So what’s biochar?
At Warm Heart, we champion biochar – the replication of village-scale biochar making social enterprises for the world’s smallest, poorest farmers. Our motto is: Cool the climate, clean the air, improve public health, reduce rural poverty. That’s a lot to ask of anything, let alone something that no one has ever heard of: biochar.
Biochar is super charcoal, charcoal made fast, smokelessly, at high temperature and containing none of the tars or noxious gas precursors of common charcoal. To make biochar, you heat any carbon containing biomass – in our case, crop waste – without oxygen.
From a climate change perspective, the coolest thing about biochar is that it is pure carbon equal to 40 percent of the carbon removed from the air through photosynthesis.
Today making biochar is the only proven, scalable, ready-to-rock means to extract carbon from our over-saturated atmosphere. (There are many “promising” high tech possibilities out there, but not one is commercially viable and all are terribly expensive. Farmers can make biochar with a hole in the ground.)
And what’s Warm Heart?
Warm Heart is a grassroots, community development organization serving the rural poor of Thailand and the developing world.
We partner with communities to find environmentally, economically and socially sustainable solutions to community-identified needs.
Warm Heart is nondenominational, non-discriminatory, nonpartisan, and follows the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals.
This paper is about our biochar project, but Warm Heart does much more.
We run Children’s Homes that house 44 children, support another 50 at partner boarding and vo-techs and have 16 kids at university. We work with three women’s coops to create jobs, run a sustainable agriculture training program and serve the abandoned elderly.
Like all Warm Heart projects, biochar began as an attempt to solve as many problems as possible with one, practical program.
We could engage no one to take meaningful action actually to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere, clean heavy metals and pesticide residues from fields, improve of the health of the rural poor or reduce their poverty; everyone, however, was big on smoke, trees and animals.
By using biochar to connect smoke to climate change, environmental cleansing, forest and biodiversity preservation, public health improvement and the reduction of rural poverty, we built a winner.
2015-2017, Warm Heart received grants from US State Department and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives to develop small-scale biochar for very poor farmers.
Both grants’ outcomes exceeded expectations and in 2017, Warm Heart won an Energy Globe award for expertise in low-tech biochar equipment design and training for poor farmers.
Like the rest of our work, our biochar program seeks to develop and deploy programs that are profitable for the poor communities in which they are located. Our aim is to provide the rural poor with self-help, triple bottom line solutions that replicate through imitation, not outside intervention.
Why biochar for the climate, health and wellbeing?
Biochar has huge potential in the global battle against climate change and for improved quality of life in the developing world.
Make a tonne of biochar, add it to the soil and you remove 3.6 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestered it forever. (The atomic weight of carbon is 12 that of oxygen is 16. CO2 has a molecular weight of 44. CO2 is therefore 3.6 times heavier than carbon such that burying a unit of carbon is equivalent to burying 3.6 units of CO2.)
But while we are global citizens, our interest in biochar lies in the South. There biochar solves a huge, apparently intractable problem unknown to the global climate change community: crop waste burning.
FAO statistics show that in 2017, developing world farmers produced 4 billion tonnes of crop waste from cereal and coarse grain production alone. (FAOSTAT, Crop Production; waste estimates by author, data set available on request)
Scientists estimate that they burn anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of this. Taking the lower figure, small farmers in the developing world burn 2 billion tonnes of field waste annually.
This releases into the atmosphere 3.2 billion tonnes of CO2 and 3.21 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalents (primarily methane and NOx (greenhouse gases that push global warming 25 and 298 times harder than CO2). (Calculations based on emission factors – EFs – S. Akagi, et al, 2011, Global Warming Potentials, USEPA)
Combined, these have the total impact of 6.41 billion tonnes of climate changing emissions annually. (Equivalent to 6,410,000 kilotonnes or approximately as much as the U.S. in 2005.) (EDGAR v.4.32 dataset)
If you think beyond climate change per se, these field fires wreak havoc on earth, too. Burning two billion tonnes of crop waste emits more than 318 million tonnes of CO and NOx, the two most important precursors in smog formation. (EFs, S. Akagi, et al.)
Smoke from crop fires and the forest fires they ignite also close schools, airports and even governments.
Oh, and kill millions and sicken many millions more.
WHO attributes 7.2 million deaths in the developing world annually to PM2.5 (90 percent of deaths globally), the tiny particulate that constitutes most smoke, and smog.
WHO has named PM2.5 the fifth biggest killer in the world. (who.int/en/airpollution)
In fact, PM2.5 kills more people every year than dengue, hepatitis B, HIV, malaria and TB combined, all diseases sold as major health threats by great PR.
If you made biochar from this crop waste, none of this would happen. Charring, not burning, would avert the emission of CO, CO2, CO2E, methane, NOx and PM2.5 and so avert the nasty consequences, as well.
What else can biochar do?
Asked this, I am often tempted to respond glibly, “What, saving the world as we know it isn’t enough?”
But, in fact, biochar can do much more. True, if you biocharred 2 billion tonnes of crop waste and stuck the char in the ground, you would sequester CO2 and avert CO, CO2e, smog precursor and PM2.5 emissions.
Putting biochar in the ground can do more, however.
Biochar’s electrically active surface lets it grab onto and chemically bind up heavy metals, pesticide residues and other toxins that may lurk in the soil, making them bio-unavailable.
This keeps them out of the food chain and drinking water, which is good for our health and a boon for small farmers who must sell their produce in export markets sensitive to contaminants.
Equally important to small farmers, biochar mixed into the feed of chickens, cows and pigs reduces intestinal disease and increases weight gain.
Spreading biochar in barns and hen houses reduces the stink, especially if sprayed with EM, and the fly count, diminishing an important disease vector.
Ironically, CO2 sequestration aside (although not the aversion of CO2e emissions), biochar is great charcoal and this has important environmental and health benefits.
Today, cooking and keeping warm are at war with forests and biodiversity.
According to the U.N., 85 percent of the world’s population uses wood and some 54 million tonnes of charcoal – made from wood – for cooking and heating annually.
Traditional methods of making charcoal produce billows of greenhouse gases and smoke, and are highly inefficient (7-15 percent).
At an average efficiency of 10 percent, 54 million tonnes of charcoal translates into 540 million tonnes of wood and loss of the associated forest habitat.
No less important, WHO and major NGOs estimate that three million people die each year from breathing indoor smoke from cook fires.
Making biochar from crop waste emits essentially no CO23e or PM2.5, requires no wood and destroys no forest habitat.
When burned, biochar charcoal also emits no PM2.5 or noxious gases as production removes all tars and aromatics.
With biochar, cooking and keeping warm are forest and biodiversity friendly.
But how to stop the burning? Or why would farmers biochar not burn?
The tiny farmers whose collective burning generates these huge problems do not have the luxury of worrying about climate change. They must clear their fields for the next crop and have no better alternative to burning.
Others have tried to educate them about the evils of burning in the belief that if they knew the consequences of burning farmers would sacrifice for the good of all.
Farmers now know all about climate change and the health consequences of smoke, but they still burn because they must clear their fields somehow.
Governments generally prefer force, imposing fines, jailing farmers who burn, even shooting them.
There are too many farmers too desperate to clear their fields. Warm Heart’s challenge was thus to find a better alternative to burning.
Farmers, it turns out, are happy not to burn if not burning is sufficiently more profitable than burning.
The question was never one of telling farmers to do anything. All it took was asking them how much work it would be to clear their fields another way and how much that work was worth.
Treated with respect, asked not told, the farmers explained the work involved and the time it would take to complete. They wanted to know how much work and time charring would require. They then calculated a transparent and fair price.
With a cost figure, Warm Heart had a starting point from which to develop a business model that we could test against our knowledge of the market for biochar and biochar products.
In the end, it proved easy to create a social enterprise business model that made not burning more profitable than burning, so much more so that the success of farmers participating in the scheme make nonparticipants so envious that they want to join.
The result is a model business born in the weeds that grows through imitation, not intervention, driven by envy and self-interest.
Like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market, the business model transforms envy and self-interest into expansion; expansion that means less burning, more biocharring and thus greater collective climate, environmental and public health gains to accompany the income gains of individuals.
Why have you never heard of biochar before?
I cannot avoid this question. If biochar is so cool, how come no one has ever heard of it?
To date, biochar has been a developed world thing. Lab scientists and a handful of companies vying for Western agricultural markets have owned it, keeping it from public view.
It has never had a chance. Its complexity fascinates scientists, but this has led to endless experimentation at the fringe and constant warnings of “well, but…” whenever anyone has dared to make a public claim for biochar’s capabilities. (This has dampened any possible enthusiasm of the sort that made a darling of switch grass.)
Companies have focused on the immensely competitive agricultural market, taking on the likes of Dow and Monsanto. They have thus stressed very high-tech production of highly specialized biochars for narrow, customized applications. It has proved a tough slog.
All this is entirely irrelevant to us in the developing world. This is where most people live, crop waste burning occurs, bad soils predominate, food insecurity is rising and climate change is happening.
Total arable land is decreasing, rising temperatures are reducing crop yields, but by 2050, developing world countries must double staple crop production just to maintain their people’s current (insufficient) caloric intake.
In our world, biochar – the most basic, homemade biochar – can be revolutionary. So why have you never heard of biochar?
Because everyone who is anybody “knows” that biochar is expensive to make, requires costly, forest wood feedstocks and must be used in huge quantities (1 kg per square meter) to have marginal impacts on productivity.
Never mind that not one of these is true in the developing world; nobody actually knows anything about biochar in the developing world! (Warm Heart farmers make biochar from crop waste, entirely sparing forests and biodiversity, literally using a trench dug in the ground, and make biochar-based fertilizer with manure their children pick up in the fields that will double crop production and half irrigation water requirements at applications of 125-250 g per square meter.)
No less important, neither big development organizations nor governments like extremely low-cost, low-tech, DIY, grassroots projects. Such programs do not support their costly staffing structures and are anti-sexy.
It is not surprising that biochar has no press or PR, or that specialist tell Warm Heart that they know that biochar is a bust. Governments and organizations such as UNDP, UNEP, and FAO simply ignore it in favor of much more costly and, frankly, less useful, programs.
Bottom line: though biochar has demonstrated climate change slowing (environmental, public health and rural poverty reduction) potential in the developing world, you have never heard of it because its only PR is dismissive, based on the misapplication of developed world data, and the perverse disincentives of big development organizations not to support grassroots, low-tech projects such as small-scale biochar.
Take a moment to visit www.warmheartworldwide.org/environment and learn more about Climate Change, our Stop the Smoke Social Enterprise, or check out our monthly Environmental Progress News. You can also watch the videos from Ghana, Malawi and Thailand.
Since we are a small, grassroots nonprofit, our funding comes from individuals who see the benefit of our work and want to participate by supporting us through a donation. We have partnered with GlobalGiving to raise the funds to continue to expand our biochar program.