The Great Change: To Biochar

Alan Bates: We are in a crisis in the evolution of human society. It’s unique to both human and geologic history. It has never happened before and it can’t possibly happen again.

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My New 12 Trillion-dollar Annual Budget

We’ll not have to tighten our belts anywhere.

 Full fossil fuel price reform would reduce global carbon dioxide emissions to an estimated 43 percent below baseline levels in 2030 (in line with keeping global warming to 1.5–2°C) while raising revenues worth 3.6 percent of global GDP and preventing 1.6 million local air pollution deaths per year.

— International Monetary Fund

The United States is borrowing three billion dollars a day with higher interest rates we’re going to borrow one and a half trillion dollars in the second half of this year.

— Nate Hagens, Frankly #41

Three trillion per year in borrowing doesn’t seem like that much when you consider that the world spends twelve trillion to subsidize fossil energy exploration, exploitation, delivery, and use. Of course — and this is something deficit hawks will never tell you — borrowing trillions carries vastly more benefits than it may appear.

Most people, and this is how we are educated as children, think that when you borrow a dollar, pound, or Swiss franc, you are taking it out of the lender’s pocket and placing it into the borrower’s. It is like breaking the piggy bank. But that is no longer how money works. Since we all went off the gold standard and onto bank notes, all money is lent into existence. When a loan is retired, the money does not go back into the glued-together piggy bank, it ceases to exist. What had been strings of ones and zeros is zeroed out.

If the Fed were to stop lending three billion dollars a day, the economy of the US, and by extension the world, would seize up, implode and crumble into dust. Issue more money and the global economy expands. Issue less, it contracts. Try telling that to Marsha Blackburn or Nikki Haley and you’ll get a blank stare. Such ideas don’t play in Iowa like images of broken piggy banks and Joe Biden caught holding the hammer.

Every year the world subsidizes fossil energy adds 12 trillion dollars to the global economy. Take that away and you are in a fine pickle. You had better find something else to spend it on, and quick.

Here are a few items from my shopping list. All of these are steps along the way to a New Carbon Economy, one that mines greenhouse gases from the sky, burns them for energy, and then buries the carbon waste underground, essentially forever. If you’d like a job with this new industry of mining the sky, have a look at Air Miners.

1. Produce Biochar

Biochar is the foundation for the new economy because it is safe, scalable, and shovel-ready. It is made by taking plants (which make withdrawals from the carbon cycle to grow) and preventing the return of their carbon when they die by baking it into a mineral form. That nearly pure carbon mineral is enormously useful. As a soil amendment or animal feed, it retains water, aerates, encourages microbial biodiversity and nutrient density, electrifies soil chemistry, reduces the need for antibiotics and agri-chem, and produces spectacular gains in photosynthetic productivity and drawdown not only of carbon, but of methane, nitrous oxides, sulfur oxides, and other greenhouse gases. The non-agricultural applications are even more spectacular: carbon fibers; films and filaments; electronic circuits; batteries and fuel cells; supercapacitors; polymers; epoxies; aerogels; water filters; carbon concrete and asphalt; carbon steel; medical treatments; implants and prosthetics; cosmetics; and deodorizers. Concrete is the #1 man-made material in the world. 4.4 billion tons are poured every year, accounting for 7–10% of CO2 emissions. Up to 8% biochar addition actually strengthens concrete as much as 30%. That is 1.3 GtCO2e/y CDR potential (1.3 billion tons greenhouse gas withdrawal per year) for a single market before you factor in abatement value.

2. Grow Forests On Land

As we discussed in last month’s posts, Thinking in Wholes; Peak Carbon; Missing the Ecosystems for the Trees; and Drey’s Challenge, forests cannot remove all the three trillion tons of legacy manmade greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and restore the pre-industrial climate humans evolved within, but they might get us halfway there. Contrary to popular mythology, they can do that without diminishing food supply, increasing albedo, or suffering catastrophic loss to ice, wildfire, and flooding.

3. Grow Forests Under the Sea

As we will discuss in future installments (stay tuned!), the limitations of Earth’s land surface are less problematic on the other 70% of the planet — the water bodies. Restricting factors tend to be nutrient flows, temperature, pressure, and sunlight. About 30 million years ago, giant kelp and seagrass meadows flourished and expanded along coastlines. These forests are complex ecosystems that support many interconnected food webs at all trophic levels. Like their landed counterparts they have canopies, understories, and forest floors that suck carbon like it was a Big Gulp from the 7–11. They can be and are being harvested for salads, sushi, and essential oils. Afterwards the “crop residues” can be charred to become soil amendments or many of the myriad products and services of the new carbon economy.

4. Recover Wetlands and Regenerate Ecosystems

Wetland peats are vast carbon stores, around half or more of all soils, and instead of increasing these sinks, we are destroying them, draining them, and allowing the soil to oxidize to CO2. Since wetland peat soils can be nearly half carbon, wetland restoration is the most effective way to store soil carbon. Besides freshwater swamps, enormous carbon possibilities exist in marine wetlands, mangroves, and salt marshes (so-called blue carbon). As biogeophysicist Thomas J. Goreau reminds us:

“Without global-scale restoration, it is simply impossible to store enough carbon to meet the global needs, so large-scale restoration of destroyed, degraded, and damaged ecosystems is the sine qua non for stabilizing climate at safe levels. The methods to do so already exist. All that is lacking is the will on the part of policymakers and funding agencies to solve global problems on a global scale.”

5. Remineralize

In their masterpiece anthology, Geotherapy, the Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming, Thomas J. Goreau, Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe highlighted the importance of remineralization as at least equal to, if not greater than, the discovery of biochar. One of the ways that biochar provides such miraculous performance in soils is by supplying favorable habitats to soil microbes that do the heavy lifting of nutrient delivery to plants. Microbes can’t do that without steady supplies of nutrients, so having available minerals is essential. Mineralization is a natural cycle that works in tandem with the ebb and flow of ice ages — retreating glaciers grind rock. Remineralization is nature’s way of regenerating badly depleted and abused soils.

6. Increase Albedo

Albedo (not to be confused with libido) is an expression of the ability of surfaces to reflect sunlight (heat from the sun). Light-colored surfaces return a large part of the sun’s rays back to the atmosphere (high albedo). Dark surfaces absorb the light (low albedo). One measure of the imbalance in Earth systems is energy reaching the surface, which is denominated in Watts per square meter. The Earth added nearly 0.5 watts over every square meter of Earth’s surface over the past 50 years (since 1971); More recently (2006 to 2020), that increased to more than 0.75 W/m2. Most heat entered the ocean (89%). We need to reflect more back to space. New paints and construction materials can do that. We need more white roofs, more white highways, and more white cities. We need to help the poles to refreeze.

Show me the Money

So now let’s crunch some numbers and see what these top priorities might be able to do if they had $12 trillion per year to work with.

1. Produce Biochar

Of course, since biochar provides many commercial products and pyrolysis generates heat, biochar earns money, rather than requiring it, but suppose we wanted to scale biochar production to use all biomass residues presently wasted and turned into pollution, and we wanted to do it fast?

First, what is the available global biomass residue resource? Dees, et al (2017) give 0.1 t/ha dry mass weight for average crop residues from vineyards, fruit trees, olives, citrus and nuts, grasslands, cereals, straw, and legumes. Let us say that at ultimate scale, we could recover 90% of the 4,889 Mha of these crop residues annually, or 439 million tons. Converted to biochar at 45% process efficiency and 75% net carbon content, that yields 148 MtC/y removal or 544 MtCO2/y. Some estimates are higher, but let’s go with half a gigaton per annum.

Since all human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases in 2023 will be about 50,000 MtCO2e, to maintain the consumer civilization pollution at that level would require 92 Earths of crop residues. Fortunately, biochar is not limited to crop residues as its only feedstock, but also has a constant supply from forests and, increasingly, from aquatic plants, as well as municipal wastes like sewage and plastic. That said, the total feedstock supply would need to rise to 92 times crop residues to counterbalance present emissions. However, if emissions were to drop to 10% of today’s (5 GtCO2e/y), the many uses of biochar could absorb a significant part of that.

In general, biochar now costs between $200 and $600/ton to produce, deliver, and spread on fields (Shackley et al. 2011). Subsidizing that full cost and applying it to the crop residuals potential would therefore cost $13.5 to $35.6 billion per year, just for the fertilizer and energy benefits. Percentage of our annual $12 trillion budget: 0.1 to 0.3%.

2. Grow Forests On Land

Recent research suggests a global average of $2,328/ha for forest restoration (a metric hectare is 2.47105 English acres). Estimated costs to generate a forest are as low as $1,250/ha for natural regeneration that only requires fencing and up to $3,750/ha for tree planting and fencing in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. In our post on Missing the Ecosystem for the Trees, we indicated that 900 million hectares are available right now for afforestation/reforestation without impacting farmland, cities, or parks. Net drawdown: Depending on where they are planted and the richness of the soil and annual rainfall, trees remove CO2 at annual rates ranging from 4.5 to 40.7 tons per hectare. Our new 900 million hectares will remove 4 to 37 billion tons CO2/y, 60% in above-ground (and potentially profitable but vulnerable) century-long storage, and 40% in below-ground longer-term storage. Cost to reforest: $1.1 to 3.4 trillion total (not yearly), with an estimated 9x twenty-year ROI based on the Pioneer Forest experience.

Percentage of our annual budget amortized over 20 years: 0.5 to 1.4%

3. Grow Forests Under the Sea

As we scale kelp and seaweed farms, generally called “marine permaculture,” from one-hectare prototypes to 1000 ha. production modules to megahectare scale, capital costs drop to $30,000/ha establishment (about ten times the cost of forests on land). Each hectare will harvest 60 to 100 tons/y in CO2 removal annually and 200–300 times that in reduced and avoided emissions. It also produces a very large feedstock for biochar after primary product life cycles.

Suppose we establish 1 MHa/y of new kelp forest. (about the size of the Netherlands). Cost $30 billion. Percentage of our annual budget: 0.25%.

4. Recover Wetlands and Regenerate Ecosystems

Though they cover only around six percent of the Earth’s land surface, 40 percent of all plant and animal species live or breed in wetlands. The amount of organic carbon entering the ocean from marine primary productivity and from rivers and coastal wetlands exceeds the amount of organic carbon being buried in marine sediments (Hedges, 1992; Smith and McKenzie, 1993; Berner, 2004). Wetland carbon and marine mangrove and sea grass carbon may be equivalent in magnitude to soil, but current estimates are too poor to show that conclusively. USDA has spent more than $4.2 billion on wetland restoration and protection over the last two decades. To restore or protect all 2,400 discrete areas of large wetlands in the world (630 MHa), at USDA expense rates, could cost $170 to 6100/per acre or $265 billion to $9.5 trillion. Still within budget. We could do that in just the first year of our newly allocated spending.

Percentage of our annual budget: 0.2–79%.

5. Remineralize

We are in luck! The very minerals soils need can be found wherever there is building and road construction using stone aggregates or concrete. No extra energy is needed to grind them up since it is a waste by-product of gravel plants. After seawater, silicate rock is the most abundant resource on earth. In contrast to chemical fertilizers, rock powders are a natural material, not a synthetic one, so production costs are much lower than for chemicals that must be extracted and refined into pure form or synthesized like ammonium or urea. But suppose it were not so. Suppose remineralization costs the same as fertilizer. Let’s take the present cost of fertilizers (which are heavily subsidized) and instead provide millions of tons of rock dust appropriate for soil and forest regeneration for free. Cost: $200 billion per year. Let us double that and provide a subsidy of $400 billion, just to jumpstart the conversion.

Percentage of our annual budget: 0.33%.

6. Increase Albedo

A small startup in Tennessee, Carbon Crossroads LCC, began in 2022 with experiments in replacements to asphalt using biochar instead of fossil bitumen. The latest formulations are a 100% replacement — zero fossil. That eliminated the toxic, carcinogenic impact of asphalt road surfacing, but it left intact the negative albedo. Blacktop is, well, black. So now Carbon Crossroads, with partner BlueWorld Carbon, is moving ahead in lab testing a mixture of biochar and diatomaceous earth (think White Cliffs of Dover), that would put lighter, reflective surfaces on roads and other asphalt-like surfaces. We can paint our roofs white. We can make white cities. Cost to commercialize: One unicorn billion would be very nice, thank you.

Let’s throw the remainder — 1.863 trillion — at research to try to shade the polar and Greenland ice sheets using a suite of geoengineering tools whose safety and efficacy are still unknown. It is a gamble, I know, but we have the money to do the modeling.

Percentage of our annual budget: 15.5%.

Conclusion

If we add up my dream budget it comes to

  • Biochar — 36 billion — 0.3%
  • Reforestation — 170 billion — 1.4%
  • Kelp and Seaweed — 30 billion — 0.25%
  • Wetlands — 9.5 trillion — 79.1%
  • Remineralization — 400 billion — 3.3%
  • Albedo — 1.9 trillion — 15.5%

TOTAL: $12,000,000,000,000 or 100% of what we are currently spending each year to pad the pensions of oil executives and their congressional cronies.

From the above discussion, it can easily be seen that a simple change of incentives could work miracles. We need not penalize oil companies or lock up their executives, we just need to take away the slush funds. Put it where it matters. Do it now.

One more point about the money system. It is all a Ponzi scheme, in case you did not already realize that. Money is only worth what people agree to say it is worth. It is entirely artificial — a human invention. In some ways, it is a debt obligation on future production of energy and goods, which is to say indebting future generations to add comfort and leisure to the present ones. In another way, it represents the irretrievable loss of species, depletion of nonrenewable resources, and degradation of the quality of life of all future beings.

It need not be that way. Saner, more rational systems of ecological, regenerative economics have long been proposed and continue to be developed and experimented with every year. Those most invested in the old game have the least willingness to switch to a new one. That is not surprising. Young people need not go along with that. They can go their own way at any time. Freedom and sanity beckon.

References

Anttila, Perttu, and Hans Verkerk. “Forest Biomass Availability.” Forest Bioeconomy and Climate Change. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2022. 91–111.

Benner, Ronald, et al. “Bulk chemical characteristics of dissolved organic matter in the ocean.” Science 255.5051 (1992): 1561–1564.

Bernal, Blanca, Lara T. Murray, and Timothy RH Pearson. “Global carbon dioxide removal rates from forest landscape restoration activities.” Carbon balance and management 13.1 (2018): 1–13.

Berner, Robert A. The Phanerozoic carbon cycle: CO2 and O2. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Goreau, Thomas J., Ronal W. Larson, and Joanna Campe, eds. Geotherapy: Innovative methods of soil fertility restoration, carbon sequestration, and reversing CO2 increase. CRC Press, 2014.

Hansen, LeRoy, et al. “Targeting investments to cost-effectively restore and protect wetland ecosystems: some economic insights.” Economic Research Service ERR-183, February (2015).

Hedges, John I. “Global biogeochemical cycles: progress and problems.” Marine chemistry 39.1–3 (1992): 67–93.

Mitra, S., R. Wassmann, and P. L. G. Vlek, 2005, An appraisal of global wetland area and its organic carbon stock, Current Science, 88:25–35.

Shackley, Simon, et al. “The feasibility and costs of biochar deployment in the UK.” Carbon Management 2.3 (2011): 335–356.

Yang, D. I. N. G., et al. “Potential benefits of biochar in agricultural soils: a review.” Pedosphere 27.4 (2017): 645–661.

 

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