Can African grantmakers transcend past development strategies

Jenny Hodgson

21 July 2015


In 2014, the outbreak of Ebola in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone sent a chill around the world. The disease claimed over 11,000 lives, the majority in those three countries. However, it was the handful of cases that were reported in Europe and the United States that really fuelled the headlines. Suddenly the world’s attention was on ‘Africa’ and a continent made up of 54 countries and over a billion people, which shrank dramatically in the popular imagination to a rather tiny corner of West Africa.

One of the effects of this global panic was that the Third African Grantmakers Network Conference that had been due to take place in Ghana – in West Africa yes, but not affected by Ebola – in November 2014 was cancelled. Cancelled, that is, until the Foundation for Civil Society in Tanzania stepped in and proposed Arusha, Tanzania as an alternate venue, for a July 2015 date.

It was highly appropriate, therefore, that a topic for discussion at the conference was that of African philanthropy’s role in disaster response.

‘How can we challenge the perception that Africa is always “saved” by outsiders?’ asked Theo Sowa of the African Women’s Development Fund, ‘When, in fact, the people who ‘saved’ Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, were from those countries, not from International NGOs.’ In the case of Ebola, it was a small grant from the Urgent Action Fund-Africa that had sent a Ugandan doctor to West Africa to raise early warnings about the outbreak of the disease. And further south, the Southern Africa Trust organized its own response: although far from the epicentre of the crisis, the organization was quick to see the knock-on effects that Ebola was having across the continent.

Increasingly, observed Kepta Obati, local African institutions – because they have strong local networks and an ear to the ground – are being called upon to respond to emergency situations, whether or not it is their area of expertise. Certainly, that has been the experience within the Global Fund for Community Foundations’ network, where local partners have found themselves at the epicentres of floods, hurricanes and earthquakes: they respond whether this moves them ‘off-mission’ or not.

Conference participants heard many powerful stories of the local, often ‘below the radar’ responses of different kinds of African philanthropic institutions, responding creatively to extraordinary situations on the ground. They are developing new business models that build communities’ capacities and assets as an alternative to the ‘projectization’ of traditional development aid. An underlying theme throughout the conference was the idea that ‘African philanthropy’ is nothing new and that practices and cultures of solidarity and support are stronger and more established across this continent than other regions of the world. They may even be a defining feature of African communities. While speakers emphasised the implicit strengths and potential of African philanthropy, however, a number of questions and dilemmas emerged, both explicitly and by implication:

  • Being a local philanthropic institution in Africa can certainly offer all manner of advantages and benefits when it comes to fostering local development: a long-term view and institutional memory, proximity to the ground, an appreciation of the complexity of context. However, none of it means anything if an African grantmaker simply adopts all the behaviours – so hotly criticized in Arusha – of external donors, with their upward accountability and power dynamics.
  • Reconciling the philanthropy of the wealthy with the philanthropy of the poor. Organized African philanthropy is rapidly growing and much of is it associated with the assets of the extremely wealthy. At the same time the established narrative of African philanthropy tends to emphasise giving and solidarity systems – the survival strategies, if you like – of the poor. How to bridge the two? What is the role of multi-donor institutions that can unlock assets across different demographic groups, including the middle class, who still have few organized giving options at their disposal?
  • Encouraging organized systems of giving is one thing, but how do we ensure they address and do not reinforce long-term structural issues of inequality and marginalization? The ‘Kenyans for Kenya’ campaign, for example, raised more than US $7 million for drought and famine relief in the north part of the country, but did it result in long-term changes for poor communities there?
  • Learning from the experience of decades of ‘bad’ development practices. More than any other region of the world, Africa’s civil society sector and its communities have been on the receiving end of poorly formulated, costly and often ineffective development programmes. How can its emerging local foundation sector learn from those mistakes and resolve to do things differently?

The complex questions need to be addressed if the African philanthropic sector is to start to define its role, its values and its way of working. A good job for a regional network perhaps? With a new name, the Africa Philanthropy Network, new director, Karen Sai, and a new board, let’s hope this home-grown network is up to the job.

Jenny Hodgson is the Global Fund for Community Foundations executive director for UK and South Africa.

This article was published at the Alliance Magazine and was retrieved on 08/30/2015


Asia’s prized climate-resilient cash crop


25 June, 2015 by  (comments)

Seeds of change

In Southeast Asia, cassava is grown by over eight million farmers as a primary source of income and calories, especially among poor, rural upland communities. Despite years of research neglect and stagnating yields during the 1980s, cassava has had a dramatic come-back as a popular cash crop – but it still needs to be coupled with good management practices to be sustainable.

Cassava can be processed into a wide variety of produce and demand is increasing. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

The brief outlines the role CIAT’s scientists and regional partners have played in developing improved cassava varieties, while promoting best management practices, creating opportunities for smallholder farmers to improve their food security and contributing to better incomes through expanded market opportunities.

CIAT’s genebank in Colombia contains the world’s most important collection of cassava germplasm – a total of 6,592 accessions from 28 countries conserved using in vitro techniques. Through collaboration with national partners in Asia, CIAT continues to ensure new and improved cassava varieties are adapted to local conditions.

Opportunities ahead

The Congress in China, which has already opened for registration, is evidence of growing interest in the cassava industry in Asia. The region is now home to the world’s leading cassava exporters. And although demand is driving wider economic development in the region, beneficiaries are still mostly smallholder farmers, making it an important focus for empowering rural communities.

Farmers are trained in management practices which reduce erosion and boost productivity. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

Scientists continue to work with local communities to make them aware of the impacts of climate change, presenting them with scalable options for mitigating and adapting to weather changes.

Through the CGIAR Research Program on Roots, Tubers and Bananas, CIAT continues to build on achievements in the region by breeding new crop varieties to address constraints such as low production and low resistance to diseases. A new emphasis on genomics – the study of genes and their functions – should accelerate future progress toward these goals.

Expanding root and tuber markets, and opportunities and challenges ahead, make for dynamic dialogue at the Congress – watch this space for more information. Download the overview of CIAT’s work in Asia: From roots to riches in Southeast Asia: Improved cassava reduces poverty, hunger and climate risk.

The Congress will discuss many opportunities and challenges, including those presented by pests and diseases. Credit: G.Smith/CIAT

This article was published online at: International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and retrieved on 08/29/2015.

Cool heads over global warming

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Smoke from wildfires across the western US fill the horizon as the sun sets over Utah Lake  this month. Photo: Reuters

Smoke from wildfires across the western US fill the horizon as the sun sets over Utah Lake  this month. Photo: Reuters

Time is short but it is still possible to avoid a climate crisis, according to two new books, one each from either side of the Tasman. Tom McKinlay reports.

There’s a crisis in Professor Tim Flannery’s house.

Ralph Chapman

Ralph Chapman

It sounds like it might have something to do with the sixth mass extinction.

That’s the mass extinction brought on by global warming, referenced in his new book, Atmosphere of Hope.

In it he quotes Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 study that confirmed the current global rate of extinction is about 1000 times greater than the normal or background extinction rate.

Inasmuch as we tend to hear of extinctions after the fact, they might be expected to involve whimpers rather than bangs.

Species quietly slipping out of existence as the environments that support them become slowly more hostile.

But what is going on at Prof Flannery’s place is something else.

There’s a cacophony, a determination to not go quietly. And there’s also an alternative explanation.

The ruckus is courtesy of a 3-year-old with strong views about nappy changing, explains Prof Flannery down the phone line from Sydney.

The crisis abates and something resembling peace is restored, at least as far as the phone can pick up.

So the Australian climate scientist can turn his attention to the matter at hand, the imminent release of his new book.

It too is concerned with the present and future of 3-year-olds.

Atmosphere of Hope is something of a misnomer.

It argues that there is now little of that most precious commodity, little hope of the international community doing enough to keep global warming on the right side of the 2degC ”guardrail” agreed at 2009’s Copenhagen summit.

On the phone, Prof Flannery insists hope remains but argues, as he does in the book, that to keep the world’s climate from becoming unmanageably hot and dangerous for todays 3 years olds, we need to commit to what he calls ”third way” processes and technologies that will allow us to remove carbon from the atmosphere directly.

Tim Flannery

Tim Flannery

The prospect of keeping global warming within 2degC of pre-industrial levels by cutting emissions alone is fading, he says.That’s one take on the world’s most pressing existential crisis.

Another is courtesy of Associate Professor Ralph Chapman, director of Victoria University’s graduate programme in environmental studies, who is on the phone from Wellington, where all seems calm.

However, the man who has been working on climate change since 1988 – he was a Kyoto negotiator for New Zealand – prescribes urgency rather than calm, and also has a new book to argue for it.

Time of Useful Consciousness: Acting Urgently on Climate Changetakes as its starting point a phenomenon familiar to pilots.

The ”time of useful consciousness” is the ”time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible”.

That’s where we are with climate change, Prof Chapman says, so the question becomes: ”What actions in this time period are truly vital?”

So far so grim, but both men are writing in order to catalyse the efforts they say can still turn things around.

First, though, they provide reminders of why the time for action is upon us.

Quoting the World Bank, Prof Chapman writes: ”The science [of climate change] is settled … Our world is on thin ice.”

Tipping points such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheets are not far off (estimated to occur at about 1.6degC of warming above pre-industrial levels) and even the slightly more distant prospect of a 2.7degC rise altering the Gulf Stream threatens if the current emission pathway towards 3degC warming continues.

We have already warmed the world by about 0.9degC.

Prof Flannery chimes in with warnings about ocean acidification – also caused by CO2 emissions – which is already ”having severe economic and environmental impacts”.

Of course, both books are out as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change talks loom in Paris in late November and December, and Prof Flannery’s (due on shelves next week) follows quickly on the heels of his country’s ”vastly inadequate” carbon dioxide-cutting target of 26%-28% on 2005 levels by 2030, set as part of the Paris process.

New Zealand’s target of a 30% reduction on 2005 levels has been similarly described.

Critically, neither is regarded as sufficient to give the planet a chance of staying under 2degC of warming.

Prof Flannery says he expects to see an agreement in Paris in December but does not think it will put the world on a path to stay inside the 2degC guardrail. Prof Chapman agrees.

”The bottom line of the carbon budget is simple,” Prof Flannery writes.

”To have a 75% chance of avoiding more than 2degC of warming, over the first half of this century humanity can emit no more than 1000 gigatonnes of CO2.

“That sounds like a lot, but by 2012 only 672 gigatonnes remained. At the rate we’re burning fossil fuels, we’ll have used up the entire carbon budget by 2028 – just over halfway into the budget period.”

So to the two men’s prescriptions.

Prof Flannery argues that even if we manage to avoid 2degC of warming, that’s no guarantee that we won’t face catastrophic climate change. Remember the Greenland ice sheets could be collapsing by then.

So he suggests investing now in ”third-way” technologies (so called as they are about neither emissions reductions nor geoengineering) that by 2030 might be in a position to start removing carbon from the atmosphere in meaningful quantities, as well as having another look at carbon capture and storage.

Third-way technologies ”recreate, enhance or restore the processes that created the balance of greenhouse gases which existed prior to human interference”.

We are currently putting about 10 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere a year, so the third-way technologies need to be able to do the job at scale.

Prof Flannery highlights 11 ”sustainable activities” that have the potential to withdraw at least one gigatonne of carbon (about 3.7 gigatonnes of CO2) from the atmosphere per year.

Among the obvious starters is planting trees, which grow by drawing down CO2.

To remove one gigatonne of carbon annually by planting trees would involve reforesting an area the size of Australia by 2050, Prof Flannery says.

A big job but possible.

It would cost $20-$100 a tonne of CO2 captured, or about $370 billion all up.

Another possibility he considers is the production of biochar, which is created by burning vegetable matter in the absence of oxygen.

The biochar is then added to soil, improving it, but also locking away carbon for up to 100 years.

At this stage, the biochar industry is too small to make much of a contribution, but Prof Flannery says it could yet scale up.

But he gets most excited about the prospect of seaweed farming.

Because seaweed grows very fast, it could be used to remove CO2 at scale, according to scientists at the University of the South Pacific.

While growing and processing the seaweed in meaningful quantities is ”far beyond” current capacities, it has the advantage of requiring no new technologies, he says.

Other possibilities raised are carbon-negative plastics and cements (already in production on a modest scale), new chemical processes that can create fuels from water and CO2, and attempts to replicate photosynthesis.

Some would be money-making propositions, others would need government funding to realise, but taken together they could, by 2050, be drawing four gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, he says.

Carbon capture and storage also gets another look from Prof Flannery, who describes the work of Professor Ernie Agee, of Purdue University.

Prof Agee has been investigating the possibility of freezing CO2 out of the air over the Antarctic and burying it in the snow.

None of this is any reason not to reduce carbon emissions by as much as possible now, Prof Flannery says, but given we are currently on a worst-case trajectory, in coming decades such ideas might begin to look very attractive.

Prof Chapman’s analysis is somewhat different.

The ”time of useful consciousness” to which he refers is all about the capacity of governments, nations to work together to avert a climate crisis.

”We will be in a state at some point, maybe in two decades’ time, when governance will start to fall over, when our systems will cease to function because rational decision-making will go out the window,” he says.

With another half a degree or degree of warming, climate destabilisation may well see refugees knocking down the doors and governments starting to fail under the pressures.

There’s a short window between denial of a problem and surrender to its effects, Prof Chapman says.

”And it is that window we are starting to go into now.

”Obama put it quite well … `We are the first generation to start to feel the effects of climate change, and the last to be able to do anything about it.’ Which is exactly the same concept, really, that there is this short window.”

But the Paris talks are unlikely to get us there. So what else is there?

Prof Chapman likes the idea, previously mooted by others, of a climate club.

”Which is the notion that a kernel of important nations agree, so the US and Europe, on a climate agreement, which involves quite rapid decarbonisation, and then they put border tariffs on imports into those countries.”

Then anyone who wants to trade with the US or Europe, which is everyone, has to tackle their own carbon emissions first.

”So it becomes an expanding club, a bit like the World Trade Organisation, in which everyone wants to join but the price of joining is to put a sufficient price on carbon.”

It is an incentive mechanism that could work sufficiently well but requires concern for the climate trumping trade considerations, Prof Chapman says.

”The dominant narrative internationally has been about freeing up trade and investment to grow the economy and that’s all very well if growing the economy is not enormously damaging,” he says.

At some point, governments are going to realise that the most important thing is not growing the economy but keeping the world’s climate system together, and move it to No1 on the agenda.

”The G7, which has clearly been thinking about these issues and has lifted climate change on its agenda, is going to have to go, ‘OK, this is No1 and the sine qua non of future trade and growth’.”

It is easy to glibly prognosticate about the end of civilisation when discussing climate change, he says.

But a rolling back of civilisation as we know it is in prospect.

”The fact is that it could actually start to undermine the sort of civilisation we have developed, with sophisticated trade linkages, globalisation, growth and income to extraordinary levels by historical standards.

”It could actually start to undermine our civilisation quite soon. Not in an instant collapse kind of way but with the sort of spreading of state failure.

”I am seeing more and more concern on the part of people like the Pentagon, the White House, various centres of strategic studies.”

For all the stern and sober realism of the two men’s books, they both end on a positive note.

The situation, Prof Chapman says, is far from hopeless; rapid shifts in public and government attitudes are not only possible but plausible. And New Zealand is in a strong position to be a force for change.

Prof Flannery says we have the tools we need to avoid climate disaster, but we need to crack on.

A growing number of people are taking action in their own lives or in the public sphere, he says.

”Between deep, rapid emissions cuts and third-way technologies, we can do it.”

Three-year-olds might still stand a chance.

Time is short but it is still possible to avoid a climate crisis, according to two new books, one each from either side of the Tasman.

• Tom McKinlay reports.

This article was originally published online at: ODT New Zealand and retrieved on 8/29/2015

There’s another way to combat climate change — but let’s not call it geoengineering


August 25, 2015 12.19am EDT

No matter how much we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will not be enough to keep global warming below 2C – the internationally agreed “safe” limit. This fact has been implied by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and confirmed again recently by international research.

Does this mean we should give up? Not at all. There is a plan B to keep warming below dangerous levels: helping the planet to take more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

In his new book Atmosphere of Hope, Tim Flannery, Climate Councillor and Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (and co-author of this article), argues that these strategies will be necessary to combat climate change, but cannot substitute completely for reducing emissions.

Plan B

When the term “plan B” is mentioned in relation to climate change, ideas immediately turn to the presumed “techno-fix” of geoengineering.

Geoengineering, or “climate engineering” as it is also known, is a broad, all-encompassing definition that includes both managing solar radiation and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Solar radiation management techniques are those that change the balance of the sun’s energy reaching the earth, versus the amount being reflected out. Like deploying a parasol, this aims to cool the planet without adjusting greenhouse gas levels.

In contrast, carbon dioxide removal methods “suck” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to store it semi-permanently either underground, in rocks, or in animals, plants and ecosystems.

Often the distinctions between these two methods (and their potential impacts and different governance challenges) are not made clear. It is not uncommon for the term “geoengineering” to be used only to refer to managing the sun’s radiation reaching the Earth. This is presumably why at the first international conference on climate engineering in 2014 the chair Mark Lawrence called on all delegates to be discerning and precise in their use of language.

Talk of geoengineering tends to elicit uncomfortable feelings. This is in part because it has no obvious governance – how do you decide who takes action that will affect the whole world?

It is also because many of the techniques under the geoengineering umbrella have potentially serious adverse side-effects, both environmental and social (like a cure that could be worse than the disease). It is also largely because it feels wrong, conceptually, to try to address a problem caused by the dominance of Man over Nature through the further dominance of Man over Nature.

The third way

If emissions reduction is not enough and geoengineering ideas are decried as “ludicrous Bond-villain style schemes”, there must be another way … and there is.

According to research from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, geoengineering methods that are perceived as “natural” are more likely to receive public support.

What this suggests is that humanity would be more accepting of new proposals to deal with climate change if they worked alongside natural processes. “Natural” options would be ones that strengthened and supported the environment in doing what it already does: processing excess atmospheric carbon dioxide. This is the third way to deal with climate change.

The analogy has been drawn to a person battling weight gain. Reducing calorie intake is important but this should be supplemented by exercise to help the body do what it already does: burn excess fat. This analogy also likens some geoengineering techniques to lap-band surgery.

The third way is thus a concept that is described in Atmosphere of Hope as:

encompassing proposals and experiments that shed light on how Earth’s natural system for maintaining the carbon balance might be stimulated to draw CO2 out of the air and sea at a faster rate than occurs presently, and how we might store the recovered CO2 safely.

In essence, the division between the third way and geoengineering is a functional one.

Third-way ideas are extremely varied. They include planting trees or building artificial trees that capture CO2 from the air; producing and using biochar; farming CO2-absorbing seaweed; and constructing buildings from carbon-neutral cement capable of capturing CO2 from the air.

Determining whether a particular idea aligns with the third-way concept needs to be done on a case-by-case basis.

Ocean fertilisation is a good example. It involves adding elements or compounds (such as iron, nitrogen, phosphate, silica, or urea) to the oceans in an area that is nutrient deficient. This stimulates biological growth that can absorb carbon through photosynthesis.

Although the concept builds on existing natural processes, the outcome is uncertain and research suggests that there are environmental risks such as damaging fisheries and marine biodiversity (see herehere and here), causing localised warmingaltering cloud formations and maybe even increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the current state of research, ocean fertilisation does not look feasible or appropriate and thus may not qualify as third-way (despite sitting squarely under the geoengineering umbrella).

Direct Action could do the job

The third way may be easier for us to grapple with that geoengineering. This is perhaps because the third-way concept is already partially embedded in the Australian government’s approach to climate policy.

The government’s Direct Action mechanism is aimed at providing incentives for tackling rising atmospheric greenhouse gases. The Minister for the Environment has called Direct Action “source blind as to the type of abatement”. That means that the policy instrument does not discriminate on the technology or the sector within which the abatement takes place.

Direct Action also does not discriminate between emissions reduction and emissions removal (despite being financed by a government purse known as the Emissions Reduction Fund). In fact, the long title of the legislation is “An Act about projects to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and projects to avoid emissions of greenhouse gases, and for other purposes”.

Of the 30 or so methods currently available for funding under the Emissions Reduction Fund only a small handful could be classified as third-way. And at this stage they are all within the agriculture and forestry sector.

This is because the legislation for Direct Action is inherited from the previous government’s Carbon Farming Initiative that focused exclusively on the land sector. However, technically (if not economically) there is the potential for third-way methods to gain more importance under Direct Action.

The third-way cannot be the only way

What should not be ignored, however, is the fact that the total capacity for third-way methods to help meet the climate change challenge is limited by a number of factors, including by nature itself, but also the pace of innovation and funding.

In Atmosphere of Hope, it is estimated that by mid-century up to about 40% of current global emissions could potentially be absorbed in this way.

Globally emissions from the burning fossil fuels and from cement production continue to increase.

In Australia, emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels levelled off in 2009, and even started to decrease (from reduced electricity demand) but have started to increase again in the latest financial year. The third way can only be a supplement to serious emissions reduction in Australia and worldwide, it should not be seen as a substitute.

The launch of Tim Flannery’s latest book, Atmosphere of Hope: Searching for Solutions to the Climate Crisis, will be hosted by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute on Wednesday 26 August. Tickets are available here.

This post was originally published online at The Conversation and retrieved on 8/29/2015.

As Uses of Biochar Expand, Climate Benefits Still Uncertain

Research shows that biochar made from plant fodder and even chicken manure can be used to scrub mercury from power plant emissions and clean up polluted soil. The big question is whether biochar can be produced on a sufficiently large scale to slow or reverse global warming.

by mark hertsgaard Posted on: 21 JAN 2014
Biochar, the charcoal-like material sometimes touted as a miracle cure for global warming, might first gain economic traction as a weapon against local air pollution, research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicates. There is a catch, however: The biochar should be produced from chicken manure.

“We don’t know why, actually,” says Thomas Klasson, a scientist at the USDA’s Southern Regional Research Center in New Orleans. Klasson has led a team exploring the potential of biochar to capture the mercury emitted when power plants burn coal. When deployed as a scrubber,


Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images
Biochar holds promise for sequestering carbon and cleansing polluted air.

biochar made from chicken manure “removed almost all of the mercury” from a simulated coal emissions stream, Klasson’s team found. “We tried biochars made from turkey manure, almond shells, and cottonseeds, but chicken manure is the best,” Klasson says.

Biochar is produced when plant matter (leaves, trunks, roots), manure, or other organic material is heated in a zero- or low-oxygen environment. The carbon the organic material had previously absorbed via photosynthesis is thus captured in solid form; the resulting biochar can take the shape of sticks, pellets, or dust. When biochar is inserted in soil, the effect is to remove carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground, where it does not contribute to global warming. Biochar also brings agricultural benefits by boosting soil’s fertility and its ability to withstand drought or

Adding biochar to 10 percent of global cropland could sequester the equivalent of 29 billion tons of CO2.

flooding; it can also rid soil of heavy metals and other pollutants.

The largest outstanding question about biochar is how much of a difference it can make in slowing global warming and how soon. Johannes Lehmann, a professor of agricultural science at Cornell University and one of the world’s top experts on biochar, has calculated that if biochar were added to 10 percent of global cropland, the effect would be to sequester 29 billion tons of CO2 equivalent — roughly equal to humanity’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

What researchers still don’t know is how long that buried carbon would remain sequestered from the atmosphere. Also unclear is just how much biomass would have to be turned into biochar to make a meaningful dent in global warming, and what environmental and social impacts this might have — for example, by encouraging the clear-cutting of forests and their replacement by plantations of trees destined for biochar production.

Lehmann and former NASA climate scientist James Hansen have emphasized that they oppose such plantations and other unsustainable practices as a means to produce biochar. Rather, Lehmann says, biochar should be sourced from the massive amount of waste materials that normal agricultural and forestry production methods leave behind: corn stalks, rice husks, tree trimmings, and the like. And as the chicken manure example described above illustrates, biochar could also help dispose of the large amounts of manure currently generated by poultry and livestock operations.

The case for extracting carbon from the atmosphere, via biochar or other methods, may get a prominent boost in April when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues the next installment of its Fifth Assessment Report. A draft copy of the report by the IPCC’s Working Group Three, leaked last week, paints a grim portrait of the global failure to slow greenhouse gas emissions and says that if rapid action is not taken, severe climate and economic disruption will occur. As a

Biochar may enable us to essentially ‘unmine coal and undrill oil,’ says Bill McKibben.

result, future generations may well have to devise methods — possibly including the use of biochar — to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

Some climate activists believe that biochar may offer a more environmentally friendly method of limiting global warming than do conventional forms of geoengineering, such asspraying sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere. In the words of author Bill McKibben, founder of, biochar may enable us to “run the [climate] movie backwards … to unmine coal and undrill oil.”

As the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere climbs to 400 parts per million and beyond, and the impacts of climate change become more unmistakable and destructive — rapid melting of Arctic Ocean ice, a rising incidence of extreme weather events — the case for extracting carbon from the atmosphere becomes increasingly compelling. Reducing the world’s emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases — the focus of virtually all public discussion and government policy on climate at the moment — remains vital, but as a practical matter that effort only affects how quickly the 400 ppm figure will increase. Turning biomass into biochar and burying it underground effectively withdraws CO2 from the atmosphere; if done at sufficient scale and in combination with aggressive reductions in annual greenhouse gas emissions, biochar thus could help reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

To date, the relatively high price of biochar has been a stumbling block to these ambitions, but biochar’s ability to cleanse contaminated air and soil could help overcome that obstacle. Klasson of USDA points to a rule the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued in 2011 that sharply limits the amount of mercury that power plants and other industrial sources may emit. Mercury is one of the ten elements or chemicals of most serious public health concern, according to the World Health Organization, which advises that “even small amounts … may cause serious health problems” for the nervous, digestive, and immune systems, especially for fetuses and young

Biochar’s ability to remediate polluted air and soil accounts for part of China’s growing interest.

children. The EPA estimates that its rule will reduce by 90 percent the amount of mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants, the nation’s largest source of mercury pollution.

The EPA rule could thereby give rise to a sizable new market for biochar, suggests Klasson, which in turn would improve the economic viability of other utilizations of biochar. Writing in the Journal of Environmental Management, the USDA scientist calculated that the EPA mandate would create a potential market for 120,000 tons of biochar a year. Since U.S. production capacity for all uses of activated charcoal — a conventional alternative to biochar — is 197,000 tons per year, the EPA’s mandate could expand the effective market demand by roughly 50 percent. Such a dramatic increase in the scale of production for biochar would reduce per-unit production costs, lowering the price of biochar closer to what farmers and carbon markets could bear.

“What farmers will pay [for soil enrichment] is going to be the lowest economic value for biochar,” says Kurt Spokas, a USDA research scientist based at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. “But if we open up the market to include uses with higher economic value, such as mercury remediation or the production of black carbons for toner cartridges and lead pencils, we could make biochar a going economic enterprise.”

Interest in biochar is especially keen in China. Although the USDA, through its Agricultural Research Service, had been the global leader in biochar research, China “far outspend[s] us now,” says Robert Fireovid, who coordinates biochar research at the service.

Biochar’s ability to remediate polluted air and soil accounts for part of China’s interest. After decades of rapid industrialization and lax environmental regulation, about eight million acres of land — an area the size of Belgium — is too contaminated by toxic metals, fertilizer residues, and other pollutants to grow food, Wang Shiyuan, China’s vice-minister for Land and Resources, said in December. Beyond these extreme areas of contamination, 70 percent of China’s total farmland has experienced lower crop yields due to excessive fertilizer application and soil erosion, according to Meng Jun, the deputy director of the Liaoning Biochar

Biochar delivers the greatest agricultural benefits when it is applied to soils that are poor.

Engineering and Technology and Research Center at the University of Shenyang.

All this has endangered food security, long a hot-button political issue in China. Over the past three years, the nation’s imports of corn, rice, and wheathave skyrocketed. A succession of food safety scandals has also rocked China; in 2013, the Food and Drug Authority of Guangzhou, the mega-city in China’s hyper-industrialized south, revealed that 44 percent of rice samples it tested had dangerous levels of cadmium, a heavy metal that can harm the liver and kidneys and cause cancer.

Applying biochar to contaminated rice paddies can substantially reduce cadmium pollution, concluded a two-year study published in the journalBioResources. For the experiment, biochar made from wheat straw was ground into pellets 2 millimeters in diameter and mixed into soil in Jiangsu province that contained high levels of cadmium. The concentration of cadmium in the rice harvested from the test plots was reduced by 45 percent in the first year of the experiment and by 62 percent in the second year. Crop yields were not affected.

Biochar also could address a second environmental challenge in China’s rural areas — the countless heaps of straw, corn stalks, and other crop residues stacked around virtually every village. Farmers often burn this fodder, producing local air pollution and releasing greenhouse gases. Instead, converting the plant material into biochar would reduce such pollution, professor Jun has noted. In addition, when the biochar was added to soil, it improved crop yields more than chemical fertilizers did, with yield differentials reaching 15 percent for peanuts, 7.2 percent for soybeans, and 8.1 percent for potatoes.

The results in China cannot automatically be extrapolated to the rest of the world, however. “You must always remember that not all biochars are the same, and their effects will differ according to what kind of soil is being amended,” said Spokas of the USDA.

Spokas claims to have the world’s most diverse collection of biochars; his lab boasts 225 different varieties, many of which have been sent to him by fellow researchers, entrepreneurs, and enthusiasts. Spokas and his colleagues are doing lab and field tests to determine the properties of the different varieties, including their effects on soil fertility, how stable various types of biochar are in different soils, and how much carbon the different biochars sequester.

As a rule, biochar delivers the greatest agricultural benefits when it is applied to soils that are poor, either inherently or because of pollution. “We’re finding that biochar as a soil amendment tends to be less useful here in the Midwest, because the soil is already so fertile,” says Spokas. Biochar tends to deliver more benefits to “soils overseas, because [the soils] have often been leached of nutrients.”

The big question remains biochar’s effectiveness in slowing or reversing global warming, and that can only be answered by further research and real-world experiments — something the Chinese, at least, seem to understand. After being briefed on biochar in 2010, China’s national leadership made biochar production part of the state Clean Energy program in 2011, according to Genxing Pan of Nanjing Agricultural University. Biochar research is currently being supported by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Rural Economic Commission, among other entities.

The U.S. government, by contrast, is winding down its biochar research. Congress has cut the Agricultural Research Service’s budget by 12 percent since 2010, said ARS’s Fireovid. “We’ve closed at least ten laboratories in the last three years,” he added. “The long-term studies we think we need to do on biochar, we just can’t do. We lack the funds.”



This article was originally published online at Yale University Environment360  and was retrieved on: 08/28/2015.

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