Recap: 6th Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum Ministerial Meeting

The Center for Carbon Removal just returned from presenting at the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) Ministerial meetings in Riyadh. We went to the meetings to encourage the CSLF members to widen their focus to include carbon removal. In the process we got great feedback and learned a lot of interesting things about the state of the carbon capture and storage (CCS) field. The recap below delves into the key details and takeaways from the meetings.

What is the CSLF?

The Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum (CSLF) is a consortium of energy ministers from 25 (mostly developed) nations, and a group of stakeholders that includes energy-focused companies and NGOs. The CSLF’s mission is to foster the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies for the energy and industrial sector—that is, technologies that separate CO2 from the exhaust streams of power plants and other manufacturing facilities, and then store the resulting CO2 deep underground in impermeable rock formations. The CSLF’s technical and policy working groups meet semi-annually to share best practices and develop recommendations for energy ministers, who gather every two years to share updates. The US chairs the Forum, and has played a large role in the organization since its formation in 2003.


What was the CSLF meeting that just took place from Nov. 1-5 in Riyadh?

The Riyadh meetings were the 6th ministerial-level gathering of the CSLF, bringing in high-ranking energy and climate change officials from the CSLF member nations, as well as business and NGO experts in CCS that contributed to Policy, Technology, and Stakeholder working group meetings. The US Secretary of Energy co-chaired the event with the Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources from Saudi Arabia. Major NGOs and companies that attended included:

Why was this CSLF Ministerial meeting important?

The CSLF Ministerial meetings help set the direction for research and policy priorities related to CCS around the globe. Energy ministers—as well as the major energy companies, government research units, and NGOs that participated in this meeting—have significant power to shape national and international action to develop CCS technologies. With mounting evidence that CCS will provide a critical tool to not just stop emissions, but to also clean up carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere, it is increasingly urgent that the CCS community get the support it needs to develop swiftly and effectively.

How did the conversation at the meetings relate to carbon removal?

The CSLF meeting provided interesting insight into the zeitgeist among influential energy ministers, companies, and NGOs about the role that CCS—and fossil fuel use more generally—will play in a world increasingly committed to curtailing climate change.

To start, nearly all of the CSLF meeting participants were bullish on the outlook for fossil fuel consumption, expressing the view that fossil use would increase over the next several decades due to a combination of demand factors (e.g. population and economic growth) and supply factors (e.g. lack of cost-competitive renewable energy). While many outside the CSLF group do not see prolonged fossil energy use as an inevitability, that opposing viewpoint was not voiced at this CSLF meeting.

In addition, the meeting participants voiced a very narrow conception of “carbon sequestration” that was almost entirely confined to technologies that capture CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use coupled with underground geologic CO2 storage—and did not include other carbon removal approaches. This narrow interpretation of the term “carbon sequestration” is striking, as a much broader set of technologies and processes hold potential to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, including:

  • In the energy sector: CO2 capture from non-fossil fuel sources, including bioenergy and ambient air; and storage via utilization in building materials
  • And outside the energy sector: Biological CO2 capture via photosynthesis and storage in ecosystems (e.g. forests, grasslands, wetlands, oceans) and/or agricultural lands (e.g. soils, biomass); and chemical CO2 capture via enhanced weathering of rocks that natural react (albeit quite slowly) with CO2 in the air.

The bottom line is that, in this influential community, the link between CCS via fossil energy and geological storage and CCS via other carbon removal approaches is largely non-existent.

How does the "CCS = fossil energy" paradigm impede the development of CCS systems?

The participants in the CSLF meetings repeatedly stressed that the problems facing CCS systems are not technological in nature, as the major components of CCS systems have been commercialized over decades of related fossil fuel refining and enhanced oil recovery activities. Instead, the CCS field faces a political problem: there are scant markets and government programs to support CCS projects.

 There was plenty of space at the CLSF Stakeholder table for more voices thinking about carbon sequestration beyond systems related to fossil energy with geologic capture.

There was plenty of space at the CLSF Stakeholder table for more voices thinking about carbon sequestration beyond systems related to fossil energy with geologic capture.

While there was considerable discussion of potential policy, regulatory, and communication tactics that could help build support for the CCS field,  there was no discussion of fundamentally re-framing the conception of CCS to one of “zero- and negative-emission energy (and non-energy) sector technologies.” Such a re-framing could expand CSLF stakeholders and advocates, bringing much needed support for CCS of all kinds. And while I'm proud to report that the CSLF stakeholders unanimously adopted the Center's recommendation to explore opportunities for expanding the definition of "CCS" to include non-fossil fuel sources, we still have a long way to go to make a broader, coordinated "carbon sequestration" discussion a reality.

Recap: Oxford Conference on Carbon Removal

Background: The Oxford Martin School convened a “Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference” over the three days spanning September, 30 to October 2, 2015. Around 100 people from academia, industry, and NGOs attended to share updates on promising carbon removal research and innovation, and to discuss strategies for the field to gain the policy support it needs to flourish. Being one of, if not the only, conference dedicated to the concept of carbon removal, the event provided a good look into the state of the carbon removal field today. Here’s are the three most important things I took away from the event:

  Researchers from across the world gathered in Oxford for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference hosted by the Oxford Martin School.

Researchers from across the world gathered in Oxford for the Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference hosted by the Oxford Martin School.

1. Research and development of carbon removal solutions is progressing in a number of the carbon removal fields. For one, there was encouraging data presented by the community of researchers that are investigating ways to enhance the natural ability of silicate minerals to sequester carbon directly from the air. While there still were a number of presentations that relied on back-of-the-envelope calculations to suggest the potential of this technique for carbon removal, work such as that by Dutch researcher Francesc Montserrat is staring to show real laboratory-scale enhanced weathering processes actually doing what the scientists have suggested they will do.

In addition, the direct air capture (DAC) field is commercializing rapidly. Climeworks announced closing a commercial sales contract on a 1,000 t/yr plant in Germany, Carbon Engineering talked about getting close to inking commercial off-take contracts for solar fuels; Global Thermostat showed calculations showing how they could get below the $50/t price point for DAC CO2. The big caveat here is that DAC developers aren’t focusing on carbon removal in the short-term, as the markets for DAC sequestration aren't large enough. That said, many of the practitioners in the DAC companies that I spoke with expressed confidence that as soon as carbon prices (or other mechanisms for supporting carbon sequestration) rise considerably, DAC companies will have a clear path to delivering net-negative carbon emissions.

2. But there are still numerous uncertainties surrounding all of the carbon removal solutions, particularly around the sustainable scale potential. Biosequestration (e.g. reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) still remains a highly uncertain prospect for carbon removal. Guy Lomax from the Nature Conservancy shared details of his most recent analysis that estimated that such biosequestration approaches are likely quite large, but not enormous – "you can't sequester the geosphere in the biosphere" was the quote that resonated the most with me from his talk. On the bioenergy with carbon capture front, scientists from Greenpeace and from DAC company Carbon Engineering alike shared the view that the sustainable biomass potential is likely constrained significantly,given the indirect land use considerations and potential competition for land with food crops. This view on biomass constraints doesn't seem to be shared with the climate modeling community: Andy Wiltshire from the UK Met Office shared that the average build out of bioenergy with carbon capture in modeling scenarios sequesters over 160 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the next century (equivalent to four times current emission levels today) -- which would involve bioenergy production on land larger than all of India.

 Tim Kruger moderates a panel discussion on biological carbon sinks at the Oxford Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference.

Tim Kruger moderates a panel discussion on biological carbon sinks at the Oxford Greenhouse Gas Removal Conference.

3. The policy and governance conversation around carbon removal is fairly advanced – likely much further advanced than the actual solutions are themselves. This is both a good and bad thing. On the one hand, these discussions are critical for thinking through potential future impacts of carbon removal and how to provide incentives to scale up carbon removal solutions in an appropriate and ethical manner. On the other hand, because there are still so many uncertainties as to which solutions are even going to be viable, these discussions are founded on numerous hypothetical situations and assumptions, making it difficult to extract the most relevant conclusions. This is reflected most in the conversations where carbon removal was still conflated with solar geoengineering, much to the detriment of the overall conversation.

Conclusion: The impact of events like this will hopefully be to stimulate further research and collaboration – building the networks necessary for growth of the field. What’s needed now is to expand the conversation to involve new voices, scale up research, and get deployments happening. To this point, my favorite presentations was from Ned Garnett from the UK's Natural Environment Research Council, who shared his advice on how to get this research funded, telling the audience:

  • Don’t just identify the problem, identify the innovative carbon removal research needed to address the problem;
  • Identify any international development angles to carbon removal, as these are seen as higher priority in funders' minds today;
  • Find independent forums to deliver advice; and 
  • It is critical to have a competitive process for awarding research grants in this field

Bottom line: a very interesting three days of carbon removal conversation in Oxford, and I look forward to more conferences in the future to continue to track the progress of the field and see how it grows over time.


Quotes you need to read from our panel on negative emissions


On July 10th, 2015, the Center For Carbon Removal hosted an accredited side event on carbon removal solutions at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change Conference. with Paris Mines Tech and the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute. Read our key takeaways below:




“All the models show that without producing negative emissions, massively in the second half of this century, we cannot achieve a two degree target under the present technologies.” - Florian Kraxner (IIASA)




“It is a misrepresentation to understand negative emissions as a fallback option that will be available to us if we continue on a business as usual... It’s complementary and not a substitute. And we need to communicate that well.” - Sabine Fuss (Mercator)



We can do it

“I think of negative emissions or carbon dioxide removal not just as a number that is below zero, but a much larger question of carbon management. Luckily, we have been thinking about carbon management for decades now. There are existing structures we can work with and existing priorities that be reappropriated and redirected to meet the negative emissions challenge.” - Dan Sanchez (UC Berkeley)




"It's not a very complicated calculation to see that if we go a little bit further on, we have to extract something. And if it's not going to be all BECCS, then it has to be something else, and that's where we come back to the portfolio view that accompanies deep decarbonization." - Sabine Fuss (Mercator)




“We still don’t know how much bioenergy we can produce sustainably. [The research says] from 26 - 300 EJ that can be sustainably harvested. That's a huge difference.” - Pep Canadell (CSIRO)



MORE RESEARCH AND DEPLOYMENT (...and we need it now)

“In the end, it will probably be a portfolio of things and what we actually need is research into the tradeoffs and interactions between them and other mitigation options. Basically, we need to look into where these negative emissions options run into limits and which bottlenecks we face and how far can we go with each one of them to meet the need from the models.” - Sabine Fuss (Mercator)

“Technologies like BECCS take a significant amount of advanced planning. If you want things done by a certain date, you can’t start the night before.” - Dan Kammen (UC Berkeley)

“We need that framework. We need to not only work with our colleagues in academia, but also with people from private sector and government to make it clear that we can devise strategies to meet these different targets.” - Dan Kammen (UC Berkeley)

“But aside from these very small, really experimental systems, we have no existing commercial deployment of BECCS. That’s really important to note, particularly when we’re talking about gigaton scale negative emissions within maybe three decades… We have to start thinking about how we might incentivize and commercialize these systems - slowly ramp them up and slowly understand both the technical needs, but also the market needs to get them to scale.” - Dan Sanchez (UC Berkeley)


What climate scientists talk about when they talk about carbon removal

Last week, around 2,000 climate experts gathered at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change Conference hosted by a consortium of NGOs in advance of the upcoming UN COP21 climate negotiations. The idea of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create “negative emissions” was a hot topic of conversation at the Conference. Below, I’ve summarized my key takeaways about what scientists were saying about carbon removal at the Conference:

 Discussion on the main stage at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change Conference.

Discussion on the main stage at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change Conference.

Takeaway 1: Carbon removal is increasingly embedded in projections of what we will need to do in order to curtail climate change. The consensus documents from the conference state: “to limit warming to 2°C, emissions must be zero or even negative by the end of the 21st century.” Carbon removal solutions will be necessary to transform the economy to generate negative emissions, as more traditional climate mitigation strategies (such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, avoided deforestation, etc.) can only get us to zero emissions – not below zero. And it’s not just "below zero" emissions that we need carbon removal for, as carbon removal solutions also make up a significant component of many pathways for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% by mid-century.

Takeaway 2: But…scientists still have many untested assumptions about deploying large-scale carbon removal projects. Today, carbon removal solutions have not been deployed at large scale. As a result, projections of large-scale carbon removal deployments rely on many untested assumptions (around cost, sustainability, scalability, etc.). For example, many projections that include carbon removal solutions involve the large-scale deployment of bioenergy systems, yet critical uncertainties remain around our estimates of:

  • The sustainable supply of bioenergy crops;
  • The ability for bioenergy crops to co-exist with growing demand for food; and
  • Public acceptance about underground carbon sequestration

The scientists working on carbon removal systems are the first to admit these limitations in their models. But unless these assumptions are stress-tested promptly, we risk setting climate policy in a direction that may end up ultimately infeasible and/or unsustainable.

Takeaway 3: Scientists are focusing on a narrow set of carbon removal solutions today. Most of the talk about carbon removal at the conference focused on bioenergy coupled with carbon capture and storage (BECCS, as it is referred to in the scientific community) and forestry solutions (such as reforesting degraded lands or planting new forests altogether). But innovators are also working on other carbon removal methods: direct air capture systems, agricultural techniques with the potential to sequester carbon in soils, and mining techniques that use minerals to sequester carbon directly from the atmosphere, for example. While these latter techniques might have even more uncertainties surrounding them than do bioenergy/forestry approaches, many scientists still think that it is worthwhile conducting further research on these systems to learn how they might broaden the portfolio of feasible, sustainable, and scalable carbon removal solutions in the future.

Takeaway 4: The scientific conversation on carbon removal is an implicit call for increased R&D for carbon removal solutions.

 Carbon removal is the elephant in the room for the climate change conversation: scientists are increasingly convinced we need carbon removal solutions, yet significant uncertainties remain as to what carbon removal solutions can scale in a sustainable, cost-effective way.

Carbon removal is the elephant in the room for the climate change conversation: scientists are increasingly convinced we need carbon removal solutions, yet significant uncertainties remain as to what carbon removal solutions can scale in a sustainable, cost-effective way.

In many regards, carbon removal is the elephant in the room in today’s climate change conversation. While scientists increasingly assume that carbon removal solutions will provide a critical component in the fight against climate change, they are quick to acknowledge that we aren’t researching and building carbon removal projects nearly as fast as needed to ensure we actually can remove carbon from the atmosphere at the scale needed. Implicit in this conversation is the need for more research and development across a full portfolio of carbon removal solutions – something that is critical for policymakers and climate negotiators to make explicit as soon as possible.

Three Lessons Carbon Removal Can Learn from the Low Carbon Energy Investor Forum

The state of carbon removal technologies in investment today is akin to the beginnings of other now well-known mitigation technologies like solar, wind, and energy efficiency. Scaled demonstration projects, industry and policy support, and an open dialogue on the potential for carbon removal technologies is imperative to preventing climate change

Carbon-as-a-service Businesses?

The Cleantech Group's annual San Francisco Forum wrapped up earlier this week. The event's theme was "Cleantech-as-a-service," and featured parallel tracks named "Cloud" and "Connect." Overall, this focus on technology-enabled business model innovation shows how mature the cleantech field has become, as the event felt very much like a "standard" tech conference in the Bay Area.

Above: Sheeraz Haji kicking off the Cleantech Forum SF 2015 event.

The growing emphasis on the "tech" portion of "cleantech," however, has not caught on for all clean technologies. For example, carbon sequestration businesses were conspicuously absent from this year's Forum. Economic fundamentals can help explain this lack of carbon sequestration businesses on display. Most of the discussion at the Cleantech Forum focused on the left-hand side of the McKinsey GHG abatement curve (below), which makes perfect sense: no amount of clever business model or financial product innovation will help uneconomic businesses (like many carbon sequestration businesses today) flourish.

mck ghg abatement
mck ghg abatement

Above: McKinsey GHG Abatement Cost Curve

The big exception to the above, however, is solar PV -- which many would call the poster child of the cleantech-as-a-service revolution. What has set solar apart from other high dollar-per-ton GHG abatement schemes is non-carbon-focused regulations (be it some combination of net-metering, renewable portfolio standards, PACE financing, etc. designed to specifically support renewables).

What is so striking is how little acknowledgement such policies now get in the cleantech conversation. Business model innovation is highly complementary to environmental policies, yet so few of the leaders on stage at the Forum advocated for additional/ongoing policy support. I worry that the focus on business model / financial innovation will only take the cleantech field so far (or will delay its development considerably), preventing us from achieving the rates of decarbonization necessary to prevent climate change.

When former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson came to speak at Berkeley on March 12th, she remarked that her job at Apple today is still to make good policy, it is just to do it from inside of business instead of inside government. I am eager to see if this philosophy will gain broader acceptance, and I look forward to the discussion at future Cleantech Forums to track how this dialogue unfolds.

Recap: Workshop - Envisioning a Carbon Negative Economy

[vimeo] Last month, the Iowa State Initiative for a Carbon Negative Economy hosted a workshop in Denver on Energy Supply with Carbon Negative Emissions. I was fortunate enough to get to speak on a very engaging panel about the regulatory implications of the carbon negative energy supplies, recording above. Both during the panel and throughout the other sessions that day, I was energized by the great discussions on how CDR might impact our energy sector and response to climate change.

My key takeaways from the event include:

  • We need more events like this. Speakers at the event highlighted the scientific need for negative emission solutions, and spoke about a range of potential options -- all under one roof. This is a big step forward for an otherwise highly siloed field. Many other CDR events focus on a single approach (e.g. Direct Air Capture, biochar, or land management) or single audience (e.g. academic, professional, etc.). This event was an important opportunity for academics, industry, and government professionals to all share their perspectives, and to start discussing opportunities for collaboration across the CDR field.Above: Jenny Milne form Stanford discussing "Pathways to Carbon Negative Energy"
  • We need to communicate the message on CDR clearly for it to gain any traction. The scientific community was delivering a loud and clear message for the need for CDR to the other scientists in the room. But a very different story needs to be told to the industry and government leaders to get the message out about CDR. CDR can be a boon to a far ranging group of industries, can lead to job and wealth creation across many geographies, and can facilitate political negotiations over fighting climate change. Future events like this one would benefit by including additional perspectives from non-scientific angles.
  • Emerging academic CDR clusters will be important for the field. Iowa state, with their ICNE for example, is emerging as a leading center for biological CDR work. Research clusters like this can generate numerous serendipitous outcomes that help propel the CDR field. Columbia University and Arizona State University have also taken early leads on building CDR research clusters, and it will be interesting to see how these communities develop and collaborate over the coming years.

Overall - I would say this ICNE event was a great success, and I look forward to collaborating with the ICNE community going forward!

Event Highlight: Carbon Drawdown BERCshop at UC Berkeley

On Monday, October 27th, the UC Berkeley Energy and Resource Collaborative ("BERC"), will be hosting a carbon-negative themed "BERCshop" on the Berkeley campus. For the event, special guests David Addison and Amanda Ravenhill (bios, below) will deliver TED-style talks on drawing down carbon emissions, followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A. David and Amanda will speak about the systemic and sometimes unexpected carbon emission reduction and removal solutions that are being implemented and developed today. Their conversation will highlight the "all of the above" nature of the solutions that can lead us to "drawdown" -- the point at which greenhouse gases in our atmosphere begin to decline.

Feel free to leave any questions you'd like the panelists to discuss in the comments section, and hope to see folks on Monday!

Event Details:

When: Monday, October 27th - 6PM-7:30PM

Where: UC Berkeley Haas School of Business



Amanda Joy Ravenhill is the Executive Director of Project Drawdown, a new initiative with Paul Hawken that is looking comprehensively at climate solutions and describing the path to 'drawdown' - the point at which carbon in the atmosphere begins to decline. She is a Professor of Sustainable Business at Presidio Graduate School, where she teaches sustainability, systems thinking and environmental and social justice to MBA and MPA candidates, Co-Founder of The Hero Hatchery, a nationally recognized fellowship for climate activists, established expert and speaker in the field of Biochar, formerly head of business partnerships at and an Americorp Fellow. She is inspired by the life of Buckminster Fuller and his goal to "make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or disadvantage to anyone."

David Addison works at Virgin where he manages the Virgin Earth Challenge, works with colleagues on some of Virgin’s People and Planet activities, such as Virgin StartUp and the Virgin Racing Formula E team, and also the occasional Special Project. His undergraduate studies in Physical Geography (BSc, first-class) focused on earth system science, especially environmental and climatic change, alongside environmental economics, biodiversity, ecology and global development. He also holds an MSc in Environmental Technology, specialising in Energy Policy, from Imperial College London.

5 highlights from the the BERC Energy Summit

The BERC Energy Summit -- Berkeley's student energy club's flagship event -- took place last Thursday and Friday (October 16-17). In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the event:

  1. The first case competition in the history of the the Innovation Expo was quite a success. The case competition featured teams from across the University who designed commercialization strategies and pathways to market for a handful of technologies being developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The event was a great complement to the poster session later on Thursday evening... and novelty checks make everyone happy.  
  2. IMG_20141017_095313841_HDR
  3. Jennifer Granholm's gave a fantastic opening keynote (below). The former Governor of Michigan touted the need for state and local policy innovations to spur clean energy development. With Congress failing to act to advance a clean energy powered economy, local governments have to step up to the plate to fill the void. Granholm highlighted Obama's "Race to the Top" education policy as a model for "policy disruption" that clean energy supporters can emulate.
  4. The panels throughout the Conference touched on many similar themes. For example, many speakers highlighted that the final story on hydraulic fracturing technologies and natural gas production is far from complete.The panel on fossil fuels highlighted that hydraulic fracturing techniques most commonly associated with natural gas extraction are also leading to a domestic oil production boom of potentially even greater importance, and such increased oil production -- not natural gas -- is what the rest of the world might rely on hydraulic fracturing for most heavily. In addition, the keynote plenary session also noted that natural gas might not be as beneficial a "bridge" fuel as has been advertised, as even small methane leaks in natural gas transportation and distribution can have large climate forcing effects that eliminate any advantages natural gas has over modern coal-fired power plants.
  5. The speakers throughout the day reminded the audience that we still have a long way to go to get to a decarbonized economy, and it would be great if Congress could step up to the plate and pass legislation supporting clean energy developments. The keynote plenary speakers stressed that there was still a lot of basic R&D required for clean energy technologies to proliferate. And it is a sad day when two of the keynote speakers say the first thing they would do as "king for a day" would be to put a price on carbon...
  6. And more than anything, I came away impressed with the community of energy enthusiasts at Berkeley. We had over 50 volunteers, 30 speakers, and 600 tickets sales for the 2014 Summit. Volunteers collectively spent thousands of hours working to make everything run as smoothly as it did, and everyone's hard work was truly on display for both events. It is very encouraging to see students, industry professionals, academics, and government officials all put forth the time and effort to make the Summit and the Berkeley energy community as rich as it is.

Carbon Removal Presentation at the USEA: November 4th

I'm happy to announce that I will be giving an overview presentation on carbon removal at the USEA in Washington, DC, on November 4th. More details on the agenda to follow in a few weeks, but the basic info is below: When: Tuesday, November 4, 2014 - 2:00pm to 4:00pm

Where: USEA
1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW
Suite 550
Washington  District Of Columbia  20004

Description: Scientists are increasingly convinced that negative emission technologies -- i.e. technologies that can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere -- will be necessary at large scale to prevent dangerous climate change. The solutions capable of carbon removal, however, still require significant development before they can be deployed in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. This workshop will explore the different approaches to removing carbon from the atmosphere (including bio-CCS, Direct Air Capture, biochar, and others), and will discuss the political opportunities and challenges presented by these different carbon removal approaches.The workshop will also discuss the overlap between carbon removal technologies and other energy-generation options, and how the two fields could benefit from a shared R&D agenda.


4 takeaways from the British Biochar Expo 2014

Biochar, or charcoal created from heating biomass in low-/no-oxygen environments, has recently gained interest as a potential CDR approach. When biochar is applied to soils under certain conditions, it decomposes much more slowly than the biomass naturally would without the charring. in other words, the biochar production and application process has the potential to lock the carbon from biomass in the soil for decades (to as long as centuries), whereas non-charred biomass would release its carbon back into the atmosphere in much shorter time frame.
Farmers and scientists have also recently discovered that biochar can help improve soil fertility, clean soils, and retain water in certain circumstances, which has led to a growing interest in commercializing biochar products. Such enthusiasm was manifest today at the British Biochar Expo in Oxford, where biochar practitioners from across Europe gathered to discuss the latest trends in the biochar community. My key takeaways and pictures from Day 1 of the event follow:


1. The crowd at the event was quite small... and very specialized. From my count, around 50 people attended day 1, and of this group, the vast majority were academics and small-scale biochar producers. Few representatives from the investment, consulting, or large industry community attended, and only a handful of people new to biochar attended. Of the biochar producers in attendance, most produced at a very small scale (producing 1-100 tons of char per year in batch processes).

2. David Wayne from the International Biochar Initiative (IBI) summarized the latest IBI "State of the Biochar Industry: 2013" report findings in a very hesitant and cautious manner. He started his presentation with the caveat that the report's authors were only able to collect very rough data -- so rough that it was difficult to draw many meaningful conclusions. In addition, he expressed great skepticism that the cost of biochar could come down significantly from their present levels without large economies of scale in production. While Mr. Wayne remained agnostic about the ability of biochar to reach these economies of scale soon, many at the conference expressed much doubt that biochar could reach significant scale in the near future. Many participants expressed enthusiasm for biochar's applications as a soil additive for small scale farms (especially in the developing world), but doubted that biochar would be the highest value use of large scale biomass supplies (which otherwise could be burned for energy production).
3. The most common question I heard attendees ask presenters over the course of the first day was, "who are your customers?" This question remains of paramount importance to the industry, which currently doesn't sell to many large customers that could support industrial-scale production. As long as biochar producers sell primarily to small farmers and to niche environmental remediation customers, biochar businesses will languish in obscurity. Yet very little of the conference discussion touched on exactly how biochar producers planned to make this transition to larger sales volumes...
4. Measurement and verification featured prominently in many discussions during the day. Many participants view standards and carbon accounting protocols as critical for biochar to accelerate its sales to more mainstream customers. Work is underway on carbon protocols for biochar, but scientists still need to answer many questions about the lifecycle impacts of CO2 sequestered through biochar production and application for these protocols to gain wider adoption. The British Biochar Foundation plans to release their Biochar Quality Manual within the next week which will help set standards of quality, but much more work in this area is needed before biochar is likely to go mainstream.
Bottom line: I sensed great enthusiasm among a small core of biochar enthusiasts at this event -- but a much larger community of investors, policy makers, and large industry will have to come to the table and discuss strategies to sell biochar at large volumes (and verify carbon sequestration) before it is able to achieve CDR at any meaningful scale.