By Michael Shafer
We suffer two scourges: haze and social inequality.
Are they connected?
Must they be?
Both the haze and social inequality that afflict the North can be dealt with in a single largely costless – indeed, profitable – way: empower the North’s millions of marginal smallholders to make biochar and sell the resulting carbon removal credits.
Every year – this year’s rains were exceptional – smoke blankets us. Here in Chiang Mai City, the source is forest fires; elsewhere the cause is crop (largely corn) waste burning.
Unfortunately, to date, city folks concerned only about their own little world have led discussions of haze. Out there, it is the poor who suffer and the poor who cause the problem.
More than one half of our population is farmers of whom at least 40 percent live below the Thai poverty line. (National Statistical Office). These farmers cannot afford the tractors, rakes and bailers required to deal with the waste (78.2 percent of the total corn crop they produce).
Without an alternative, they burn to prepare their fields for the next crop. Those of us in the valleys suffer; the farmers suffer more.
What to do?
Warm Heart has long favored teaching poor farmers to make biochar from their crop wastes and now to sell the resulting carbon removal credits.
What’s biochar? Who cares?
Biochar is super charcoal, made by heating any biomass (in our case, crop waste, branches pruned from orchard trees, etc.) very hot (500ᴼ to 650ᴼ C as opposed to 300ᴼ C for normal charcoal).
This process requires no costly equipment, produces no haze emissions and very limited greenhouse gases (GHG) The process results in a pile of biochar equal to 40 percent of the carbon originally taken in by the plant through photosynthesis.
Making biochar is, therefore, carbon negative, removing CO2 from the air.
Because Thailand is doing so little to reduce its carbon footprint, large scale biochar production from crop waste – rather than open field burning it -would be nationally important.
Besides cutting GHGs, the elimination of smoke from crop waste burning will eliminate a large portion of the haze suffered in the North, reduce hospitality industry costs by 12 billion baht a month for the three months of the smoke season, save thousands of lives, cut hospital admissions and reduce healthcare costs.
What about social inequality?
Our poor are farmers, and many are broke. There being no real alternative. It is hard, hot work to cut, bundle and – well, there is nothing to do with dead corn stalk. They burn it.
Quite apart from the atmospheric and haze consequences of burning corn waste, poor farmers are destroying one of their only resources.
Because biochar is a powerful aid to agriculture. Biochar will reduce the acidity of our soils, make the soil more porous, retain huge amounts of water (important as we start what may be a decade of drought), improve soil fertility (CEC) and applied properly with manure or compost provides much needed organic matter and revitalizes the soil.
These all mean greater yields at no cost. (Note, free, proper biochar fertilizer works as well as NPK – which has quadrupled in cost with the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.)
But what the poor need is money!
True, our standard definition of poverty is the lack of money.
Today, however, farmers can not only improve climate change resilience and yields, but they can also make money.
The West has finally woken up to climate change and is taking the IPCC’s recommendation that we must not only reduce carbon emissions but also remove carbon from the over-stuffed atmosphere.
As a result, the value of certificates for the sequestration of atmospheric CO2 has shot up. Biochar is 80 percent immobile carbon. Use a unit of biochar in your field and sequester two units of CO2.
Who will pay?
Warm Heart, rechristened as Biochar.Life PLC, will buy sequestered CO2 for $75 per tonne. (Biochar.Life was the first organization in the world accredited to certify the biochar production of “artisan farmers.”)
Why talk about this now?
Biochar is no where in Thailand.
In Africa, where we also work, we have paid more than $56,000 to the poorest farmers of Malawi and western Kenya, approximately $175 per farmer. ($175 equals almost 6,000 Thai Baht, the equivalent of one half the annual earnings of a rural, northern, farm household (3.9 people). (NSO).
Think of the possibilities here in the North.
We grow more than 60 percent of Thailand’s 5.5 million tonnes of corn kernel – and 3.3 million tonnes of waste.
Today, farmers burn almost 50 percent of this (estimates run up to 90 percent). If farmers converted even 25 percent of the waste burned (12.5 percent of total waste or 412,500 tonnes) into biochar (assuming a 20% efficiency), they could eliminate almost 82.5 tonnes of PM2.5, the killer component of haze. (Lest this sound like just a bit, remember that 1 tonne of waste generates 6.26 kg of PM2.5 such that 82.5 tonnes of biochar equals more than 500,000 kg of PM2.5. A single kg of PM2.5 equals the smoke from 71,429 cigarettes.
Removing the haze from 82.5 tonnes of corn waste would remove the equivalent of the smoke from almost 6,000,000 cigarettes from our air and would pay more than $6,000 into the rural economy.
So, again, what to do?
Train the poor, small farmers of the North to make biochar and to sell the credits they earn for sequestering CO2 to Biochar.Life. Offered the opportunity, it is hard to imagine that such a solution would not grow to include more farmers by itself – and at no cost to the government!