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A climate win in the making: How to unleash the potential of biochar?

Accend OBIO Brumunddal Norway Biochar 600x400

In the realm of engineered carbon removal, biochar is clearly a rising star. On top of its carbon sequestration properties, biochar boats numerous social and ecological co-benefits linked to its various potential uses and applications. As a result, the demand for this negative technology solution is skyrocketing, posing the challenge of scaling up production in a sustainable way.

Countless applications

This « bio charcoal », as the name indicates, is formed by carbonizing organic matters at very high temperatures through a process called pyrolysis. The most important function of biochar, in the context of the climate emergency, lies in its capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere by durably storing it underground. But biochar can do much more than sucking carbon out of our air.

In about just the same way as plastic, biochar can take different textures and consistencies and be used in numerous applications. It can be used as an amendment to fertilize poor and acid soils and serves as a shelter for many micro-organisms that use its cavities to protect themselves from predators or to store the product of their metabolism. In addition, biochar can also be used as livestock feed to improve animal’s health.

By absorbing water, biochar also contributes to retaining the soil nutrients. The soil enhancement properties are long-lasting given that the carbon obtained through pyrolysis is very stable over time. By enhancing soil fertility and structure, biochar leads to increased crop yield and thereby contributes to address the crucial challenge of food security and malnutrition. Fertilizers, which have reached an all-time high in March 2022, continue to be a very costly commodity, making the quest for more efficient practices more important than ever.

Apart from contributing to soil health, biochar can also improve water quality by getting rid of solid and liquid pollutants. According to a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, [1]biochar could help India reduce emissions from agriculture and its related activities by an estimated 40 to 60%.

Everywhere in the world, repurposing large amounts of waste biomass (such as crop residues) also makes complete climate sense, and helps support mitigation efforts, as biomass which would have been burned or left to rot can thus be reclaimed. This is notably at the heart of the activities of Glanris, an American clean tech start-up active in the biochar business. Glanris uses rice hulls, the world’s most abundant agricultural waste, to produce a biochar that is net CO2 negative. This means that each tonne of biochar removes more CO2 from the atmosphere than what was released during its production. As highlighted in a 2021 Forbes article, Glanris’ use of biochar as a filtration tool could revolutionize global water management, cutting costs and environmental footprint. This has not only seduced customers in the United States but also garnered significant interest from utilities in the UK, India, France and the Netherlands, as water scarcity is a growing concern across the world and all sectors of society.

This goes to show how much biochar contributes to the sustainable development goals (SDG), supporting waste minimization, food security, water availability, and altogether the restoration of natural ecosystems.

Besides contributing to the SDG agenda, Biochar can also support the efficiency of our built environment, by considerably reducing the carbon footprint of construction materials. The buildings, automotive and consumer goods sector are the industries with the highest emission reduction needs. This is according to a statement from Allison Dring the CEO of Made of Air, who produces materials of biomass origins to replace fossil-based thermoplastics in a variety of end uses. The carbon sequestration product sold by this Berlin-based start-up is made of biochar and bioplastics and durably replaces the high-emission materials used in furniture, interior and exterior panelling, car dashboards, etc. Interestingly, biochar can also be used as a dye or pigment to give a black colour to clothes for example. This is how our client Nature Coatings is proposing to replace fossil-originated black carbon with a bio-based material made from industrial wood waste. Thanks to the sale of carbon credits, Nature Coating’s biochar suppliers have managed to expand their businesses, backing the production of this sustainable material which is not only carbon negative but also safer to wear.

Embraced by industry giants

When we released our report on the biochar carbon market last year, over 50 companies, mostly from the technology and finance sectors, were already actively buying biochar certificates from the Puro.Earth and Carbonfuture marketplaces. Such companies include large corporations and industry leaders such as Microsoft, Shopify but also JP Morgan Chase, Zurich and Swiss Life. Other sectors are expected to follow in their footsteps as global corporations particularly from the commodities and manufacturing worlds are currently running procurement processes for carbon removal certificates.

Biochar however remains a relatively pricy carbon negative technology, and thus still forms a proportionally minor part of corporate CDR portfolios. Considered a reliable and “high-quality” carbon removal method, it is nonetheless more competitive than other engineered solutions like Direct Air Capture or mineralization. Upscaling the supply of biochar projects to meet the soaring demand is therefore one of the major challenges that lies ahead.

In our report, we analyse in depth the factors that can result in reducing prices, such as the market entry of new, larger biochar producers from Central and South America. In addition, prices for currently expensive carbon removal methods are expected to fall as the technologies become more mature and other nascent methodologies make it to the market.

Policy and market developments

As part of the EU Green Deal political strategy, the European Commission issued a new legislative proposal on carbon removal certification in November 2022 . With this piece of legislation, which is expected to be passed into law in the course of this year, the EU Commission notably seeks to scale-up so-called “carbon farming” to incentivize land managers to increase carbon sequestration, including through biochar practices. The second objective of the EU law would be to create new industrial value chains “for the sustainable capture, recycling, transport and storage of carbon. » Last summer, the EU Commission’s rules on fertilising products officially entered into force, adding biochar to the list of eligible materials.[2]

During that same period, a new methodology was introduced by Verra, the world’s leading carbon crediting programme, relying on a comprehensive monitoring and accounting framework to properly assess the climate impact of biochar throughout its entire value chain, from feedstock sourcing to production and end-use applications.

It bears repeating that on top of its numerous applications, biochar presents the advantage of long duration or permanence and low reversal risks. As the climate clock is ticking, it is comforting to know that it will soon benefit from a more fertile market and policy environment.