Forget the whiz-bang technologies that are supposed to solve climate change. An ancient farming practice that removes carbon from the atmosphere is receiving renewed attention and big business money.
Biochar is a black, charcoal-like substance that, when buried underground, sequesters carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. It has long been used to improve the soil. Today, it has suddenly become a lucrative business thanks to the carbon credits that companies use to offset their own emissions.
Buyers include JPMorgan Chase JPM 0.90%
& Co. and Microsoft Corp.
They’re attracted to a process that actually removes carbon from the atmosphere and buries it underground, rather than numerous credits whose impact on emissions is unclear.
According to estimates from data provider CDR.fyi, nearly all of the roughly 65,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide that has been removed from the atmosphere to date has been sequestered using biochar.
There is not a lot of money to be made selling biochar to improve the soil. Carbon credits have changed that. “When the only potential revenue was from biochar sales, there really wasn’t much there,” said Josiah Hunt, chief executive of Pacific Biochar Benefit Corp., a California-based startup that works with power plants in biomass to produce biochar and then sells it. to farmers.
Carbon credit sales are now generating millions of dollars for some biochar companies. “Carbon credits and society’s decision to act on climate change make this a real business,” Hunt said.
He was working as a landscaper in 2008 when he read an article in National Geographic about the potential of biochar to improve soil health and fight climate change. After making his own biochar and testing it in soils, he started the company that became Pacific Biochar a few years later.
The company struggled because the price was too high, around $600 per ton. That changed in late 2020 when the company began selling carbon credits for around $150 per ton of carbon dioxide removed to Microsoft and others through a platform called Carbonfuture.
The extra income allowed Mr. Hunt to cut prices and sales increased. He now delivers biochar to vineyards and other businesses. Pacific Biochar’s sales are expected to reach a few million dollars this year, the majority of which comes from carbon credits.
Companies are willing to pay significantly more for removal credits like these than for traditional offsets because there is more certainty that they are removing carbon. Many offsets related to projects such as keeping trees standing have been shown to have limited environmental benefits. The potential to remove large amounts of carbon and the additional benefits to the soil make biochar credits attractive, said Brian DiMarino, chief operating sustainability officer at JPMorgan.
Biochar was used by farmers in South America thousands of years ago. They found that it helped the soil retain water and nutrients. It can be particularly effective when mixed with compost and help poor-quality soils that have been damaged by erosion, pollution or agricultural activity, farmers say.
Most biochar is made using a process called pyrolysis which heats organic matter while limiting oxygen levels, so the material smolders rather than burns and produces a charcoal-like material. . Unlike combustion, where a fuel source reacts with oxygen and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, pyrolysis retains most of the trapped carbon.
The plants used to make biochar — often agricultural waste like corn stalks — absorb carbon as they grow. The amount of carbon emitted from biochar production can be a small fraction of what is absorbed. Burying the biochar effectively sequesters the difference.
Unlike other techniques such as direct air capture and storage that require building high-tech machinery to suck up the carbon and find ways to bury it underground, biochar sequestration typically involves mixing the carbon-rich material with the soil. It has received a fraction of the funding and attention of other carbon removal techniques.
Pyrolysis, the process used to make biochar, retains most of the trapped carbon by limiting oxygen levels so the material smolders rather than burns.
Since biochar essentially sequesters the carbon that plants absorb as they grow, it is considered an efficient form of carbon removal.
According to farmers, biochar is particularly effective when combined with compost and then mixed with soil.
Biochar producers like California-based Pacific Biochar sell it to vineyards and other farmers who say it helps their soil and allows crops to grow.
Analysts estimate that the United States currently produces about 100,000 tons of biochar per year, a fraction of what would be needed to fight climate change. The United States emits approximately 6 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year.
One of the biggest hurdles in the industry is ensuring that the carbon remains sequestered for hundreds or thousands of years. The length of time carbon remains sequestered by biochar can vary depending on soil and microbial conditions.
This uncertainty and some studies showing the timeframe could be shorter than expected have prompted calls for an independent standards body to oversee the new market. This is also the case for other carbon removal methods such as direct air capture.
“We need guardrails and quality standards,” said Steve McIntyre, president of vineyard management company Monterey Pacific Inc., which grows wine grapes on about 16,000 acres in central California. and has been testing biochar for several years. Among those trying to create standards and energize the market are Carbonfuture and the carbon disposal market Puro.earth, majority owned by stock exchange operator Nasdaq. Inc.
They audit removal processes before letting companies sell credits through their platforms.
The mix of biochar and compost increased grape yields and allowed Monterey to use less potassium and phosphorus fertilizer. It all went so well that Monterey recently helped launch a new company that aims to start producing biochar and generating carbon credits this year.
Governments and non-profit organizations are trying to develop the fledgling industry. The US Department of Agriculture recently said funding is available for farmers who apply biochar and meet certain conditions. The International Biochar Initiative is spreading the word to farmers and project developers in poor countries.
Tom and Tony Marrero, 50-year-old twin brothers, started Wakefield Biochar in 2014 with their father, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Missouri. Sales took off recently when the company signed contracts with large companies such as Georgia-Pacific LLC of Koch Industries Inc. to dispose of their wood waste by turning it into biochar.
Wakefield Biochar removed about 15,000 tons of carbon, the most in the industry, according to CDR.fyi, and generated a few million dollars in sales last year. Sale of carbon credits to companies such as JPMorgan and the reinsurance company Swiss Re AG
enabled the company to pursue the expansion of its activities.
“All of these things are happening in part because of our ability to be in the carbon market,” said company president and former Federal Bureau of Investigation officer Tom Marrero.
Write to Amrith Ramkumar at firstname.lastname@example.org
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