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Backing biochar: the Australian Government’s role

Evelyn Krull, a research scientist at the CSIRO, asked in these pages whether biochar could save the planet. Eighteen months have passed and although research efforts continue, still no meaningful quantities…

It may not be a silver bullet, but biochar has a lot to offer farmers (and the atmosphere). sillypucci/Flickr

Evelyn Krull, a research scientist at the CSIRO, asked in these pages whether biochar could save the planet. Eighteen months have passed and although research efforts continue, still no meaningful quantities of biochar are being produced. This promising approach is making no contribution to offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Given the benefits of biochar, why is it taking so long to diffuse?

Biochar is made through pyrolysis, where waste biomass such as cattle manure is turned into energy (syngas) and biochar by heating it slowly without oxygen present. Biochar can be added to soils to enhance their physical, chemical and biological function to improve productivity, while sequestering carbon in the soil for hundreds of years. However strict criteria for sustainable biomass sourcing and low-emissions production technology must be applied. If they are not, its environmental benefits can be eroded, if not completely negated.

It isn’t a universal “magic bullet” that can solve global warming, but it should be part of a range of carbon emissions reduction and sequestration programs. Using biochar as a tool for reaching targets has particular relevance in Australia with its strong rural industries and degraded, carbon-deficient soils.

The co-product of converting biomass into biochar via modern slow-pyrolysis technology is syngas. In industrial biochar production facilities, syngas can be used to fuel the process, with the excess going to generate renewable heat and power for external use. As the biochar sector scales up in a sustainable fashion, it could create huge benefits in terms of enhanced agricultural yields, co-generation of renewable energy, organic waste recycling, and climate change mitigation via carbon sequestration in soils.

Win-win for farmers

Farmers are an enormous potential constituency for biochar. They have everything to gain from replenishing degraded soils, enhancing the soils’ water retention and decreasing requirements for fertiliser inputs.

They can also benefit financially from the carbon sequestration if they participate in the Carbon Farming Initiative, which has “biochar application to soil” on the Positive List.

Take the case of Australian coffee grower Jos Webber. In collaboration with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Webber has been experimenting with different methods of using biochar. He told the ABC’s Science Show, “those [coffee trees] that were treated with the poultry biochar and compost mixture” were the ones that were growing best. The worst were those without any soil remediation at all.

Analysis of biochar impacts on plant productivity conducted by Jeffries et al, show statistically significant increases across many trials. Recent results, such as those achieved by apple growers in the Huon Valley in Tasmania, continue to add to the evidence base supporting biochar application. The science is building to support the effective and prescriptive application of biochar to ensure positive plant productivity.

Targeting biochar application on high value-added crops such as coffee and olives will achieve quick pay-backs. This could encourage early biochar takeup by horticulturalists, followed more broadly by farmers all around the country.

We need a national biochar strategy

Widespread acceptance of biochar is unlikely to happen without a national strategy to promote its diffusion. This is manifestly lacking in Australia.

Biochar’s future currently relies on small companies developing the technology for biochar production into a standard, scalable format which can be built and replicated all around the country. But it’s hard work setting up the robust supply chain needed to get the finance for implementation. The projects need financial backing, sites, sustainable biomass and commercial partners that can build and operate the facilities and retail the biochar and energy products produced. The challenge is aligning the timing and value proposition for all of these moving parts, especially for the first time.

The problem is that the benefits are large, but spread across several sectors – while the costs are concentrated for a few pivotal providers. Government needs to step in to aggregate the benefits and reduce the costs and risks for the early movers.

A national strategy should facilitate bringing together aspects of the supply chain so the risks of first time projects can be managed. The strategy should streamline project delivery so that a replicated roll-out can be achieved around the country that delivers the significant contributions to emissions targets possible. This involves promoting agricultural issues such as soil fertility and restoration as well as issues relating to waste management and climate change.

A program focused on the real benefits associated with soil fertility enhancement, waste removal and energy co-generation, funded at a level of $2 billion rather than $2 million, would be appropriate. Although biochar is on the Governments radar it is too often overlooked as a tool for delivering targets. For example, biochar did not even rate a mention in the Energy White Paper released last week.

Come on Joe, Greg, Kate, Penny and colleagues – this is a case where Australia really can provide world leadership, and in the process greatly enhance our own national interests. Can the government help industry join the dots and enable biochar to make its mark on environmental sustainability in this country?