The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming

By changing our farming practices to ones more like the ancients we can take carbon out of our air while improving soil fertility.

| November 2010 Web

The Biochar Solution book cover

"The Biochar Solution" explores the dual function of biochar as a carbon-negative energy source and a potent soil-builder.

Photo Courtesy New Society Publishers

The following is an excerpt from The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change by Albert Bates (New Society, 2010). The excerpt is from Chapter 15: Carbon Farming.

As conventional farming spread from Sumeria to the rest of the world, the soil biology deficit steadily grew. Measured in carbon, we can put this deficit in 2010 at 30 to 75 percent, depending on location, pre-existing soil type, climate, terrain, drainage, and land use or abuse.

The good news is that solely by changing our farming practices to ones more like the ancients we can take carbon out of our air while, on average, incorporating a layer of carbon into our soil equal to 0.081 inches (2.1 millimeters) over the 8.5 percent of the area of the Earth that we currently use to make food. While degraded soils are the most receptive carbon sink, nearly all soils can be improved by adding carbon.

The process of restoring the soil’s biological life, which we’ll call carbon farming, not only draws carbon from the atmosphere to the soil, it also increases biomass productivity, increases food production, improves nutritional value, helps water purification, reduces energy and fertilizer requirements, controls pests and weeds, and significantly increases biodiversity.

Many of the soils of the world — in the American plains, the Australian outback, the Ural foothills, and the Fertile Crescent — once had carbon content of up to 20 percent, before the advent of the plow and goat. They are typically at 0.5 to 5 percent today. Because fertility varies, it is possible that we can get more return for our carbon investment in some places than others. Generally, the more “worn out” the soil, the more carbon it can take back. This is good news for Africa, Australia, and other areas of depleted soils.

Soil scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University found that with better carbon management practices, soils in the continental US could soak up 330 million tons of carbon each year, enough to more than offset the emissions from all the cars in the US, while improving food production by 12 percent.1 Lal says the ultimate potential for soil carbon uptake is one billion tons — a gigaton — per year (1 GtC/yr).2 This contrasts with the 800 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere, about half of that being anthropogenic. Lal’s estimate may be low, but if it were accurate, and if man-made emissions could be brought down to zero, carbon farming could cut carbon in the atmosphere by one part per million every four years. We are currently raising it by nearly two parts every year, so cutting emissions is still the key to returning to a safe climate.

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