The Big Bad Fix

ETC Group, BiofuelWatch and Heinrich Boell Foundation present a comprehensive argument against geoengineering in this report.

Click here to download the full report (pdf)

As a rapidly warming world manifests heat waves, floods, droughts and hurricanes, geoengineering – large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – is being presented as a strategy to counteract, dilute or delay climate change without disrupting energy- and resource-intensive economies. Alarmingly, current debates about this big techno-fix are limited to a small group of self-proclaimed experts reproducing undemocratic worldviews and technocratic, reductionist perspectives. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities are excluded and left voiceless.

As this report details, each of the proposed geoengineering technologies threatens people and ecosystems. Holistic assessments of the technologies also show that if deployed they are highly likely to worsen rather than mitigate the impacts of global warming.

The irreversibility, risk of weaponization, and implications for global power dynamics inherent in large-scale climate geoengineering also make it an unacceptable option.

More funding being made available for negative emissions nonsense

Ecosystem-destroying eucalyptus plantations would be a key part of a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) climate mitigation strategy. Chris Lang/Flickr CC
Ecosystem-destroying eucalyptus plantations would be a key part of a bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) climate mitigation strategy. Chris Lang/Flickr CC

A UK research fund has recently announced that £8.3m is being made available to fund up to 10 different research projects for a programme on Greenhouse Gas Removal from the Atmosphere.

Examples given as potential topics for research proposals are:

  • Soil carbon, forestry and land management, to include biochar
  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS; may include forest-based feedstock)
  • Enhanced weathering and ocean alkalinity enhancement
  • Direct air capture (DAC)

Whilst “soil carbon, forestry and land management” is very broad, no where in the supporting documentation are terms like “natural ecosystem regeneration” or “agro-forestry/ecology”. These are proven and low-cost methods of removing carbon from the atmosphere, that have been put into practice by communities across the globe (with very little support and funding) for decades. But the serious contribution they could make “at a climatically-relevant scale” is simply ignored in favor of unproven, untested and (in the case of biochar and BECCS at least) nonsense technology.

As we recently reported, the Paris Agreement has been a major boost for proponents of negative emissions technologies. Industry calls for more funding are being answered, and it is likely that far more funding will be made available in future for such projects.

With the global climate crisis in the state that is currently is – take for example the recent studies that show there may already be too much carbon in the atmosphere to meet the 1.5 degree target set out in Paris only last December – putting millions into pointless research, when there’s so much that needs to be done in terms of drastically reducing emissions, is simply unacceptable.

Vultures are circling after Paris agreement: the carbon dioxide removal sector wants more funding

BECCS-negative-imageAn article in BizGreen called “How to build a billion dollar industry to fight climate change” features insights from two mmbers of the University of Berkley’s Centre for Carbon Removal, describing how increased funding from philanthropic sources can play a key role in meeting the targets set out in last year’s Paris agreement.

“…with just a little help from philanthropists, large-scale carbon removal (negative emissions) businesses stand poised to prosper in the not-too-distant future — in turn helping to make our long-term climate goals a reality…Carbon removal is critical to make the climate math add up, but often is missing in action.”

The article tells us how the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report shows that Paris agreement’s climate goals present a large market opportunity, owing to the fact that the vast majority of scenarios that see the world hitting the 2 degree target will involve carbon dioxide removal, or negative emissions technologies.

It concludes with the statement: “The bottom line is that philanthropies stand at the door of a large opportunity around carbon removal. By opening the carbon removal conversation today, philanthropies can begin to unlock the economic, environmental and social value of the carbon removal industry of the future.”

The content for the article comes from a new report from the Center for Carbon Removal “PHILANTHROPY BEYOND CARBON NEUTRALITY” in which it sets out the case for an increased flow of funding towards projects considered to be Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), as a way of stimulating the growth of the sector, and building towards commercially viable markets for the products of the industry.

The report, armed with the belief that first the IPCC and now the Paris Agreement have turned CDR and negative emissions technologies into an international imperative, aims to make it clearer to philanthropies what CRD proposals are available to be funded, and where future funding could be aimed to make an impact.

The report is revealing – though not necessarily for the reasons that its authors claim.

Interspersed with pearls of wisdom copied from various twitter feeds (including: “Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is and can be valuable”), a decent analysis of the various CDR proposals, their value to climate mitigation, and scalability, is decidedly lacking. Amongst the supposedly viable CDR options are biochar, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, direct air capture technologies, and mineral storage by extracting and spreading minerals such as silicates over large areas.

Ecosystem restoration and enhancement is also considered, which is potentially a powerful tool for effective climate action, though its relatively low level of current funding is not criticised.

Biochar and BECCS are the stand-out options for CDR funding though: biochar accounts for almost half of annual funding that is considered CDR or at least contributing to it, and BECCS takes the biggest slice of funding that could “help pave the way for carbon removal”, at more than a third.

Biochar has been roundly criticised for not living up to its hype, and has been shown to have very little potential as a positive climate solution (for more on this please see here).

BECCS similarly, under any degree of scrutiny, fails all of the key tests for being a genuine solution to climate change. The report wrongly states that bioenergy itself is low to carbon neutral, and that BECCS therefore results in carbon negative fuels. It also gives an example of funding for BECCS in action, citing the ADM Decatur ethanol fermentation plant in the USA, as an functioning example of the technology. But not even the plant’s operators, ADM, say that negative emissions are being achieved, due to the fact that fossil emissions involved in the ethanol fermentation process exceed the amounts of CO2 currently being captured.

The report does knowledge that the likely impacts of CRD technologies on ecosystems and communities are largely unknown, and that many face significant barriers to scalability, such as land requirements competing with food production, or simply on a technological level where working examples just don’t exist. It does also state that CRD shouldn’t get in the way of efforts to reduce emissions in the first place, or be seen as a substitute for drastic emissions reductions. Despite this though, it still touts fairytale technologies to potential funders as if they were proven solutions to climate change, which is deeply irresponsible.

The report tries to mask pro-industry opportunism for a genuine commitment to solving the climate crisis:

“The opportunities created by carbon removal — which span industries including forestry, agriculture, energy, manufacturing, and mining — hold the potential to foster new political coalitions that can increase pressure on politicians to pick up the pace on comprehensive climate action.”

In doing so, it only reinforces the “business-as-usual” scenario, keeping us firmly on the path to catastrophic climate change.

Biochar: Black Gold or Just Another Snake Oil Scheme?

by Rachel Smolker

Photo by crustmania/flickr Biochar enthusiasts claim it can improve the quality of the soil and hence improve crop yields and thereby help reduce desertification and deforestation,

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.”


The first key “win” of biochar, proponents say, is that if buried in the ground, the char, which consists largely of carbon, will more or less permanently “sequester” that carbon and therefore help to cleanse the atmosphere. In an article published in the journal, Nature, some of the leading biochar enthusiasts claimed that it could offset global greenhouse gas emissions by a whopping 12 percent annually. All that would be required is collecting most forest and agriculture residues and animal manures from across the globe, as well as converting over half a billion hectares (an area larger than India) of land to producing dedicated burnable crops. After collecting it, the biomass would be transported to pyrolysis facilities, burned, then the char would be collected and transported back around the globe where it would be tilled and buried into soils over millions of acres. Year after year.

The problem with this idea isn’t just the massive scale of the project, for which there seems little social or political will. It is even more fundamental: There is really little basis for assuming that biochar carbon really will store carbon reliably in soils. A Biofuelwatch review of peer-reviewed field trials as of 2011 showed some remarkably unimpressive results. We only looked at peer-reviewed field trials in order to distinguish clearly between hype and actual results, and to discern how biochar acts in the real world, with living biodiverse soils, rather than sterile, laboratory conditions. Field trails proved rare; only five such studies were found, which between them tested biochar on 11 different combinations of soil and vegetation. In only three cases did biochar result in any additional carbon sequestration. In most cases, there was either no measurable difference in soil carbon, or even a reduction in soil carbon. These results from short-term studies —none spanned more than four years — fly in the face of repeated claims that biochar will sequester carbon in soils for tens, hundreds or even thousands of years.


More recently, two important reviews (you can read themhere and here) of soil carbon showed that the stability of soil carbon is not so much determined by the molecular structure of the carbon itself, but rather by surrounding soil ecosystem properties. That makes reliable carbon storage very difficult to predict or assume.

Win number two, biochar enthusiasts claim, is that biochar will also improve the quality of the soil and hence improve crop yields, thereby help reduce desertification, deforestation, hunger, and poverty. Again, Biofuelwatch’s review of peer reviewed field trials showed unimpressive and erratic results. Since then, a recent synthesis review of impact on crop yields found that in half of published studies, there was either no effect whatsoever on crop yields, or biochar actually reduced yields.

The third win, according to advocates, is generating renewable electricity and heat during pyrolysis. But so far, virtually all biochar has been produced without doing so. That’s because pyrolysis is difficult to control and remains largely unproven for commercial application. Another reason is the inherent trade off: If you want more biochar less biomass will be converted to heat and power, and vice versa.

None of these trial results have dampened the hopes of biochar enthusiasts, who still see wins everywhere they look. They continue to promote biochar as a means to reduce fertilizer demand, agricultural runoff, clean up waste water, reclaim mine sites, and offset fossil fuel pollution. Some have even advocated feeding it to cows to make them emit less gas, and one company even claims that biochar will make it possible for consumers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even while driving big gas-guzzling cars. (see below).

In her Journal interview Klien also spoke about climate geoengineering, which she referred to as a proverbial “escape hatch” providing a way to avoid the consequences of our failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is indeed one of the most perilous hazards of the geoengineering mindset. Widespread doubts about geoengineering have resulted in a push to accept “more benign” technologies, including large-scale biochar and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Both biochar and BECCS require burning lots of biomass — trees and crops, as well as municipal solid waste. Staggering quantities would have to be harvested and burned to have any measureable impact on the global atmosphere. Studies have shown that capturing just one billion tonnes of carbon per year would require conversion of up to 990 million hectares of land to plantations. The consequences for land, water, soils, biodiversity, would very likely render the treatment worse than the disease.

What is already painfully evident is that demand for biomass, even at the current smaller scale is already stripping Earth of her remaining biodiverse ecosystems, and replacing them with industrial, chemically-dependent monoculture deserts.

Another article in the Journal’s recent issue, “Modified Stands,” talks about the push for genetically engineered trees. The impetus behind GE trees is a projected dramatic increase in demand for wood, in large part for bioenergy. This demand is a result of subsidies and supports for renewable energy that fail to distinguish between the kind of renewable energy that requires constant inputs of fuel (wood etc) and combustion, and the kind that does not. The lion’s share of subsidies and supports has gone to bioenergy, including biofuels and biomass burning for electricity, which can conveniently be done 24/7 in coal plants, or stand alone facilities. Windmills and solar panels are more fussy, expensive, and their production cycles are intermittent.

To get a sense of the scale and impact of using bioenergy, consider that in the United Kingdom alone, current and proposed biomass burning for energy would require over 80 million tons of wood, more than eight times the amount of wood produced for all purposes domestically. There is now an expanding international trade in wood chips and pellets to satisfy this voracious demand from the UK and other European countries. Tree plantations and native forests in the southeastern United States and Canada are being cut, pelletized and shipped to Europe to be burned as “renewable energy.” The wood pellet industry is booming, and fast growing monoculture plantations — which could soon include GE trees, are in great demand.

Biochar enthusiasts usually insist they won’t cut forests or convert ecosystems to provide burnable biomass. Just like the biomass electricity industry, they prefer to talk about burning “wastes and residues.” But there is no such thing as “waste” in a forest ecosystem — all is recycled, via decay, to support regeneration and regrowth. In many places, definitions of waste have been expanded to include virtually any wood that is not valued as sawlogs, so timber harvests are more intense and destructive. In agriculture, there are often better options for residues, such as compost, mulch, animal fodder, and bedding. In any case, industrial forestry and agriculture practices have already wreaked havoc on ecosystems. Creating a market for the waste products of unsustainable practices hardly seems a step in the right direction.


So far, biochar has not gained the subsidies and investments needed to scale it up commercially. Biochar advocates initially worked to gain funding from carbon markets, arguing that biochar could “offset” fossil fuel pollution, but with the recent decline of global carbon markets they have largely retreated seeking carbon financing. Instead, they are now pushing biochar as a niche product for small-scale and organic farmers.
The good news is that most small-scale farmers are closely attuned to what works on their farms and will judge for themselves. The bad news is that they are largely unaware that they are to some extent being used to promote an eventual massive scale-up of the  biochar industry.

In 2008-09, for example, a high-profile biochar project in Cameroon run by Biochar Fund, a Belgian nonprofit, promised to alleviate poverty and improve nutritional status of poor farmers by improving crop yields. The farmers donated land and labor, and were told they would be compensated with finance from carbon markets. The first set of trials were proclaimed wildly successful without any independent verification. Then the trials were abandoned without even informing the farmers. Biochar Fund moved on and was granted funds for yet another set of trials in Congo. This time the claim was that biochar would enable slash and burn agriculturalists to do less slashing and burning because the soils would be enriched with biochar. So far, there are no reports of the status of those trials. (Read Biofuelwatch’s investigative report about the Cameroon project here.)

Just as with biomass electricity, biochar enthusiasts claim that burning biomass is “carbon neutral” – that the carbon released during combustion will be reabsorbed by new trees or crops. This claim has been soundly and repeatedly refuted. Trees take years to regrow, assuming that they even do so. Cutting natural forests for biomass electricity, or biochar, or any other use results in a massive “carbon debt” that can take decades or even centuries to repay (i.e. for an equivalent amount of carbon to be reabsorbed in new tree growth). Biochar advocates continue to cling to the carbon neutral myth nonetheless. In fact, they take it a step further. Burying the carbon char in soils, they say, will permanently store some of the carbon, so regrowth will absorb additional (not just replacement) carbon. This, they say, makes it carbon negative.

This misguided logic is what lies behind claims by companies like Cool Planet that consumers can clean the atmosphere by driving more. The California-based biofuel and biochar company seeks to make transportation fuels from wood, which they say is “carbon neutral,” and then bury the char residue from their production process, thus renderning the entire process “carbon negative.” By Cool Planet’s logic, driving more could actually reduce carbon emissions. That kind of “win” has an especially outstanding appeal. Cool Planet has won significant corporate backing from BP, ConocoPhillips, General Electric, and Google among others, and is now looking at opening two new facilities in Louisiana.

The logical conclusion for biomass electricity or biochar, from a purely carbon accounting perspective is that we should burn things that grow faster and therefore incur a shorter “carbon debt.” GE eucalyptus perhaps?  Clearly it is not very helpful to reduce the whole affair of climate change to counting carbon molecules. 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.

The reductionist mindset that carbon accountants engage with is a dead end that only serves to blind us to the full scope and range of Earth as a whole. It fails to see that this planet is more than the sum of its parts. If we are really serious about preserving life on Earth, we will have to relearn how to envision the whole, embrace humility in the face of our ignorance about how life-supporting earth systems work. No amount of biochar, no climate geoengineering tricks, no technofixes or markets or “private sector engagement” or fancy carbon accounting will be a “win win win” for us. By far the winning strategy would be to allow Earth to restore, regenerate and recover, on her own terms.

Tar sands with biochar? The growing links between biochar advocates and the Canadian tar sands industry

“Biochar could offset Canada’s tar sands programme for 14.5 years.” — Lloyd Helferty, Advisory Committee Member of the International Biochar Initiative (video)

Background: What is biochar?

Biochar – a PR term for charcoal added to soils – is being promoted as the answer to most of the worlds’ crises. The idea is this: By turning crops, trees and so-called ―residues‖ into charcoal, we can produce both bioenergy and charcoal, which contains large amounts of carbon. If the charcoal is then tilled into soils, it will (supposedly) sequester vast amounts of carbon under the ground. New plants will then (supposedly) regrow, absorbing more carbon from the atmosphere. By repeatedly growing – charring burying the charcoal biochar will (supposedly) reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, sequester it in soils, and slow or even reverse global warming. The energy produced during charring will be used as a substitute for fossil fuels and the biochar will, (supposedly) make soils far more fertile, all of which will help solve the climate and energy crisis and world hunger in one stroke or at least go a long way towards solving them. Or so biochar advocates would have us believe.

The reality is very different: The impacts of biochar use on climate and soils are highly uncertain, even on a small scale and they vary widely. In fact, there are no peer-reviewed long-term field studies of modern biochar lasting more than a year or two. Some present and past indigenous farming practices mix some ash and charcoal with diverse organic residues but there is virtually no experience with adding large quantities of industrially-produced powdered charcoal to soils, let alone together with fossil-fuel based fertilisers as is the norm in biochar trials. A recent, (not peer-reviewed), field study from Quebec found that two years after biochar was applied to fields, the overall soil carbon was no greater than on other fields where no biochar had been used. Furthermore, biochar particles can be as small as black soot ones and if they become airborne, could have a very strong warming effect.

One thing we know, is that large-scale biochar would mean a vastly increased demand for crops and wood and thus for land. It is likely to replicate the experience with agrofuels, with serious impacts for people, forests and the climate. In August 2010, leading biochar advocates published an article in science journal Nature Communications which they attempt to estimate the global potential for ‘sustainable’ biochar. Among other assumptions, the authors assume the conversion of 556 million hectares of land to new crop and tree plantations for growing crops to produce charcoal. This is over 1.5 times the size of India and 20- 25 times greater than the area of land used for agrofuel plantations worldwide at present.

ConocoPhillips’ support for biochar:

So far, nearly all the companies promoting biochar are small startup biochar firms, voluntary carbon offset companies, consultancies and some bioenergy firms. The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) leads lobby efforts at the international level. Their main aim is to leverage funding through inclusion of biochar into the carbon markets.

There is only one large, multi-national company at present which actively supports the IBI’s endeavours: ConocoPhillips. Back in 2007/08, they gave $22 million to a biochar-related research project based at Iowa State University, led by a member of the IBI’s Advisory Board. More recently, however, their support has gone far beyond research. In December 2009, ConocoPhillips Canada became one of two ‘Founding Sponsors’ of the Biochar Protocol, an initiative which aims to get biochar into carbon trading (the other sponsor was the Carbon War Room – co-funded by biofuel entrepreneur Branson, which works in partnership with the IBI). There are reports of ConocoPhillips having been involved in trying to persuade other multinational companies, such as agribusiness firm DuPont to also back biochar.

The Biochar Protocol’s immediate aim is to see biochar included into two carbon trading schemes: The Voluntary Carbon Standard and the Alberta Offset Scheme, which is effectively an offsetting mechanism for the tar sands industry in Alberta. ConocoPhillips boasts about being a leading investor in Canadian tar sands.

The Alberta Offset System – Why would tar sands investors be interested in biochar?

The Alberta Offset System (AOS) was introduced in 2007 as part of carbon trade-based ‘climate legislation’ passed by the Government of Alberta, which seeks to legitimise ever-rising carbon emissions from the tar sands mega-projects – considered to be among the most destructive projects on earth, with a legacy of toxic contamination and human rights abuses. The government of Alberta claims that under the AOS, Alberta’s emissions have been reduced by over 17 million tons – a remarkable claim, given that the Canadian Government estimates that Alberta’s emissions have grown by 67 million tonnes or 40% since 1990. Offsets are clearly Alberta’s favourite way to ‘hide’ fast rising emissions. Under Alberta’s legislation, there are no limits on overall emissions, instead the 100 largest greenhouse gas emitters (including all the larger investors in tar sands), have to address only their ‘carbon intensity’. This means they can keep emitting more and more CO2, as long as their emissions per unit of energy decrease – or as long as they buy enough offsets.

The AOS rules and standards are more lax and even more industry-friendly than those of many other carbon trading schemes. A biochar proposal has just been submitted and will be considered (and probably rubberstamped) in 2011.

What tar sands investors want and need, under Alberta’s legislation, are unlimited, cheap carbon offsets from schemes in Alberta (under the AOS, offset projects have to be provided from inside the state). Biochar could be imported from plantations anywhere in the world however, as long as it is used in Alberta. Once such a market exists with the first larger-scale demand from Alberta, plantation expansion in countries including Brazil, Chile, Ghana, India or Malaysia (all countries with active biochar lobbies) could soon follow. If claims by biochar advocates about the scale of potential biochar production are to be believed), biochar offsets could become so plentiful that they’d push down the price of carbon offsets and make the whole scheme even cheaper for the tar sands industry.

Alberta’s tar sands offsets and the International Biochar Initiative’s strategy:

In 2008/09, the IBI put most of their energies into getting biochar included in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). They might still succeed, but there are growing doubts whether the CDM will survive at all, given rich countries’ lack of support for extending the Kyoto Protocol. The AOS, on the other hand, offers the chance of quick success. It is a far smaller scheme, but expected to grow and, above all, getting biochar into one scheme would help the IBI lobby for inclusion into larger carbon markets in future.

During the IBI’s Third International Conference in September 2010, they appointed Keith Driver of Leading Carbon Ltd, a key advisor to the Alberta Offset System to draft the IBI’s first ever biochar standards. These will be industry standards, with no claims about ‘sustainability’ or climate impacts. This, together with the Biochar Protocol, appears to be the IBI’s main priority for the next twelve months, key to their strategy of scaling up biochar. The IBI and tar sands-industry advisors and representatives are thus working hand in hand to put in place carbon offsets and policies which could ultimate involve large-scale carbon finance for biochar, resulting in large up-scaling of production. This would very likely have the same impact as biofuels – massive expansion of industrial monocultures, deforestation, land grabs, evictions of peasant farmers, indigenous peoples, other forest -dependent communities and pastoralists, worsening hunger and human rights abuses and climate change.

For more information see: