The Biochar Solution, by Albert Bates, is a book about a potential solution to climate change that can be achieved through the use of biochar. Biochar is a type of charcoal used for soil amendment, and when created sustainably, can be used for multiple purposes including carbon-negative farming, carbon-negative heating and cooking, and carbon storage (sequestration). While being careful about not overstating his case, using an investigative journalist’s tone and the acumen of a historian, Bates makes it clear that a solution to reversing climate change is quite literally within arms’ reach.
Many environmentally conscious people are often confronted with the wicked problem phenomenon; some human impacts are so complex that every solution appears to have adverse and multi-layered ecological impacts. Combined with a possible impending climate change catastrophe, many earth-conscious people also feel a sense of responsibility, shame, and inevitable doom. I have been no stranger to this, and Bates talks about the topic at length in the opening of his book. What he does not do, however, is leave you without a sense of credible hope.
The unfolding chapters begin to reveal, through a historical analysis, how humans have shaped the natural environment in inescapably positive ways. They also show how one particular technique, the creation of terra-pretta soil, first discovered by Indigenous peoples in the Amazon, is a potential key to closing climate change’s pandora’s box. Bates demonstrates that complex wicked problems can actually have counterpart wicked solutions. The one he focuses on in his book is the key ingredient of ancient amazonian terra-pretta: biochar.
Home made terra preta: wood charcoal composted together with yard waste, kitchen slops and soil. The charcoal pieces do not decay during fermentation and can be found in the compost when it is done (white arrows).
Biochar is made when any dry biomass, which includes anything from your lawn’s grass shavings to forest seeds, is burnt in the absence of oxygen. This results in the hydrogen in the biomass being released while the carbon remains behind. Biochar has a higher porosity than other charcoal and, as a result, it sucks in chemical ions from fertilizers and gives a greater chance for beneficial microbes in the soil to flourish. Bates describes this as the coral reef effect, and it is this effect that makes biochar an ideal soil amendment. With the coral reef effect in place, industrial fertilizers (whose creation has a high carbon footprint) can become redundant and eventually phased out.
The carbon savings is also increased by the fact that biochar in the soil is produced carbon-negatively and is therefore a workable form of carbon storage (sequestration). Overtime, biochar becomes a literal backbone of soil. Its texture gives soil a structure for ongoing development, and it’s inherent qualities allows high levels of nutrient cycling. Carbon storage and sequestration has often not been seen as a grass-roots friendly way of combating climate change, primarily because it usually requires industrial scale operations to be effective. However, with stable carbon being stored in the soil itself, the simple act of cooking using a carbon-negative stove can result in ongoing carbon storage at the homestead level. The beauty of biochar to the urban agriculturalist or the homesteader like myself, is that it offers us an alternative to simply reducing our carbon emissions for the well-being of future generations. It allows us to store carbon for them right in our backyards.
While the Biochar Solution starts as a historical exploration only to dynamically evolve into what feels like investigative journalism, it gives us one final twist and ends as a manual and current affairs news column. It finishes by methodically describing ways to utilise biochar in different circumstances, and then provides us with real world applications of biochar already being championed by various organisations in the world.
While he rarely deviates from the scientific exploration of biochar, Bates gives readers the final satisfaction of a spirit-centered dimension to his prose. The joy in understanding the world as deeply interconnected, a beauty that can only be understood when a curious mind is imaginatively alive. Incidentally, it is this imaginativeness itself, once embraced, that allows the reader to understand the true possibilities that The Biochar Solution holds. As a paradigm-shifting book for me, I recommend it to anyone who wishes to take climate change by the horns, and invent for themselves a new way of earth-conscious living.
Have you encountered any other simple-yet-effective ways of carbon storage? Please share below, and do not forget to suggest some good reads! What book would you like us to review for you next?
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Credit: Images by Auditiyo Das Gupta. Data linked to sources.