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A Biochar Solution for Climate Change
R. Jerry Adams, Ph.D., Evaluation and Development Institute (

The following proposal was submitted to the MIT Global Climate Action Plan contest in 2015. It was ranked 6th and was a semi-finalist in the global competition.

Climate mitigation advocates generally agree that excessive CO2 in the air has been caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Most of the mitigation strategies are, therefore, aimed at reducing the use of fossil fuels. However, fossil fuel emissions represent less than 25% of the total CO2 emissions each year. Forests are the primary source of CO2 emissions as part of the normal carbon cycle. Our primary global strategy, therefore, needs to be prevention of CO2 by carbonizing forest waste before it emits CO2. No other strategy seems to reduce CO2 at sufficient scale to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The modern use of biochar is about 10 years old. It has primarily been used for improving agriculture soil, the ancient use. It has also been viewed as a secondary product from making biomass fuel. This project is unique in that it is designed primarily to avoid catastrophic climate change. Forest managers will pursue the effort to reduce the danger of out-of-control wildfires. Farmers will pursue it to reduce costs from fertilizers and irrigation and to improve degraded soils.

Before 10,000 years ago, the climate was so unstable that agriculture was very difficult. Then a beautiful, delicate balance occurred: The polar caps, ocean currents, greenhouse gases, volcanic activity, and other factors became just right for stable temperatures. Agriculture flourished. The amount of carbon dioxide going into the air (over 300 gigatons per year) was countered by natural sinks that pulled an equal amount of carbon dioxide out of the air. The primary cause of carbon dioxide going into the air was decaying vegetation. The primary sinks pulling carbon dioxide out of the air were the oceans, growing vegetation (mostly trees and grass), and soil bacteria. All was well.

Then we had the industrial revolution. We now have over 40% more carbon dioxide in the air than we had just 150 years ago. The change is too far progressed to repair it by simply reducing the use of fossil fuels. The most effective way we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air is to significantly reduce the primary source of CO2 emissions, forest waste. We can prevent a significant amount of these forest CO2 emissions by carbonizing forest waste. To carbonize it is to heat it to 500 degrees Centigrade, without oxygen.

The Biochar Program will demonstrate that carbonizing forest waste and then planting the char, "biochar," in farming soil is a powerful method to mitigate climate change. Three tons of dry forest waste can produce one ton of biochar. Seven to 10 tons per acre of biochar can restore degraded farming soil. Carbonizing one ton of organic forest waste prevents the emission of 3.67 tons of CO2 into the air. Biochar can also reduce the need for irrigation and fertilizers by up to 25%. "One percent of organic matter [biochar] in the top six inches of soil can hold about 27,000 gallons of water per acre. NRCS on Water Storage

The Biochar Program will plant sufficient biochar to prevent 2 billion tons of biomass from emitting 7.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air to "neutralize" the human contribution of CO2. This comprehensive approach will help bring the level of CO2 in the air back to pre-industrial levels.

This biochar approach is being designed in the Pacific Northwest of the United States by a coalition that consists of U.S. Forest Service personnel, a university, NRCS staff, biochar specialists, soil specialists, a climate change specialist, farmers, and a soil and water district (state organization).

The primary method to disseminate this approach in the U.S. and globally will be through forestry managers. This approach will allow them to dispose of the massive amounts of waste they need to dispose of to prevent huge wildfires. Farmers will buy the biochar made from forest waste to improve the productivity of their soils and to reduce costs for fertilizers and irrigation.

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