Every plausible path to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees presented in the new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) includes one critical element. Agriculture, forestry and land-use changes must remove substantial carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. It can be done if policymakers take aggressive action now to build the capacity to meet the challenge.
Biochar application to soil is the most promising agricultural strategy for lasting removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. It is produced by pyrolysis – heating biomass in the absence of oxygen - along with a bio-oil co-product that can be processed into low carbon fuel for aviation and other difficult to decarbonize sectors.
Biochar’s unique promise is in providing “recalcitrant” soil carbon that resists decomposition for hundreds to thousands of years. In essence, it stabilizes biomass carbon that would otherwise be decomposed in soil and released back to the atmosphere as CO2 in a few years. Natural Climate Solutions ranks biochar with safeguards 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).
It is not a new or exotic introduction to soil. Biochar from prairie and forest fires is a significant portion of the carbon (organic matter) in the world’s soils.
Biochar research has grown dramatically over the last decade. A substantial body of research indicates that biochar can sequester carbon, reduce soil methane and nitrous oxide emissions, increase soil water holding capacity, adsorb and stabilize other forms of soil organic carbon, improve crop yields on marginal land, and enhance reforestation in degraded areas.
But there is conflicting research, reflecting variations in biochar feedstocks and production methods as well as the soils and growing conditions in which it is applied. To achieve the potential of biochar, we must understand which types of biochar applied under what circumstances will optimize environmental and agronomic benefits.
A group of leading soil scientists and biochar researchers have developed a “roadmap” for federal biochar research. It calls for a ten-year program of coordinated, multisite research to develop 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 promising applications of biochar.
To bring this research to fruition, the Biden Administration should convene the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Interior, the National Science Foundation and leading biochar researchers to develop a strategy to conduct and fund research to fill the knowledge gaps. Congress should pass the pending infrastructure, budget reconciliation and appropriations legislation with full funding for their climate related research provisions, a portion of which should go to biochar research.
We must also lower capital and supply chain barriers to development of a biochar and biofuel industry. Federal matching grants should be provided for pilot, demonstration and early-stage commercial pyrolysis facilities to jump-start the industry.
The Department of Energy already operates a program providing matching funds for cellulosic biofuel facilities. It should dedicate a robust portion of that funding to pyrolysis facilities. In addition, the Department of Commerce has funding and authority from the American Rescue Plan that it could use to fund such facilities in high unemployment communities. It should do so.
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 removal of flammable materials from forests at risk of wildfire and dedicates those materials to biochar production where practical. Additional funding for such removals should be included in pending budget reconciliation legislation with the materials likewise dedicated to biochar production.
With these steps, biochar can play an essential role in helping to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. It is no quick fix or silver bullet. But it is a critical element of what must be a multi-pronged strategy. Additionally, it can improve crop production and forest re-establishment on marginal and degraded lands. And its oil co-product can provide strategically critical low carbon fuels and create new jobs and markets to revitalize rural America.
The IPPC has made clear that carbon removal is imperative. There is now a window of opportunity to advance federal policy to address climate. We must seize the opportunity to advance biochar as 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 Leader of the Biochar Policy Project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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