Making fertilizer and fighting climate change with… charcoal?
I know, I had the same thought when I first heard of biochar—and so did environmentalist Rob Lerner.
But as the "biochar philanthropreneur" explains in his TED Talk, some seemingly crazy ideas can turn out to be great solutions for our world’s modern problems. There is a wealth of TED Talks as well as other informational videos on YouTube discussing the benefits of biochar. Lerner’s is a particularly well-delivered talk, that summarizes biochar and its possible environmental impact in digestible, yet powerful terms.
Lerner highlights biochar’s ability to increase prosperity for subsistence farmers, potential to profitably generate electricity in grid-connected biomass plants, and even power vehicles—sans fossil fuels! Who knew?
He also weaves a brief history of biochar into his talk—recounting its rich history in the soils of the Amazon basin. Used, discovered, and rediscovered many times over, with varying purposes, biochar sustained Amazonian civilizations hundreds of years ago, impressed European explorers with its bountiful harvests, and more recently attracted scientists with its ability to capture carbon, and lock it up for good.
Well, for thousands of years anyway. Which Lerner explains is why biochar can be a fundamental component in reducing carbon emissions into the air, if we only give it a chance.
Like digging up the Terra Preta soils of the Amazon basin—nicknamed ‘black gold’ due to biochar’s enriching qualities—Lerner hits gold with a brief reasoning for how and why biochar can change the world:
Practice[d] massively on a global scale, relying primarily on waste biomass—without displacing food crops, without impacting natural areas… biochar can offset 12% of human greenhouse gas production.
Biochar is a real, viable way to combat climate change, and aid in feeding the world’s growing populations. You could say it’s a win-win …win. Did I mention biochar will make your garden really beautiful, while contributing to all these other important causes?
Courtesy of Poughkeepsie Farm Project, http://wamc.org/post/nys-lawmaker-introduces-carbon-farming-tax-credit-bill
Lerner discusses this as well, explaining that biochar retains nitrogen, a key nutrient in plant growth. Biochar can make your flowers more vibrant, your jack-o-lanterns bigger and scarier in the Fall, and your patio tomatoes juicier. Whether you’re growing on a small or large scale, using biochar sequesters carbon, makes the soil healthier for you and all the little things living in it, and additionally suppresses emissions of nitrous oxide and methane—all for hundreds, if not thousands of years to come.
Bottom line is, if you’re making or using biochar, you’re helping the earth. No matter how small your contribution, it matters!
Lerner’s quote above also touches on a very important point. Biochar made on a large scale must be sustainably produced. And most biochar enthusiasts and scientists would agree with this. Lerner nicely dismantles this common myth: making biochar does not mean chopping down rainforests, or bull-dozing communities in order to harvest firewood. Rather, solely biological waste materials may produce enough biochar to offset that 12%.
That means human waste, certain food scraps, fallen tree branches and dead plants, grass clippings, dead leaves, and many other organic materials can be turned into biochar.
Here at ASCO2, we know biochar is a great solution for various environmental problems that the world faces today, or that you may face personally in your own gardens or fields.
However, despite all the benefits, many people still don’t know what the heck biochar can do for them. (You may have been one of them, before you started reading this!) Which is fair, because it is not the easiest concept to grasp.
For example, while at the Lewiston GardenFest this past weekend, ASCO2 decided to do a little experimental poll. In addition to showing off our BioCharlies, we asked everyone we could if they had ever heard of biochar before. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the results didn’t really surprise us. Only 15 out of 125 people asked had heard of biochar before. So about 12%.
The good news is that a lot of people learned that day!
Discussing biochar at the Lewiston GardenFest
Lerner’s TED Talk is a great place to start your own biochar exploration. From there, many other TED Talks, videos, and other resources can inform, entertain, and inspire. Once you’re as excited as we are about biochar, go ahead and get in on the action by making some of your own.
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Together, we can really start a movement to help our soils and our planet--right in our own backyards.