Simmered out of eucalyptus, charcoal is being hoed into the degraded soils of former forests in western Kenya. Roasted out of chicken manure, it is spurring the growth of malting barley in Australia. And in Iowa, researchers are plowing charcoal into corn rows, hoping to limit the tons of fertilizer that saturate the state’s fields each year.
At these farms and more, scientists are probing the limits of how high-grade charcoal, dubbed biochar, can be formed from plant and animal waste to squirrel away the atmosphere’s carbon for centuries, or even millennia. Inspired by ancient Amazonian soils, researchers have found that buried charcoal resists bacteria’s attempts to break it down. And thanks to its porous geometry, it has a knack for improving land in ways still being revealed.
“Once we get serious about climate change, this information is available now,” said James Amonette, an environmental geochemist at the Energy Department’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “[Biochar] is one of the major tools we can use to fight climate change, if we decide to do so.”
Charcoal’s status may be comparable to the start of the world’s head-over-heels embrace of synthetic fertilizer a century ago, scientists say. As piling evidence shows, converting organic matter — be it corn scraps, human sewage or chicken litter — to charcoal can, in effect, increase the carbon cycle’s latency by hundreds of years, buying humanity just a bit more time to solve its fossil fuel fix.
While it has roots in decades-old research, the biochar movement took life only recently, as soil scientists realized the scope of charcoal’s climate implications. The field, rich in unanswered questions, has exploded in the past five years, leading several hundred scientists to gather this month in Brazil for the world’s third annual biochar conference.
“Biochar is certainly not a fringe science anymore,” said Lukas van Zweiten, an Australian researcher running one of the world’s largest biochar field trials. “[It's] a big change from five years ago, when we were still trying to convince the scientific community of its worth.”
Even Washington is digging into biochar. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced a bill supporting biochar research, and provisions tucked into the stalled climate measure sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) direct the Agriculture Department to provide grants to up to 60 research projects. It is funding that is sorely needed — currently, there is not enough biochar being produced to meet even scientific demand.
In Brazil, scientists will complain about lack of funding, of course, but they will also detail recent progress made in understanding why biochar can be so beneficial for degraded soils. They will discuss how variable biochar can be, depending on its source. (Forest and chicken waste, it turns out, are not created equal.) And they will tamp down some of the rapturous rhetoric that can accompany charcoal’s agricultural potential.
“Biochar is not a fix for all problems,” be it soil quality or climate change, said Johannes Lehmann, a scientist at Cornell University and perhaps the leading biochar researcher. It will only improve soil that can be improved, he said. “Whether it’s a viable global strategy? Nobody can say at this point.”
Biochar may not sequester all of society’s excess carbon, but it can play a tangible role in limiting emissions. Projections recently released by Amonette have found that biochar could trap the equivalent of 12 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions a year, in sustainable scenarios. Such a plunge, however, would carry steep economic costs and would likely only be spurred by putting a price on CO2 emissions.
In effect, these researchers believe that biochar will allow society to generate energy from plant waste and nonfood crops — a combustible oil is the major byproduct of charcoal production — while also ticking down CO2 emissions. Plants naturally absorb atmospheric CO2 to build themselves up and by delaying the escape of that carbon once crops die a thumb is placed on the carbon-cycle scale, mitigating emissions.
Unlike the geological CO2 sequestration proposed for coal-fired power plants, biochar can operate on small scales. It can be produced in massive factories but also in small stoves tagged for distribution in the world’s poorest regions, which often also have impoverished soil, an option that has drawn interest from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Such stoves, though they might not produce ideal charcoal, possess a rare trait in the development world: poverty relief that also reduces CO2 emissions.
For many scientists, biochar is about much more than climate change. It is a chance to rewire agriculture. For too long, farmers have neglected soil health, instead dousing their fields with escalating amounts of synthetic fertilizer, heavy in nutrients, to boost plant growth, said David Laird, a soil scientist at Iowa State University.
“Soil quality has not been the focus of a lot of research or industry over the years,” Laird said, with attention instead locked on fertilizer and irrigation. “Char is a paradigm shift. It puts the emphasis on building the soil resource base itself. That’s the opportunity.”
… According to Amonette, biochar’s stability provides half of its greenhouse gas benefit; another third derives from replaced fossil fuel energy, and one-fifth to avoided emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, both powerful greenhouse gases. (The degree that biochar limits nitrous oxide emissions remains a matter of debate.) For nearly every farming region, it will be better to produce biochar for energy, rather than simply burning waste, Amonette’s study found, except for areas with already fertile soil that depend on coal-fired power plants.
Like biofuels, biochar has the potential, if widely used, to see forests sacrificed to farming, or food crops used instead for fuel. Well aware of these problems, Amonette’s projections relied only on the use of agricultural and human waste, along with dedicated energy crops that would only be grown on abandoned, degraded soil, he said. Estimates for biochar’s offset potential could have run higher, but not without untold indirect consequences.
There are other possible indirect consequences, Amonette added. Darkening soil with finely ground charcoal could cause more sunlight to be absorbed. And should too much charcoal escape into the air, it could become the equivalent of black carbon, blowing into arctic regions and glaciers, its darkness causing increased heat absorption. Watering down charcoal before use will limit those concerns, though, Iowa’s Laird said.
For some crops, biochar is a no-brainer, particularly rice, Amonette said. Water lies stagnant in paddies for weeks or months at a time. Bacteria feed off the rice waste and suck oxygen out of the water, creating space, once the oxygen is gone, for microbes that emit methane. (“Take any soil, put it in a beaker, and in a few weeks you’d be producing methane,” Amonette said.) Steps to eliminate such methane emissions with biochar, including production from manure and yard waste, make immediate sense, he said.
In other environments, biochar could prove an ineffective carbon sink, scientists warned. Seeding forests does not seem particularly promising, especially in colder climates. And there needs to be more study of the overall influence charcoal has on soil, Iowa’s Laird added. Does it bump the growth of carbon-chewing microbes? Does it encourage more carbon to settle?
“We actually have data that say both,” Laird said.
The Swedish biologist David Wardle has been one of the most prominent researchers calling for calm in the charcoal rush. He conducted a 10-year study of charcoal’s interaction with forest tundra and found that the charcoal accelerated the loss of carbon. (Wardle’s methodology may have been flawed, however, as it did not account for new charcoal-caused carbon deposits, Lehmann said.) It is one data set for one region, but the upshot is that a more holistic accounting needs to take place, Wardle said.
“A more realistic vision is a more nuanced vision,” he said. “If you have [charcoal] in the soil, there will be long-term consequences on microbial activity. It’s not as simplistic as it initially seems.”
While biochar’s carbon storage grabs headlines, what gets soil scientists exercised is its potential to improve soil in the United States and, especially, in the tropics, where so many currently suffer from food insecurity. For too long, farmers have focused on improving yield with fertilizers derived from natural gas, Amonette said. The soil itself has been neglected.
Cornell’s Lehmann has been at the forefront of testing how African soils could take to charcoal, running trials in western Kenya’s highlands for six years. Over the past century, the highland forests have been slowly razed for agriculture, resulting in a gradient of soil richness, from the lush dirt of recently deforested land to plots that have been farmed, year after year, for a century — a perfect experimental site.
In these trials, Lehmann found that, after several years, the amount of corn grown per plot doubled in older soils supplemented with biochar. The yield gains were not unprecedented: By spreading dead sunflowers across the soil, scientists made similar improvements. But unlike the mulch, which will erode unless reapplied, the biochar’s benefits will linger, Lehmann said.
Similar studies have paralleled Lehmann’s work across multiple continents — China is building a large biochar research cohort — over the past five years, to varying results. In the United States, biochar has potential for the southeast United States, where soil is nearly as poor as the tropics. Fruit and vegetables grown in California’s Central Valley, too, are promising targets, Amonette said….
“We have examples where biochar does very little, at least in the short term, in soil, while other examples show quite stunning improvements in soil fertility and productivity,” [Australian researcher] van Zweiten said. Farmers should not get ahead of themselves in expectations, he said, “that biochar is always going to do good things in the soil, because I know for a fact this is not the case.”
Some of van Zweiten’s earliest field trials, on subtropical pasture in Australia, saw little in the way of additional growth when one biochar variety was added, he said. Another trial, though, begun three years ago, has had large yield gains for a mix of crops, such as malting barley; the site’s control plots, fed only fertilizer, are failing.
Few places have better farming soil than Iowa, where Laird tests biochar on row after row of corn. Given these conditions, biochar will only add a slight yield improvement, if any, he said. Laird’s hope, instead, is that charcoal will improve soil’s nutrient efficiency, dropping the vast amount of synthetic fertilizer dumped on cash crops each year, much of which then leaches into the watershed to cause seasonal “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico.
The nutrient efficiency questions are far from answered. “It’s going to take time to put all the pieces together and be able to come up with definite answers,” Laird said. But while it is not yet proven, he said, “I think we need to move ahead with testing of this at a significant scale.”
… In the end, it could be the powerful farm lobby that will ultimately push biochar forward. Farmers have long desired a way into the carbon markets that would be created by potential climate legislation, if it ever moves forward. And biochar could provide the greatest certainty that their biological carbon sinks cause true emission offsets, though only time will tell.
“Biochar becomes increasingly viable once we make a societal decision to deal with climate change,” Amonette said. “Until we do that, it will remain a niche.”
The Energy Department said Tuesday it was awarding $575 million for carbon capture research-and-development projects in 15 states.
The experimental technique involves storing carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants and other sources underground, in an attempt to reduce pollution blamed for contributing to global warming.
“This is a major step forward in the fight to reduce carbon emissions from industrial plants,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. “These new technologies will not only help fight climate change, they will create jobs now and help position the United States to lead the world in clean coal technologies, which will only increase in demand in the years ahead.”
All told, he said, the department has invested more than $4 billion in carbon storage and capture, matched by more than $7 billion in private investments.
The newest money will fund 22 projects in 15 states, ranging from evaluation of geologic sites for carbon storage to development of turbo-machinery and engines to help improve carbon capture and storage. The projects, in states including California, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New York and Texas, are being funded from the economic stimulus law.
President Barack Obama wants a cost-effective deployment of carbon capture and storage within 10 years “” despite questions about the technology and skepticism about its feasibility. He created a task force this year charged with coming up with a plan to overcome barriers to such deployment.
With clean-energy legislation trapped in a political deadlock, renewable-energy advocates called big business the new leader in the nation’s green revolution during a national summit meeting Tuesday.
John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, said untapped potential in the sustainable energy market could revive the stalled economy and end the recession.
“The focus now has got to be on getting these worlds and mechanisms together to finance innovative, renewable technology,” Podesta said.
The Center for American Progress Action Fund and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hosted the third in a series of national clean-energy summit meetings Tuesday at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. More than 40 people rallied outside the event, with some wearing green hard hats and waving signs that equated clean energy with green jobs.
Reid said encouraging the development of emerging clean-energy industries could ease the nation’s security problems and help overcome economic woes.
“We need to take that little spark and turn it into a wildfire,” Reid said.
Retrofitting just 40 percent of the country’s homes and commercial properties for energy efficiency would create 625,000 jobs over a decade, said Podesta, who was White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and headed President Barack Obama’s presidential transition team.
Among the panels scheduled for the summit were ones on green energy, investments, jobs and state and national policy. A panel of business executives and owners chided Congress for failing to pass a substantive energy policy that would allow clean-energy manufacturers to compete with traditional energy giants.
As proposed American offshore wind-farm projects creep forward — slowed by state legislative debates, due diligence and environmental impact assessments — China has leapt past the United States, installing its first offshore wind farm. Several other farms also are already under construction, and even the Chinese government’s ambitious targets seem low compared to industry dreaming.
“What the U.S. doesn’t realize,” said Peggy Liu, founder and chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, is that China “is going from manufacturing hub to the clean-tech laboratory of the world.”
The first major offshore wind farm outside of Europe is located in the East China Sea, near Shanghai. The 102-megawatt Donghai Bridge Wind Farm began transmitting power to the national grid in July and signals a new direction for Chinese renewable energy projects and the initiation of a national policy focusing not just on wind power, but increasingly on the offshore variety.
To gauge whether climate change is affecting African grassland terrains, difficult to map because of sometimes dense forest cover, it turns out that watching where termites build their mounds is an excellent guide, scientists at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology in Palo Alto, Calif. have found.
Termite mounds in Africa wax and wane according to annual rainfall, they discovered, allowing their use as a predictor of ecologic shifts due to climate change. The research is published in the September 7, 2010, advanced online edition of Nature Communications. The researchers mapped more than 40,000 termite mounds covering 192 square miles of savanna in Kruger National Park in South Africa.
They found three distinct ecosystems. Well-drained upslope sides of hills, which trees liked, wetter, downside slopes which grasses preferred and not too wet, not too dry well-drained soil where mound-building termites build nests.
The scientists used the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, an airborne mapping system that works much like a diagnostic medical scan and can penetrate the tree canopy to the soil level. The mapping system creates a three-dimensional map of the vegetation and terrain.
The “Climate-1 Stop” aims to be just what its name implies: a single place where people easily can find all the reliable information, resources and tools about climate change that they need.
“There’s plenty of information out there, but it’s really difficult to find the one specific thing you need,” said Jessica Coughlin. “You can become overwhelmed.”
Coughlin heads the Institute for the Application of Geospacial Technology, a nonprofit organization located in Auburn, N.Y. and affiliated with Cayuga Community College. The institute, which provides expertise in geographic information systems technology, including GPS, remote sensing, digital mapping, and geospatial data, among other things, has created a new single Web site on climate change.
The goal is to help scientists, decision-makers, nonprofit workers, other officials, and even lay people, find the right climate change data they are seeking. The site will provide access to research papers and other documents, news articles, other Web sites and useful tools from other agencies.
A group of environmental activists set out Tuesday for Washington with a well-traveled and recycled solar panel that once stood atop President Jimmy Carter’s White House, carrying hopes of persuading the current president to once again generate energy with the sun’s rays.
Environmental author and activist Bill McKibben is leading Unity College students and staff on the solar road trip, with stops planned in Boston and New York en route to Washington.
They’re toting along the Carter-era solar panel in hopes of drumming up support for renewable energy. They also hope to convince President Barack Obama to install new solar panels.
“I can’t think of a clearer win for the president, a better reminder to the legions of young people who worked on his campaign that he is still focused on the future,” McKibben wrote Tuesday in Yale Environment 360, a publication of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
The solar panels were placed in service on the White House by Carter’s order during the late 1970s as a symbol of commitment to increasing the nation’s use of renewable resources. But they didn’t remain for long. They were removed by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and put in storage.
“The thing about oceanography is that it is a very collegial profession.” So says Tony Knapp, director of the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), and given the backdrop “” aboard BIOS’s multimillion-dollar research ship the HSBC Atlantic Explorer, with the sun shining and the Atlantic Ocean rolling behind him “” it’s hard to argue. It’s also one of the few scientific professions where motion sickness is a real risk, as I’m learning aboard the ship, which is buffeted by the advance wind and sea swells of Tropical Storm Fiona. But beyond the fresh air and occasional seasick research assistant, what sets apart the oceanography done at BIOS from other disciplines is its importance “” the institute’s work is fundamental to our ability to model the ocean’s role in climate change, among other areas “” and its rarity. BIOS is one of just a handful of institutes worldwide that regularly monitor the ocean for physical and chemical changes. “We just have not invested in understanding ocean chemistry,” says Knapp. And when it comes to ocean science, what we don’t know may be hurting us.
The scientists at BIOS are trying to change that. Founded in 1903, BIOS is one of the few marine-research stations actually situated in the middle of the ocean “” the Atlantic, in the waters surrounding the isolated island of Bermuda. That base has given BIOS scientists the ability to reach, in just a few hours’ sail, the deep water “” Bermuda sits on a seamount, and within a few miles of its reef-shielded coasts, the ocean can be more than 10,000 feet deep. For decades, BIOS researchers have been sailing to the same spot in the Atlantic “” Hydrostation “S,” 15 nautical miles southeast of Bermuda “” where they take water samples from the surface all the way down to just above the ocean floor. Since the program began in 1954, BIOS ships have visited the “S” more than 1,100 times. (There’s nothing special about the location of “S”; it’s simply a convenient deep-water spot near the island.) Researchers in Hawaii carry out a similar program in the Pacific, but they’ve taken fewer samples over a smaller amount of time. “This is the single most studied spot in the ocean,” says Knapp.
Cleanup could take several days after an estimated 20,000 gallons of used oil spilled from a storage tank at an Eastside bulk storage facility Tuesday, state environmental officials said.
A broken valve spewed oil from the above-ground tank at Metal Working Lubricants, 199 S. Sherman Drive, said Amy Hartsock, public information officer for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management .
The spill was reported around noon. The tank held about 120,000 gallons of oil before the spill, Hartsock said. Efforts to recover the remaining oil and clean up the spill were expected to continue for several days.
As a precaution, Hartsock said, the Marion County Health Department would test a sample of water from the well of a nearby home to ensure that the spill was contained to the site.
Neighbors may notice an odor of oil and will hear construction equipment working day and night while the cleanup is under way, Hartsock said.
It may be the most watched “” and controversial “” state Department of Public Utilities hearing in years, but opening day of the agency’s review of the Cape Wind energy project quickly devolved into a discussion of mind-numbing legal and technical minutiae as the main opposition group’s lawyer cross-examined representatives of the developer.
The DPU must decide whether a contract allowing the utility National Grid to purchase half of the power generated from 130 turbines in Nantucket Sound is a good deal for ratepayers. The cost of that power is more than twice that of electricity from traditional sources, and the issue has emerged as among the most contentious in the wind farm proponents’ nine-year struggle for government permits.
Glenn Benson, a lawyer for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, questioned Cape Wind lawyer Dennis Duffy and one of its energy consultants, Robert Stoddard, about the company’s financing, timeline, and construction contracts.
Duffy said Cape Wind has not found a buyer for the remaining 50 percent of its product. That buyer, along with financing and other details, will be determined after the outcome of the DPU case, he said.
Torrential rains and flash floods that swept through cities and villages in Central Africa in late August have intensified a food crisis in the region, leaving upwards of 10 million people suffering from severe food shortages, the United Nations and relief organizations warned last week.
The floods, which destroyed crops and livestock, struck an area already on the brink of famine after successive years of drought and failed harvests.
Rising world grain prices, resulting partly from the heat wave and drought that destroyed wheat crops across Russia this summer, are compounding the crisis, relief organizations said.
“Imported food in the markets is already too expensive for those most in need, and the current uncertainty in the global food market is likely to push prices higher still,” Cristina Ruiz, a relief worker with Christian Aid, said in a statement.
The crisis is worst in landlocked Niger, where as many as 400,000 children are at risk of dying of starvation or disease because of malnutrition, the aid group Feed the Children said. With national food reserves gone, some in the country have resorted to eating boiled weeds, according to news reports.
An additional 200,000 people have been left homeless by the recent flash floods.
A study from the pan-European thinktank Eurosif (the European Sustainable Investment Forum) has revealed that sustainable investment is now largely perceived by Europe’s high net worth individuals (NHWI) as a valuable mainstream investment strategy, not merely one with a niche appeal.
The study, entitled High Net Worth Individuals & Sustainable Investment, analysed the findings of a questionnaire distributed to over 400 participants ranging from individuals, family offices and wealth managers between April and June of this year.
The report said that European high net worth individuals are effectively navigating the crisis due to their focus on the incorporation of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues with the ‘smart money’ being increasingly allocated to aspects of sustainable investing ‘as a means to preserve capital and opportunistically earn above average returns’.
Dr. Burkhard P. Varnholt, CIO of Bank Sarasin, one of the study’s sponsors believes that sustainable investment is playing an ever more important role in the construction of portfolios.
This year’s Chevy Malibu gets 26 miles to the gallon, combined city and highway. Quick “” how much will it save or cost you over the next five years? How much carbon pollution does it emit? And how does it stack up against other options at the dealership?
The answers could soon be on the window of every new car, minivan or pickup, along with a single letter grade that rates the vehicle by fuel efficiency and carbon dioxide emissions. The idea is to enhance the gas mileage information long posted on new vehicles and to respond to growing consumer concerns about rising gas costs, oil dependence and global warming pollution.
With a simple grade every middle-schooler understands, vehicles could be labeled as getting anywhere from an A+ to a D based on how much gas they burn and how much heat-trapping carbon dioxide they fire out the tailpipe. But if the auto companies get their way, the labels won’t have a grade, but instead have a long list of confusing numbers.
Adding a grade to the labels is a great idea. They’ll be the most effective way to ensure drivers make the right choice to cut driving costs. And they’ll enable Americans to send clear market signals to automakers about how much we care about reducing our reliance on foreign oil, creating the jobs of tomorrow and ensuring a healthier future for our children.
The last major GE factory making ordinary incandescent light bulbs in the United States is closing this month, marking a small, sad exit for a product and company that can trace their roots to Thomas Alva Edison’s innovations in the 1870s.
The remaining 200 workers at the plant here will lose their jobs.
“Now what’re we going to do?” said Toby Savolainen, 49, who like many others worked for decades at the factory, making bulbs now deemed wasteful.
During the recession, political and business leaders have held out the promise that American advances, particularly in green technology, might stem the decades-long decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. But as the lighting industry shows, even when the government pushes companies toward environmental innovations and Americans come up with them, the manufacture of the next generation technology can still end up overseas.
San Rafael Falls, Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, is threatened by a Chinese-funded hydroelectric project, reports Save America’s Forests, an environmental group
. The 1,500 megawatt Coca-Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Project will divert water flow away from the 480-foot San Rafael Falls, leaving it “high and dry.” Worse, the project, which is scheduled for completion in 2016, will be pressure on Sumaco Biosphere Reserve, an area so renowned for its biodiversity that “even the oil companies spared this area during prospection and development of pipeline corridors in the Ecuadorian Amazon,” according to Save America’s Forests, which says the falls have become the principal attraction of Sumaco.
“It is located in the mega-diverse transition zone between the Andes Mountains and the Amazon,” stated the environmental group in a press release. “The falls have become one of the more prominent images and icons for promoting ecotourism in Ecuador, a country that made headlines in 2008 for being the first nation to grant constitutional rights to nature itself.”