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Tim Flannery: An Open Letter on Biochar

Tim FlanneryThroughout 2008 it’s felt as if our future has been crystallising before our eyes. Food shortages, escalating oil prices, a melting Arctic ice cap and other climatic changes seem to make the news every week. All are potentially serious threats, and any one could be the harbinger of profound change for our global civilisation. Scientific studies confirm that our planet is warming at a rate consistent with the worst case scenario developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001, meaning that we must make substantial inroads on our emissions in the next 20 years if we hope to avoid irreversible damage to Earth’s climate system. Yet, with economic growth and the thirst for energy in China and India seemingly unstoppable, this is a task of the utmost difficulty. Furthermore, progress cannot be made at the cost of our food or energy security. What is needed in this 21st century of ours, clearly, are solutions that deal with several of our major problems at once. And they must be deliverable quickly, and at a scale able to make a real difference.

Biochar may represent the single most important initiative for humanity’s environmental future. The biochar approach provides a uniquely powerful solution, for it allows us to address food security, the fuel crisis, and the climate problem, and all in an immensely practical manner. Biochar is both an extremely ancient concept and one very new to our thinking. Amazonian Indians used it to produce the terra preta soils of the Amazon basin which, a thousand years after their creation, remain more fertile than surrounding lands. Yet few farmers living today have heard of biochar. Worse, our political debates about climate change continue in ignorance of it, while industries that could benefit immensely from it have barely considered it.

The key element in the biochar technologies is charcoal-making, which involves the heating of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. There are many important products of the charcoal-making processes, including a synthetic gas which can be used to generate electricity; a substitute for diesel fuel, and the charcoal itself, which has the potential to sequester gigatonnes of atmospheric carbon per annum, making it the most potent engine of atmospheric cleansing we possess. Among the most valuable outcomes of the application of the biochar technologies are greatly increased economic efficiency in agriculture, enhanced crop yields, and slowing the return to the atmosphere of carbon captured by plants. Diverse and clean energy supplies, more food per unit of input, and climate security. In simple terms, this is what the biochar revolution offers us.

Biochar technologies are potentially world-wide in their applicability. Grain production and many other forms of agriculture, livestock production, forestry and even the disposal of human waste will, I’m convinced, be profoundly transformed by biochar, and the impact will be both swift and radical. The driver, at least initially, is likely to be the climate crisis. Approximately eight per cent of all atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by plants each year. If just a small proportion of the carbon captured by plants can be pyrolysed and transformed into charcoal, humanity’s prospects will be much brighter, for this will buy us time as we struggle to make the transition to a low emissions economy.

Biochar  represents a cornerstone of our future global sustainability. With the appropriate political and technical recognition, promotion and adoption, it will change our world forever, and very much for the better.

Tim Flannery
August 2008

Tim Flannery is a Professor in Earth and Life Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. In 2002 he was the first scientist to give the Australia Day address, in 2005 he was Australian humanist of the year, and in 2007 Australian of the Year. He has authored 20 books and published 130 research papers in mammalogy, palaeontology, and sustainability.