The 2016 US Biochar Initiative Conference wrapped up yesterday after a jam-packed few days of demonstrations, speeches, and breakout sessions on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Biochar is touted by many as a potential carbon removal solution, and I wanted to learn how close biochar is today to delivering on this promise. Below are my key takeaways from the conference.
The biochar-as-carbon-removal story is WAY more complex than it might seem on the surface. Biochar, on the surface, seems like a relatively straight forward carbon sequestration story: by taking plant (or other organic) wastes that would release CO2 back into the atmosphere if left to natural processes, and transforming that material into a stable carbon form that lasts for hundreds of years, it is possible to sequester carbon in a safe, stable manner. But how much carbon gets sequestered by a given biochar depends on a number of factors, including: feedstock used, production process, and end use application. Many biochar companies are targeting agricultural and forestry markets, and the science is still unclear to what impact a biochar will have on any given land-use system in terms of lifecycle GHG emissions (e.g. does biochar trap carbon but encourage microbial activity that releases more N2O emissions?). This is further complicated by the fact that...
...there is no broadly accepted standard or certification for biochar, which creates barriers to adoption by consumers. Producers are very creative about the feedstock and production methods they use for making and refining biochar into eventual end-use applications. But conference attendees frequently bemoaned the fact that there was no clear standard or certification body for biochar, and so consumers have a difficult time trusting producers that their products will deliver the results that are promised. Without a clear standard for biochar materials, it will be difficult to say what carbon sequestration impact a given material will have. And complicating matters yet again...
...biochar companies are pursuing a wide variety of business models. Some attendees have companies focused on high-priced, low-volume applications like specialty crops (strawberries, marijuana, turf grass, etc.) where small yield gains from biochar application can translate into large profits. Other companies are pursuing environmental remediation markets -- these entrepreneurs say that cleaning up after mining operations or other industrial/agricultural pollution offers a much more straight forward value proposition as compared to improving a farmer's bottom line. The fact that there are so many pathways to market for biochar makes it difficult to pin-point what types of policy support would be most valuable today.
There is also no industry trade group to push for biochar – though there is interest in starting one. Now that many producers are reaching larger production scales, there is growing interest in creating an industry association to help set standards and lobby regulators. The fact that there are so many different business strategies for biochar complicates this effort, and makes coordination challenging.
Finally and potentially most tellingly, biochar has not made the case to a broad audience that it is a valuable endeavor (for climate purposes and beyond). The attendance at the US Biochar Initiative conference titled strongly towards academic and small-scale producers. I saw no presence at the conference from Fortune 500 corporations, investors, reporters, environmental NGOs, high-ranking government officials. If biochar follows a commercialization trajectory similar to other climate solutions, it will eventually need a broad coalition to advocate for its inclusion in key agricultural and environmental markets.
The TL;DR? Biochar has many enthusiasts and great promise, but the industry has just gotten off the starting blocks in what will be a long race to reaching scale and showing that it is a cost-effective carbon removal solution worthy of significant outside support.