Biochar: Black Gold or Just Another Snake Oil Scheme?

Read the full post at Earth Island Journal.

In an interview with Naomi Klein, published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Earth Island Journal, she referred to the American fondness for “win-win solutions.” I had to giggle, having on many occasions sat in on industry-led events, where the speakers, wildly animated, blather on about their latest “win-win-win” technofix, certain to resolve everything that ails humanity, from climate change to poverty, to deforestation to toxic pollution to nuclear waste. Who could be against such hopeful, all-in-one miracle cures?  Perhaps only the skeptics who know the smell of snake oil. Which, I guess, includes me.

I came to such deep skepticism not by nature but from years of experience. One formative experience has been following the hype around biochar. Biochar enthusiasts are a hopeful bunch. They claim that charred biomass will be a win for climate, a win for soils and crop yields, hence a win against hunger and poverty, and a win for renewable energy generation. They are convinced that burning “biomass,” that is, trees, crop residues, animal manure or what have you, (some even advocate burning garbage or tires), could solve our energy, food, and climate woes.

Right away, there is good reason to be skeptical. Burning anything at all seems an unlikely cure for an overheating planet. No matter how it is done, or what is burned, combustion creates pollution — air pollution, particulates, ashes, various toxins and soot, the second largest warming agent after C02. Nonetheless, there are many who embrace biochar and specifically advocate burning things under oxygen starved conditions, via process called pyrolysis, to maximize the production of charred residues. Biochar, they claim, is “black gold.”

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