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Asia Pacific Biochar Conference: Kyoto 2011

By Debbie Reed, Executive Director, IBI

Kyoto, Japan is lovely any time of year, but provided an especially warm, inviting, and historical backdrop for the recent Asia Pacific region biochar conference, hosted by the Japan Biochar Association (JBA). Held at the contemporary facilities of Ritsumeikan University’s Suzaka Campus in Kyoto, the conference ran from the 15th of September through the 18th, culminating on the 18th with joint sessions on biochar held concurrently with the Japanese Association of Human and Environmental Symbiosis (JAHES), followed by afternoon study tours to view biochar projects in the surrounding areas.

With over 100 participants from across the Asia Pacific region and globally, the conference captured the excitement and growth evident in the biochar field in general, and provided excellent updates in research, policy, project, and organizational activities across the biochar field. Country reports from the Asia Pacific region were particularly exciting to hear, given the breadth of activities and depth of involvement from a diverse cross-section of individuals, organizations, universities, students, and others. The conference planners will post presentations on the conference website in the near future at: http://apbc2011.com.

Opening Addresses

Dr Stephen Joseph, Chairman of the Asia Pacific Biochar Conference Committee (APBCC), and IBI Board Vice-Chairman, provided opening remarks, and asked for a moment of silence in honor of the Japanese casualties lost in the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. 

ogawaOfficial greetings were then delivered to meeting delegates from Dr Makoto Ogawa, President of the JBA, and Chairman of the APBC Kyoto 2011 Executive Committee, and other Japanese dignitaries. Dr Ogawa welcomed participants to Japan, noting that Japan is recovering from the March disaster, and that the response will include the utilization of biochar. He expressed hope that the conference would raise very specific ideas for the diffusion of biochar in Japan for this purpose (Photo: Dr Ogawa highlighting the long use of biochar for improving tree growth in Japan, courtesy of Doug Phillips).

Dr Kazuhiko Oda of the Kyoto Prefecture, Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, addressed biochar in the context of its climate change mitigation potential. He noted that, as established in the Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCCC negotiated in Kyoto in 1997, the response to climate change must be global, but he pointed to the need for local activities to achieve progress in that direction. He highlighted the significance of a biochar conference being held in Kyoto these 14 years after the protocol was negotiated. Referencing significant biochar activities happening within Japan – including the JBA Cool Veggie project, biochar education programs being taught to elementary school children, and the federal level Biomass Utilization and Promotion Act passed in 2009 – Oda stressed that local activities such as these, which are part of the Kyoto Prefecture’s attempt to implement biochar to promote the development of low-carbon societies, are critical to a sustainable future. 

Speaking at length about the rocky road that biochar has endured within the context of the UN Framework Convention to Combat Climate Change (UNFCCC), Dr Kiyoshi Sawada of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, indicated that biochar has been used in agriculture in Japan for a long time. For progress to be made within the UNFCCC and elsewhere, there needs to be a clear definition of biochar and established guidelines for its use and impacts. Additionally, farmers who use biochar should generate income from its use. Given that the relationship between climate change and agricultural mitigation and adaptation is closely related, the potential role of biochar in these activities is important. For instance, biochar can help with agricultural soil adaptation to drought and to higher temperatures. However, there is yet no mechanism to incorporate biochar as a mitigation technology within the UNFCCC, and given that the UNFCCC post-2012 framework and rules are as yet undecided, Sawada indicated it is difficult to envision how to incorporate it at this time. Since only 27% of global GHG emissions are covered by the existing framework, Sawada suggested that a new framework might be in order, but this issue, as well as agreement on how to proceed overall, will need to be discussed in Durban, South Africa at the upcoming COP17 UNFCCC negotiations in November 2011.

Professor Takeo Iida, the Deputy President of Ritsumeikan University, concluded the opening remarks and greetings, and joined Dr Sawada in expressing hope that the use of biochar as a climate change mitigation tool would ultimately be supported within the UNFCCC. His conclusion, that biochar’s protective effect for soils and agriculture is local and regional, as opposed to its global impacts as a climate change solution, nicely wrapped up the morning’s events and sentiments.

Opening Day Keynote Addresses

The afternoon highlights were four keynote addresses that covered a variety of biochar topics. My own keynote presentation highlighted significant growth in the biochar industry in the last five years, and the parallel growth in the IBI and its activities and affiliates. I provided highlights of some key IBI activities in support of the global biochar community, including our ongoing work to develop a universally agreed definition of biochar, and the development of guidelines for the specification of biochars (formerly referred to as “biochar standards”), intended for biochar use as a soil amendment. I also provided key indicators of the rapid growth in the biochar field, from data that IBI tracks. For instance, website tracking data has shown that, in the past 12 months, the number of individuals registered to receive IBI’s newsletter and updates doubled, to 4,300. Also, in the past 6 months alone, we tracked 67,000 unique visits to IBI’s website, from 189 countries and territories – or virtually every country in the world. My concluding remarks reiterated the significant growing global interest in biochar, and attributed the continued success of the IBI and its many thousands of participants and supporters to such successful regional initiatives as the APBCC and the JBA. I acknowledged that we are part of a movement that is much bigger than all of us, but to which we each, in our own way, contribute – and that together, we can achieve much more than any of us as individuals or individual organizations. 

Dr Yuji Nino of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Land Management division discussed the role of biochar in sustainable agriculture and food security in the Asia Pacific region, indicating extreme weather events show this to be a vulnerable region. He stressed that the utilization of biochar for sustainable agriculture and “Climate Smart” agriculture will require more research, development, demonstration, and deployment of biochar projects and approaches – from production through to utilization - as well as standards and classification systems for biochar materials. He also noted the concern that feedstock utilized for biochar production be sustainably produced and harvested. While FAO is still considering a potential benefit for food security and agricultural productivity from biochar, he reiterated that more research and demonstration projects must be implemented. 

Dr Sununtar Setboonsarng of the Asia Development Bank (ADB) described a biochar project she is planning in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia. She identified challenges to project implementation, including scaling up small-scale projects as investment projects; carbon financing difficulties, and difficulties establishing baselines and monitoring systems; competition of biomass feedstocks for fuel use; and education and awareness of policymakers. She is particularly focused on introducing biochar into existing biomass systems in the Mekong Delta, considering that biochar cookstoves can provide heat for households. She is seeking the inclusion of biochar cookstoves in an improved cookstove project in Cambodia, for instance, and is also hoping to incorporate biochar into an ADB-funded multi-year project focused on the improved use of biomass. Among the challenges Setboonsarng faces for this particular application are criteria for appropriate biochar production units (e.g., size, mobility); institutional assessments of business models to finance biochar production among the rural poor; and a lack of awareness about biochar. 

Dr Evelyn Krull of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Australia and New Zealand Biochar Researchers Network was the final keynote speaker. Krull discussed the large variability in biochar’s properties, depending on its feedstock and various production parameters, and urged more consistent use of specific biochar species against a wide range of research parameters as a means of better documenting and classifying various biochars, their properties, and their impacts. She identified a range of specific biochar characteristics of interest, highlighting some of the variability in impacts across biochar species that she has observed in her research. Her presentation emphasized the fact that biochar is not one material, but rather a spectrum of materials with varying characteristics and impacts, and that continued emphasis, acknowledgment, and documentation or speciation of this variability is critical for the biochar field. 

biochar musicWelcome Celebration

The first day of the APBC conference concluded with a Welcome Celebration by the meeting hosts,  further enhancing conference participants’ experience with Japanese hospitality and spirit. Musical entertainment provided yet another reminder of the long and varied history of biochar and charcoal in Japan, when a musician played several beautiful pieces on a Yamaha xylophone whose wooden bars had been replaced with melodic bars of biochar! (photo courtesy of Doug Phillips).

APBC Day Two:  Breakout and Poster Sessions

The second day of the conference featured six different extremely interesting and diverse breakout sessions – a set of three in the morning, and a set of three in the evening - followed by poster presentations in the evening. The six sessions were categorized into a series of 20-minute presentations on: education and diffusion; cultivation and soil; and biochar production and characterization. We urge you to access the APBC website to read abstracts (including extended abstracts, soon to be posted), and eventually, powerpoint presentations from these sessions. It is difficult to summarize the wide variety of excellent presentations and posters here, but I will note that I found the presentation on Withered Oak Forest Has Come Back to Life with Charcoal Application, by Shoji Miyashita, to be one of the day’s highlights. The presentation featured findings from the local application of biochar in Japan to withering pine forests, and subsequently, to withering broadleaf trees, and noted quite beneficial results from the applications. The presentation, delivered with delightful humor, was fascinating and uplifting, and emphasized the many benefits of biochar observed in trials designed to deal with specific problems, with great results. 

APBC Day Three:  Country and Region Reports, and Joint Sessions between the APBC and the Japan Association for Human and Environmental Symbiosis (JAHES) National Conference

The country and region reports were another highlight of the conference for me, further illustrating the sheer breadth and depth of biochar activities and projects occurring across the Asia Pacific region – and the globe. Country and region reports were presented on research and commercial activity underway in Australia, New Zealand, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, Mongolia, New Zealand, and Japan. Among the highlights: 

  • Australia continues to exhibit a high degree of commercial activity, and a $4.5M award to Pacific Pyrolysis from Victoria State for construction of a 2T/hr pyrolysis plant was reported by Stephen Joseph, among a wealth of other commercial and research activities there. 
  • Chan Saruth of Cambodia reported on a Kuntan Biochar Production Project, being done collaboratively with the Kansai Biochar Corporation of Japan and Cambodian government agencies. The project is in the assessment and planning stages, and is focused on rice husk power generation and biochar production systems in rural Cambodia. 
  • In the Philippines, Bernard Tadeo reported also on biochar production with the rice sector. The Philippines Department of Agriculture and Rice is currently distributing 4,800 units of open-air carbonizers to rice farmers, and teaching farmers to produce biochar on a small scale, “the old-fashioned way”, according to Tadeo. Tadeo reported also that of several cookstoves tested, the gasifier cookstoves had the lowest black carbon emissions.  He also noted some work with fishpond water treatments with biochar. Tadeo indicated that one issue with biochar is proper labeling, and suggested that bio-ash (less than 20% total carbon) be labeled as such, versus biochar (more than 30% total carbon). 
  • Gusan Pari of Indonesia reported on that country’s long history of charcoal production, and of ongoing research on charcoal and its distillates (wood vinegar). The application of charcoal compost in agroforestry systems is practiced with banana, rice, and cassava plantations, among other agricultural systems, but Pari noted that the charcoal compost costs the same as chemical fertilizers. However, he showed results where the soils of rice plantations where chemical fertilizers were used became cracked and dry, but after 5 years, the soils where charcoal compost was used showed no drying or racking. Pari advocated for the needs for standards for biochar materials, as well as market development, and strong regulations. 
  • Wen-Chi Chen reported on both ‘traditional’ and high-tech uses of biochar in Taiwan. Biochar is largely associated with the sustainable bamboo resource industry in Taiwan, and Chen indicated that bamboo biochar has a high absorption capacity and is an activated form of charcoal. Its uses include bio-remediation, as well as in a thin film applied to food wrappers to prolong food freshness and preservation by retarding microbes. It is also used in feed for layer operations, in corn and orchid production, and together with wood vinegar, in tomato, pepper and fruit production systems, including hyrdroponic systems. Among some of the high-tech uses, Chen reported that bamboo biochar is used in carbon electrode materials as an alternative to petro chemical materials, and as an activated charcoal, functions as super-capacitors, which he termed “bamboo charcoal high efficiency capacitors”.
  • In Thailand, Orasa Suksawang reported that the Biochar Network, which is comprised of 50 organizations, is setting up a public biochar forum for community and school education and outreach. The Network is currently preparing a strategy for a government-backed green energy plan, to include curriculum development, government and industry activity, land resource management, and national security in energy management. 
  • Baatarbileg Nachin of the National University of Mongolia, Faculty of Biology and Biotechnology, described issues of poor soils and water scarcity in many areas of Mongolia, and described a 4-year project of the Mongolian Biochar Initiative that is underway, with seed funding provided by the Australian Embassy. The Initiative features three local ngo’s, including the Mongolian Women Farmers Association (MWFA), and the Snow Leopard Conservation Organization. Nachin described some future needs for the project, including support from the scientific community to aid in the design and implementation of nationwide biochar demonstration projects; information, education, and capacity building relevant to biochar at all levels. 
  • Marta Camps Arbestain of New Zealand reported on research underway at Lincoln University and Massey University. She reported in particular on the value of available P and N from biochars, and comparative agronomic impacts of some biochars with chemical fertilizers, as well as soil microbial community impacts of biochar and related reductions of nitrates and nitrous oxides. Biochar confers beneficial effects in New Zealand soils, which tend to be acidic and exhibit high aluminum holding/toxicity. 
  • Akira Shibata, reporting on work underway in Japan, indicated that in 1984, the Japan Ministry of Agriculture approved charcoal/biochar as a soil amendment. Since 2009, grants from the Ministry of Agriculture have supported trials with biochar on 16 working farms, where scientists are measuring N2O, CH4, and CO2 emission impacts. Results of the trials are anticipated in April, 2012. Shibata also reported on the Cool Vege™ Carbon Minus Project, a novel and compelling rural development project that produces biochar from local biomass, utilizes the biochar as a soil amendment in local farms, and based on certification by the JBA, uses certified Cool Vege™ labels on the vegetables produced in these soils. The labels are part of a consumer education program in the marketplace, and carbon offset and sponsorship payments for the Cool Vege™ labels fund the farmers and JBA for its certification process. The project, a potential model for adaptation and utilization in other areas of the globe, establishes the social and economic frameworks to facilitate the flow of money from urban areas (where the Cool Vege™ products are sold and consumed) to rural areas where the biochar is used, while supporting education of farmers, consumers, students, researchers, and policymakers regarding the many benefits of biochar utilization as a soil amendment. The multi-faceted project has many consumer and environmental benefits, includes a research component, and even has a Cool Vege™ Children’s Book and educational component. 

Dr. Makoto Ogawa wrapped up the morning’s activities with a keynote address on “Biochar in Japan and Asia in the Future.” He described challenges to biochar utilization in agriculture, including high production costs and low utilization among farmers. Though 100,000 tons of wood charcoals are now produced annually in Japan for non-fuel uses, the government is subsidizing it’s production, but slow sales have caused a slowdown in economic activity in the sector. Low-cost, small-scale open carbonizers and kiln-type technologies are popular. He referenced a very large-scale plant in operation in Japan, which utilizes wood waste and bio-wastes, and indicated it is pilot scale, and not yet commercial, but more commercial-scale plants are needed. He noted that standards for biochar materials are important – as well as information on who uses biochar. While biochar works best as a soil amendment in less-fertile soils, it’s use in not well-accepted among farmers. He described uses of biochar in forest soils and for edible mushroom production, and indicated that biochar with micorrizal fungi has been used in Japan to revitalize trees damaged by pests and diseases. He is considering starting a Cool Forest activity under the JBA, modeled on the Cool Vege™ project. 

APBC Day Four:  Joint APBC and JAHES Sessions, and APBC Biochar Study Tours

This article will be continued with more details in the October 2011 Newsletter.