Monbiot and biochar

Yesterday, I had the privilege of hearing George Monbiot speak live for the second time in my life.  It is a very rare privilege because two years ago, shortly after the last time I saw him, when he was on a tour promoting his then newly-published book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, he promised himself never to fly again.

He joked that he broke his promise for this trip because it was easier than putting off the pestering Canadians any longer.  But he was also clearly here because he was concerned about Canada’s position on climate change and the direction our government was taking both the country and the world.

I was very glad I went.  First of all, I was glad simply because it’s inspiring to listen to someone who is so informed, so eloquent and so principled and inspiring.  But I was also glad because there’s just so much more that can be said in person than could ever fit into a printed article.  It’s relatively easy to make guarded and thoughtful statements when you can erase what you don’t like.  To my delight, Monbiot in person presents as even more compassionate and sensible than he does on paper.

To me the most interesting point of the event occurred during the questions that followed, when one person asked about Mr. Monbiot’s opposition to biochar.  Biochar has been described by Tim Flannery as a man-made coal.  It is derived from organic materials through a low-oxygen combustion process like pyrolysis.  The process of pyrolysis yields useful energy.  The resulting char (or charcoal) can also be burned, but is more important in the fight against climate change as something which stores carbon in a stable way while simultaneously acting as a soil amendment.

This was an interesting question to me, because I think we may desperately need biochar as a relatively benign way of reducing emissions, and I had always felt that Monbiot’s statement on this was far too dismissive, even if he brought up valid concerns with its development.  So his response would have been interesting enough, but I could see that it was going to get even more interesting, because the next person in line for questions was Lloyd Helferty, who has worked tirelessly on the Canadian Biochar Initiative, which I’ve asked to be informed about.   Lloyd is a former Green Party candidate and cannot be remotely accused of being interested in promoting an unsustainable idea for profit.  He is also one of the most knowledgeable people I know.

By the time Lloyd was asking his question, he was clearly anxious — very unlike the calm and professional Lloyd I’m used to seeing.  He pleaded with Monbiot to retract his opposition to biochar, as it was very difficult for soil scientists like himself to even get governments to listen to them.

What Monbiot responded was both wise and sympathetic, even though it must have been dreadfully unsatisfying to Lloyd.

He said that he believed that biochar was effective at sequestering carbon.  He believed that it was probably a useful soil amendment.  And if it could be reliably restricted to true agricultural waste he would be happy to embrace it.  However, it was far too likely that instead it would take the path of biodiesel from jatropha.

Jatropha is a plant that grows on very marginal lands, yet produces oil which can be processed into biodiesel at about ten times the rate of corn from ethanol.  Had jatropha been used as its early proponents intended — taking advantage of marginal soils to yield a useful product, it could have been helpful in our move to a more sustainable existence.  Instead, the minute a subsidy was placed on jatropha oil, hectares of rainforest fell to jatropha plantations and thousands of peasants were evicted.  Even from a climate change perspective, this is an exceedingly bad idea.  There is an imperative to maintain forests as well as reduce carbon outputs if we want to have a livable planet in the end.  There is also an imperative not to allow our hunger for energy to compete with food production.  In Myanmar alone, 50,000 acres have been dedicated to jatropha plantations.  Belatedly, it was found that jatropha grown on marginal soils has much lower yields.

Monbiot pointed out to Lloyd that although he had no doubts about Lloyd’s sincerity or commitment, the very fact that Lloyd was having trouble getting the government’s ear was indication of what it would take to get biochar on a government agenda.  The government will look into it when there is a powerful economic imperative to do so, and not a moment sooner.  And the economic imperative will look like a large industry which respects no land or sustainability issues, not like a small farmer pyrolizing his waste in a corner of his lot.

This is fine with me.  I’ve never been fond of governments subsidizing industries.  It only encourages industrial lobbies that subvert what little sense there is in the market.  The business of governments should be overwhelmingly to tax and to regulate.  Jatropha is clearly in extreme need of better regulation.  And biochar will be too.  Funding the research necessary to identify what makes biochar sustainable and what standards we must demand is a reasonable use of public funds that would be necessary long before we begin to subsidize its use.

George Monbiot, along with Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May, will be debating Bjorn Lomborg and Lord Nigel Lawson this coming Tuesday.

One response to “Monbiot and biochar”

  1. Nando writes:

    We’ve been involved with biochar for over 3 years now, implementing several larger scale projects in that time. On a practical basis, biochar is primarily a soil amendment that can be used to increase fertility, particularly where soils have low carbon levels. For the most part, it is likely to be prohibitively expensive to produce biochar from anything but local agricultural waste streams, largely because of transport costs. Subsidies, unless they are very high, which is also unlikely, won’t change the economic equation a farmer faces when he attempts to evaluate the costs of producing and incorporating biochar against the productivity gains expected in order to predict if he will realize a profit or loss. To manage the financial risk involved, the biochar needs to be produced at the lowest cost possible, and that will always be from on farm waste streams, hands down.

    It is here that George Monboit’s position shows a lack of experience regarding biochar. Comparing it to biofuel scenarios such as Jatropha or palm oil assumes the economics and thus drivers are similar, and they are in fact very dissimilar.

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