The Azimuth Project
Biochar (Rev #8)

Biochar is charcoal created by pyrolysis of biomass, and differs from charcoal only in the sense that its primary use is not for fuel, but for biosequestration or atmospheric carbon capture and storage. Charcoal is a stable solid rich in carbon content, and thus, can be used to lock carbon in the soil for hundreds to thousands of years.

Biochar is of increasing interest because of concerns about climate change caused by emissions of carbon dioxide. Biochar is a low-tech way to harness the vast power of plants to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In fact, some people believe the only real chance to fight global warming on the massive scale needed is via massive biochar projects. One advantage is that it is low tech: anyone can do it.

Biochar can be used to create useful energy and also Terra preta.

James Lovelock

In the Guardian, James Lovelock wrote:

I said in my recent book that perhaps the only tool we had to bring carbon dioxide back to pre-industrial levels was to let the biosphere pump it from the air for us. It currently removes 550bn tons a year, about 18 times more than we emit, but 99.9% of the carbon captured this way goes back to the air as CO2 when things are eaten.

What we have to do is turn a portion of all the waste of agriculture into charcoal and bury it. Consider grain like wheat or rice; most of the plant mass is in the stems, stalks and roots and we only eat the seeds. So instead of just ploughing in the stalks or turning them into cardboard, make it into charcoal and bury it or sink it in the ocean. We don’t need plantations or crops planted for biochar, what we need is a charcoal maker on every farm so the farmer can turn his waste into carbon. Charcoal making might even work instead of landfill for waste paper and plastic.

Incidentally, in making charcoal this way, there is a by-product of biofuel that the farmer can sell. If we are to make this idea work it is vital that it pays for itself and requires no subsidy. Subsidies almost always breed scams and this is true of most forms of renewable energy now proposed and used. No one would invest in plantations to make charcoal without a subsidy, but if we can show the farmers they can turn their waste to profit they will do it freely and help us and Gaia too.

There is no chance that carbon capture and storage from industry or power stations will make a dent in CO2 accumulation, even if we had the will and money to do it. But we have to grow food, so why not help Gaia do the job of CO2 removal for us?

Rachel Smolker

Rachel Smolker is biologist and anti-biochar activist who helped organize a petition in April signed by 143 non-profit groups protesting what they called a “charred earth policy”. The petition came as a reaction to an effort by 11 African countries and biochar proponents to have the United Nations consider biochar’s eligibility as an official means for nations and companies to offset their emissions under international regulations. See:


What are the pros and cons of biochar?

What are the biggest biochar projects currently in operation, or planned?

What are the best ways to get large numbers of farmers to create biochar without damaging the environment? What sociological, political or economic research has been done on this question?

What is the fastest feasible rate at which we could ramp up biochar production? What would the effect on carbon dioxide concentrations be? What studies have been carried out on these questions?