Orphaned Solutions
"By  combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of  migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions —  net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely. "
 

   Let's summarize: so here we stand. The ocean is going out, the fish  are flopping in the sand. Do we stay and scoop them up or do we run for  the hills?

If the problem we have is too much carbon in the sky (and conversely too  little in the ground), then the solution is to deprive the sky while  feeding the ground.

And yet, for much of the climate change policy community, biochar is still not on their radar. It’s too new. 

In 2011 a Duke University study by the Technical Working Group on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases reviewed the research literature to assess the state of knowledge on the mitigation potential of a wide range of agricultural land management activities. They reported:

Out  of 42 practices reviewed, 26 seem to have positive mitigation potential.  Eleven of those were supported by significant research (more than 20  field or lab comparisons), 13 by a moderate level of research, and two,  while promising, have little research.

Despite  an 8000-year track record of adding and holding carbon in soils,  biochar was among those last two. The other was mob grazing through  Holistic Management.

Eric Toensmeier’s book, The Carbon Farming Solution, which is otherwise excellent, falls into this trap, falsely labeling biochar untested and potentially dangerous. 

He may draw this conclusion from two seriously flawed (not to say  insidiously undermined) studies by the US National Academy of Sciences  and the UK Royal Society. Both of those studies lumped biochar under the  heading of geoengineering and then assigned it to the same dumpster as  all the other already debunked carbon capture schemes without bothering  to speak with any actual biochar scholars. 

For the geoengineering techno-utopians, methods of atmospheric carbon  extraction such as BECCS, air capture of CO2 or limestone salting imply  estimated costs of 100 to >570 trillion dollars to deploy, and entail  large risks with uncertain feasibility and duration. Among the  uncertainties is our ability to muster sufficient political consent to  impose expensive taxes and tariffs on carbon emissions in order to  justify the economic burden of these efforts. When faced with dire  economic environments, the public may simply choose to disregard moral  duties towards future generations. 

Biochar, in contrast, requires no tax subsidies (although that would  accelerate the needed conversion) because it provides enough financial  rewards as a renewable energy source and biofertilizer to justify the  cost of making it from various woody wastes, most of which are burned  away. It is easy to verify — just do annual or decadal soil tests — and  easy to perform life-cycle costing because it has been commercially  available for many years.

Reframing Biochar

When we use terms like “carbon-minus” or “carbon-negative” we set off  associations that immediately cause the majority of us to back away, or  to regard the information as detrimental to us in some way. Last week we  spoke of the important work on cognition provided by Alfred Korzybski’s  theory of general semantics.

Just as an aside, one of Korzybski workshops, in the Autumn of 1939, was  attended by a 25-year-old William S. Burroughs and the 36-year-old Samuel I. Hayakawa.   Hayakawa, the nephew-in-law of Joseph Stalin, went on to become  president of San Francisco State College (where, among the students he  trained, was Stephen Gaskin) and a US Senator for California (1977-83)  where he had untold influence on the seductive rhetorical practices of  silver-screen-idol-turned politician Ronald Reagan and the Republican  Party he led, later catalogued by George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. 

We know that words that seem threatening, such as those that imply, hard  conditions, forced austerity, higher taxes and so on, trigger a denial  reflex in the human brain, one which was not possessed by our mammalian  ancestors but which is important to our genetic survival. Once we  realized that not only is it our karma to kill to live (right down to  the billion of helpless microbes in every teaspoon of tofu), but each of  our fates to suffer and die, we would go raving nuts were it not for  the saving grace of the denial reflex.

So what should we use instead of carbon-minus? We like “cool.”

Cool soothes the brain and chills the endorphins that might cause denial  impulses to form. Cool is chill. We are more relaxed, more receptive.

An example of "cool" branding was provided by the pilot Carbon Minus  Project in Kameoka City, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan. The Hozu rural  farmers' cooperative, concerned about the overgrowth of bamboo that was  destroying satoyama (managed forest commons) began producing bamboo  biochar to amend their soils. Using a "Cool Vege" brand to denote the  benefit of carbon sequestration, the university assisted cooperative  demonstrated impressive success in marketing their produce to  climate-conscious consumers.

Nothing stands in the way of the "cool" brand being extended to any  product or service that reverses climate change. It is a sticky meme.

4 pour 1000

There are other reasons that good solutions may not get traction that  have less to do with our fight or flight reflex. At COP-21 in Paris in  2015 the French government backed an initiative called 4 pour 1000.  France had obtained pledges from over 25 countries – and would bring  that number to 50 during COP-21 – as well as hundreds of food,  agriculture and research organizations. 

The "4/1000 Initiative: Soils for Food Security and Climate" was a  voluntary effort launched through the Lima-Paris Action Agenda.

"The conclusion is simple," said French Foreign Minister Le Foll. "If we  can store the equivalent of 4 per 1000 (tons of carbon) in farmland  soils, we are capable of storing all man-made emissions on the planet  today."
 
"This  is the most exciting news to come out of COP-21," said Andre Leu,  president of IFOAM - Organics International. "By launching this  initiative, the French government has validated the work of scientists,  farmers and ranchers who have demonstrated the power of organic  regenerative agriculture to restore the soil's natural ability to draw  down and sequester carbon." It positions farmers as the pioneering  climate heroes of the next generation. 

But then what happened? At COP-22, France still featured 4 pour 1000 in  its literature and displays, but it had attracted few new adherents or  pledges in the year since Paris. There were no real success stories to  point to, no carbon fields waving in the sunlight. Just hot air.

Food writer Michael Pollan, in a Washington Post Op-Ed during the Paris summit, wrote: 

Marin County ranchers have found that applying a single layer of  compost, less than an inch thick, to rangelands stimulates a burst of  microbial and plant growth that sequesters dramatic amounts of carbon in  the soil - more than 1.5 tons per acre. And research has shown that  this happens not just once, but year after year.

If the practice were replicated on half the rangeland area of  California, it would sequester enough carbon to offset 42 million metric  tons of CO2 emissions, roughly equal to all the CO2 emitted by the  State's electric utilities each year. Adding an inch of compost to all  the rangelands each year would sequester as much as electric utilities,  residential and commercial emissions combined. 

What  is left out of that calculation are the big gorillas in California's  emissions picture: the industrial sector (77 million metric tons) and  transportation, most notably the freeway system (200 million metric  tons). California would need to convert its deserts to rangelands to get  that much carbon locked away every year. 

That is really the problem with 4 pour 1000: the math doesn’t pencil  out. Le Foll’s goal of adding 0.4 percent carbon to just existing  farmlands will not revert the atmosphere and oceans to pre-industrial  harmony. Spreading an inch of compost, as Michael Pollan suggests, won’t  do it either. 

While compost stimulates soil organisms and that moves carbon down from  the surface into the root zone for longer sequestrations, most compost  decomposes closer to the surface and emits greenhouse gases in the  process. That is just the labile carbon cycle, get used to it.

Holistic Management

There is also this problem in Allan Savory’s chemistry. When those  advocating Holistic Management, after the fashion of the Savory  Institute and others, claim that they can build deep carbon in soils by  mob grazing on rotational pastureland, they are speaking of labile  carbon. Labile carbon never stops going around. More ominously, climate  warming accelerates soil outgassing. One of the standard nightmare  scenarios that could even be playing out as we write this involves  long-stored labile carbon in swamps, peat bogs, grassy plains and  permafrost that may be liberated in one enormous carbon pulse that sends  Earth's atmosphere to something akin to that of Venus in a very short  time.
 
Personally we love compost, dung beetles and mob grazing. Compost is the  nearest farming gets to a cure-all: it holds the key to recovering dead  and damaged soils. It’s cheap and easy, works anywhere, and once it has  time to do its magic, any of the common problems of farming and  gardening go away. Plants get healthier, animals get stronger, and  societies become more secure. Our foods become more abundant,  disease-resistant and nutritionally dense.

Compost can be seen as the basic food supply of any garden. It provides a  circular economy. It closes the loop between human uses and what gets  left afterwards. It supplies the microbial decomposers, re-arrangers and  transporters who turn wastes back into resources and deliver them in  forms and on schedules that plants need.

But if you are a microbe or a dung beetle, you need more than food. You  also need shelter. You need a habitat that helps you survive and  encourages you to thrive. And if you are a climate scientist, or just  someone concerned with rapid warming of the planet, you are looking for a  real solution — something capable of rebalancing the various carbon  stores between land, ocean and atmosphere.

And that’s where biochar comes in.

The Coalition on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases (C-AGG) is a  multi-stakeholder coalition whose participants include 150  organizations including agricultural producers and producer groups, scientists,  environmental NGO’s, carbon market developers, methodology experts, and  investors, and other proponents of voluntary agricultural GHG mitigation  opportunities and benefits. According to their website:

Despite the critical and pivotal role the agricultural sector can play  in climate change mitigation and adaptation, climate change policies and  programs are largely directed at point-source emissions reductions  activities and approaches. Agricultural and land use GHG mitigation  opportunities pose a different set of challenges that require different  approaches more appropriate to the sector. Diversity and change are  inherent characteristics of agricultural systems. 

C-AGG attempts to tap the enormous potential for carbon sequestration in soils by  

  •   Developing appropriate incentives, tools, and decision support systems to  scale sustainable agriculture and climate change solutions
  •   Achieving agreement on monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV)  frameworks and metrics to quantify greenhouse gas emissions and  ecosystem services
  •   Supporting asset value generation for sustainably managed landscapes and  development of thriving carbon and ecosystem service markets and  results-based payments

Once you begin to measure whether and when what happens in the soil stays in the soil, some conclusions become unavoidable.

The recalcitrant carbon cycle — biomass to biochar — locks carbon up for  thousands to millions of years. While useful to stimulate the soil  biology, it has the added benefit of holding more oxygen and water,  which better mitigates the damage of extreme weather. It also helps the  nitrogen cycle, another thing that is seriously out of balance but  seldom mentioned.

By combining compost with biochar, or feeding biochar to those herds of  migrating herbivores, the story could become one of negative emissions —  net sequestration — almost immediately, continuing indefinitely. 

And that’s where fake news comes in. 

We encountered critics of biochar even before we wrote The Biochar Solution.  The loudest of them is Biofuelwatch, an organization we previously  respected but no longer do because they are tone deaf to serious and  friendly correctives. Because they are close with many social justice,  ecology and indigenous rights organizations, their completely irrational  proclamations against biochar have been picked up by many in the  environmental community and repeated as if they had not already been  shown to be not merely without merit, but ridiculous. 

In our book we discussed the critics' arguments that we thought had some  merit – such as the temptation for large landowners to monocrop  genetically modified plantations of fast-growing trees to make biochar  for carbon credits — and what could be done to require biochar to be  produced more responsibly. Indeed, the word "biochar" should itself  connote ecologically responsible sourcing and production, in much the  same way that "biodynamic" cannot be used by food growers who don't  follow the rules.

But the outlandish claims by Biofuelwatch, repeated loudly and  frequently — statements like “No matter how it is done, or what is  burned, combustion creates pollution,” “soil carbon is not so much  determined by the molecular structure of the carbon itself, but rather  by surrounding soil ecosystem properties,” or “pyrolysis is difficult to  control and remains largely unproven for commercial application”  continue to find traction both in the alternative media and in policy  reviews.

These spurious arguments continue to engage a series of very public but  false debates. They happen at high profile events and in respected  journals but they are false in the sense that those arguing for biochar  are using science — laboratory testing, review and re-testing in the  real world — while those arguing against are using only polemic, and  will not waiver from patently absurd, well-disproven claims even when  backed into a corner. 

Biofuelwatch’s Rachel Smolker occasionally gets it right, as when she argued:

Forests, soils, ecosystems all are far more than agglomerations of  carbon. They are intricate, multidimensional, interconnected, and  complex beyond our imaginings and hence beyond our ability to measure,  manipulate, and control.

But  she is arguing as much against science as against biochar. She is  arguing against extending the human ability to measure, manipulate, and  control.

In that, she may not be far wrong.

These previous essays have laid out the different dimensions of our  problem: a runaway climate threatening near term human extinction; a  mode of social organization in conflict with fixed biophysical limits;  trusted authorities failing to get it right; confirmation and normalcy  bias obscuring our vision; and orphaned solutions sitting it out while  the clock ticks. In our next post we will begin to explore a way out of  this swamp.

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. The next installment, the introduction to Book Two: The Solution, appears next week. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.

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