Is Biochar a ‘black gold’ solution to fight climate change?

Is Biochar a ‘black gold’ solution to fight climate change?

The agriculture sector is arguably one of the sectors most affected by climate change. Crop cultivation yields are heavily impacted by longer drought days, more frequent flash floods, and higher rates of evapotranspiration all over the world. This sector, which accounts for one-fifth of global emissions, undoubtedly needs to shift to greener practices [1]. In this blog, we will explore biochar, a carbon removal solution that is gaining a lot of attention lately, especially within the carbon offsetting bubble. So, what exactly is biochar, and why is it such a prized carbon offsetting option and getting so much attention recently?

What exactly is Biochar?

Biochar is a charcoal-like substance produced through a process called pyrolysis. The process involves heating (to ~350°C) organic matter (crop residue, forestry residue, animal manure, municipal solid waste, etc.) in the absence of oxygen to prevent combustion. Its potential applications are countless. In recent years, the production of biochar has gained significant attention due to its ability to store carbon and enhance soil fertility [2]. According to the International Biochar Initiative, China is the largest biochar producer by volume in the Asia Pacific region, while the US is the largest producer in North America with an estimated production of around 70,000 to 80,000 tons per year.

In 2022, the global biochar market was valued at an impressive $220 billion, and experts predict that this figure will reach $633 billion by 2032 [3]. Major players in the biochar market include Biochar Supreme, Pacific Biochar Corporation, and Proactive Agriculture.

Pyrolysis process

What are the advantages of Biochar?

As they decay or decompose - crop residues, animal manure, and food waste release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which make up a whopping 15.3% of agricultural emissions. Thus, reducing food waste, and managing crop residues and manure properly are important steps we can take to reduce agricultural emissions. The biochar production process offers a promising list of benefits to 1) mitigate climate change, 2) enhance soil conditions, and 3) replace fossil fuels as an alternative fuel source.

Biochar as a tool to fight climate change

As the world population grows, the demand for sustainable food production is becoming more critical. Rice residues such as rice husk and straw are often burned as a means of disposal, a process that generates greenhouse gas emissions and pollutes the air. Through pyrolysis, the carbon that would have been naturally released by the organic matter (mentioned previously) is instead stored in the substance we call biochar. When biochar is used as a fertilizer in the soil, it can store carbon for as long as 2000 years. A life cycle assessment revealed that 2.68 tons of CO2 equivalents are embodied in each ton of biochar [4]. This is equivalent to sequestering carbon by growing 45 trees for 10 years. This makes biochar production a very attractive carbon removal technology.

Biochar as a soil conditioner for agriculture

The use of fertilizers in agriculture has been a game-changer for food production, but it has also contributed to greenhouse gas emissions that have accelerated climate change. In particular, nitrogen fertilizer production requires a lot of energy, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. However, biochar offers a sustainable solution to this problem by improving soil fertility and reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. In addition to its ability to neutralize soil acidity, and improve water retention and drainage, biochar improves soil properties, such as bulk density, porosity, and pH, leading to increased crop yields. Although the yield of biochar depends on the carbon content and volatile content of the feedstock, it is typically around 30%, meaning that 100 kg of biomass feedstock often leads to 30 kg of biochar.

Biochar is used as a soil amendment

Biochar as a renewable source of energy

During pyrolysis, volatile gases such as methane, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon are burned or driven off, leaving behind carbon-enriched biochar. Besides biochar, bioenergy is also produced in the form of either synthetic gas (syngas) or bio-oils, which can be used to produce heat, power, or a combination of both [5]. These co-products (i.e. syngas and bio-oils) can be used as a source of fuel, essentially replacing fossil fuels. However, compared to other forms of renewable energy production such as solar and wind, the process of producing syngas and bio-oils is more expensive (though this doesn’t account for the carbon removal benefits).

What are some of the challenges faced by Biochar?

The high initial investments necessary for biochar technology and competition with chemical fertilizers may prevent its wider adoption, especially in developing countries. Biochar economics is also dependent on the local market and the availability of other options. For instance, if chemical fertilizers are cheap and accessible, farmers may not adopt biochar, despite its long-term benefits. Thus, the biochar industry needs innovation to reduce costs and increase efficiency, making it accessible to farmers and promoting sustainability.

What is the carbon market doing with Biochar?

Around 2020, the regulatory framework was established around biochar to make it eligible as a carbon credit. This has completely changed the financial prospects of biochar projects around the world, making them much more viable for producers. Biochar credits have been sold as high as $600, depending on the market. Currently, biochar carbon credits are still relatively scarce, but interest has rapidly grown since the carbon market has become more developed with the help of companies like Carbon Future. Companies such as Pacific Biochar in California and Carbon Cycle in Germany, sell biochar credits to businesses like Microsoft. Exciting start-ups like Carbo Culture and Made of Air truly display the industry's potential for growth.

The production of biochar has diverse co-benefits, which include the creation of green jobs through manufacturing, and sustainable forest management practices that decrease the risk of forest fires and insect-borne diseases. Local farmer communities can be deeply engaged in both supplying the feedstock and using the biochar in their soil.

To ensure biochar plays a significant role in mitigating climate change, standards, and regulations, such as the European Biochar Certificate, are crucial. This voluntary certification scheme sets guidelines for sustainable biochar production, feedstock sourcing, and quality standards, including freedom from contamination. Other standards, such as the International Biochar Initiative and Sustainable Biomass Program, also provide guidance and share good industry practices with the wider public. As biomass projects increase, it is vital to establish requirements for high-quality biochar.

A clear framework, like Verra's methodology for the utilization of biochar, is crucial for the further development of biochar carbon credits. Verra's methodology provides a standardized approach to assess the additionality of a biochar project and define the baseline scenario, enabling individuals and organizations to participate in the carbon credit scheme for biochar.

How much does the world need Biochar?

Biochar is one of several carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Approximately 99.9 percent of all CDR projects are based on reforestation and afforestation efforts (2 billion tons of CO2) and the remaining 0.1 percent is comprised of biochar, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and direct air capture with carbon capture and storage (DACCS). One study finds that CDR needs to be further increased by 3.9 billion tons by 2030 and 9.8 billion tons of CO2 by 2050 to stay within the 1.5 degrees warming target.

With decreasing production costs and increasing carbon removal credit value, biochar is an increasingly popular option for companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint and make a sustainable investment. The future of biochar looks bright, especially if it is able to leverage the voluntary carbon market. URECA is excited to keep a keen eye on how this technology develops over time, and on how we can contribute to the process!