Every plausible way to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees presented in the new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a critical component. Agriculture, forestry and land use change must remove a substantial amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. It can be done if policy makers are now taking strong action to build capacity to meet the challenge.
The application of biochar to soil is the most promising agricultural strategy for the sustainable removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. It is produced by pyrolysis – heating biomass in the absence of oxygen – with a bio-oil co-product that can be turned into low-carbon fuel for aviation and other hard-to-decarbonize industries.
Biochar’s unique promise is to provide ‘recalcitrant’ soil carbon that resists decomposition for hundreds to thousands of years. Essentially, it stabilizes the carbon in the biomass that would otherwise be broken down in the soil and released into the atmosphere as CO2 within a few years. Natural climate solutions ranks biochar with guarantees for food production and wildlife habitat as the agricultural strategy with the highest soil carbon sequestration potential (Griscom, et. al., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) .
This is not a new or exotic introduction to the ground. Biochar from grassland and forest fires represents a significant portion of carbon (organic matter) in the world’s soils.
Biochar research has grown considerably over the past decade. A large body of research indicates that biochar can sequester carbon, reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide in the soil, increase the water-holding capacity of the soil, adsorb and stabilize other forms of organic carbon in the soil. soil, improve crop yields on marginal lands and strengthen reforestation in degraded areas.
But there is conflicting research, reflecting variations in the raw materials and production methods of biochar, as well as the soils and growing conditions in which it is applied. To realize the potential of biochar, we need to understand which types of biochar applied under what circumstances will maximize environmental and agronomic benefits.
A group of leading soil scientists and biochar researchers have developed a “road map” for federal biochar research. It calls for a 10-year coordinated, multi-site research program to develop a fundamental understanding of the effects of different types of biochar on soil, plant and carbon processes under varying conditions, as well as site-specific research to develop applications. promising promise of biochar.
To carry out this research, the Biden administration is expected to convene the ministries of Agriculture, Energy and Home Affairs, the National Science Foundation and leading biochar researchers to develop a strategy to conduct and fund research. to fill knowledge gaps. Congress is expected to pass pending infrastructure, budget reconciliation and appropriation legislation with full funding for their climate-related research arrangements, part of which is expected to go to biochar research.
We also need to reduce capital and supply chain barriers for the development of a biochar and biofuels industry. Federal matching grants should be given to pilot, demonstration and early stage commercial pyrolysis facilities to revive the industry.
The Department of Energy is already running a program providing matching funds for cellulosic biofuel facilities. It is expected to devote a significant portion of this funding to pyrolysis facilities. In addition, the Department of Commerce has funding and authority from the US Rescue Plan that it could use to fund such facilities in communities with high unemployment rates. He should do it.
Finally, there is an immediate opportunity to develop a supply chain of sustainably harvested biomass for biochar and bioenergy production. The Senate Infrastructure Bill includes funding for the removal of flammable materials from forests threatened by forest fires and dedicates these materials to biochar production where possible. Additional funding for these cuts should be included in legislation pending budget reconciliation with materials also dedicated to biochar production.
Along with these steps, biochar can play a vital role in helping to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. It is not a quick fix or a quick fix. But it is an essential part of what must be a multi-pronged strategy. In addition, it can improve agricultural production and forest recovery on marginal and degraded lands. And its petroleum co-product can deliver strategically critical low-carbon fuels and create new jobs and markets to revitalize rural America.
The IPPC has made it clear that removing carbon is imperative. There is now a window of opportunity to advance federal climate policy. We must seize the opportunity to make biochar the most promising agricultural strategy for carbon sequestration and a critical step to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.
Chuck Hassebrook of Lincoln, NE is the National Center for Appropriate Technology Biochar Policy Project Leader and can be contacted at [email protected]
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