Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Monbiot: Here comes the latest utopian catastrophe: biochar

by George Monbiot

George Monbiot

Whenever you hear the word miracle, you know there's trouble just around the corner. But however many times they lead to disappointment or disaster, the newspapers never tire of promoting miracle cures, miracle crops, miracle fuels and miracle financial instruments. We have a bottomless ability to disregard the laws of economics, biology and thermodynamics when we encounter a simple solution to complex problems. So welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the new miracle. It's a low-carbon regime for the planet which makes the Atkins Diet look healthy: woodchips with everything.

Biomass is suddenly the universal answer to our climate and energy problems. Its advocates claim that it will become the primary source of the world's heating fuel, electricity, road transport fuel (cellulosic ethanol) and aviation fuel (bio-kerosene). Few people stop to wonder how the planet can accommodate these demands and still produce food and preserve wild places. Now an even crazier use of woodchips is being promoted everywhere (including in the Guardian(1)). The great green miracle works like this: we turn the planet's surface into charcoal.

Sorry, not charcoal. We don't call it that any more. Now we say biochar. The idea is that wood and crop wastes are cooked to release the volatile components (which can be used as fuel), then the residue - the charcoal - is buried in the soil. According to the magical thinkers who promote it, the new miracle stops climate breakdown, replaces gas and petroleum, improves the fertility of the soil, reduces deforestation, cuts labour, creates employment, prevents respiratory disease and ensures that when you drop your toast it always lands butter side up. (I invented the last one, but give them time). …

This miracle solution has suckered people who ought to know better, including the earth systems scientist James Lovelock(3), the eminent climate scientist Jim Hansen(4), the author Chris Goodall and the climate campaigner Tim Flannery(5). At the UN climate negotiations beginning in Bonn on Sunday, several national governments will demand that biochar is eligible for carbon credits, providing the financial stimulus required to turn this into a global industry(6). Their proposal boils down to this: we must destroy the biosphere in order to save it. …

Woodchips With Everything

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1 comment:

Nando said...

No qualified researcher is advocating "turning the planet's surface into charcoal." Biochar deserves an accurate assessment, and it seems you haven't done enough homework here to provide one. Since you are a highly respected and well-read author, I think it behooves you to be a little more careful what you write, especially if you are going to allow yourself such a great degree of emotive and fanciful expression.

I have a suspicion that this time you are the one that's been suckered, by your own predisposition. Scientists like James Hansen are much more careful in this regard.