochar. Biochar is a vastly different technology one that they, joining every other analyst I have seen/read, should be wholeheartedly endorsing.
Ron Larson, Golden, Colorado, USA; 30 Nov. 2008