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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The most important meeting in America?

Pondering Geoengineering Solutions that are a Win-Win-Win for America and the Planet

A guest post by A. Siegel, who writes regularly at

There are a lot of valuable and exciting conferences out there. To say that the energy and environmental domains are “hot” and that you could spend your life solely running from conference to conference while only getting a taste of what’s going on doesn’t seem lunatic. From wave energy meetings in Sweden to water-less toilet sessions in Finland to Energy Summits hosted by Harry Reid in the Las Vegas heat, there are a lot of valuable and important choices out there. As with looking toward better sanitation options in Finland, some potentially critical sessions are going on with little media (and thus popular) attention. Right now, Boulder, Colorado, is hosting one such meeting: North American Biochar 2009.

Right now, humanity is engaged in a massively reckless geoengineering experiment, pumping huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other GHGs while continuing to pave the planet black and otherwise modify the humanity’s habitat with little understanding (or regard) for the havoc that we are and could be creating. In response to this, we have the serious movements to find paths to reduce emissions (whether through efficiency or clean energy or …) but there are also increasing calls for looking toward geoengineering (both from the thoughtful to the inane).

When it comes to this arena, there are some basic principles that should guide on thinking on geoengineering. In short, we should seek paths that support multiple goods (saving money, improving life conditions, helping reverse global warming) rather than costly paths that create more risks and uncertainties and whose pursuit seem to large costs with stovepiped (and uncertain) benefits.

The core principle should be: win-win-win. A proposal that, in a systems of systems effort, provides multiple wins and does not solely address temperature. Thus, a proposal that offers real potential for improving economy, reducing carbon, and contributing to reduced temperature (both directly, somehow, and indirectly through reduced carbon loads or carbon capture) would seem to merit greater prioritization than high-cost efforts that would solely impact “temperature” but not impact (or worsen) the carbon load equation.

Thus, $trillions to put umbrellas in space is not the item that seems sensible to be on the top of the table. In fact, applying those principles, there are two basic approaches that seem to merit being on the top of the table: one that applies directly to the built environment and the other in the agricultural sphere.

The first, when it comes to the built environment, is High-Albedo (White) Roofing (and other human infrastructure): Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has brought attention to the great win-win-win potential here. Building owners would see direct financial savings, the urban heat island would cool (leading to more energy savings as the ambient temperature falls), our cities would be more comfortable, and we would reduce global warming directly (reflecting more solar radiation to space) and indirectly (the multiplicative energy savings). What are we waiting for? Let’s get to it … make this national building code for, at least, flat-roofed buildings: yesterday!

When it comes to the agricultural space, we turn to bio-char/agri-char and why Boulder might have the most important meeting in America. Very simply, we have the potential for a carbon-negative fuel that will, over time, also foster improve fertility in soil. Very simply, gasification of biomass can be combined with agricultural practices to create energy, have the waste plowed back into the soil to improve fertility (while reducing fertilizer requirements), and have some of the carbon from each of these cycles captured in the soil.

“[T]he great advantage of biochar is the fact that the technique can be applied world-wide on agricultual soils, and even by rural communities in the developing world because it is relatively low tech.”

To provide a simple context, the Amazonian jungle looks to be a heavily geo-engineering environment, with “Slash and Char” agriculture, over 100s (1000s) of years having built up areas of incredibly rich soil 6+ feet deep. To provide another context, analysis of biochar potential suggest that we could be enriching the soil while sequestering more carbon than the United States currently emits. While we must drive down emissions as quickly as possible, biochar provides one of the most promising paths to not ‘reduce’ emissions but actually set us on a path toward reducing global CO2 concentrations. (And, it can be applied in innovative ways to help create jobs in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.)

This is a highly promising arena that has gotten a little attention, but not enough and certainly not enough resources. If Secretary of Energy Chu has become a visible spokesman for White Roofing, maybe another Administration official will do the same for bio-char:

The keynote speakers for the conference will be Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Dr. Susan Solomon, Senior Scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Tom Vilsack could do American farmers (and farmers globally) a great service while helping turn the tide on Global Warming’s rising seas through strong promotion of a global agenda of large-scale research and demonstration projects, with fast-tracking of movement from ‘demonstration’ to large-scale deployment when working paths are proven.

Beneath the radar scope of most, there is a lot of work going on in biochar/terra preta. Some additional resources

Some videos, serious and seriously amusing serious.

A backgrounder on biochar/agrichar from Australia (imagine turning much of Australia green?) (See also “The Promise of Agrichar” from Agrisonic.)

Steven Chu on White roofing

Steven Chu on The Daily Show where, among other things, he spoke of white roofing:

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1 comment:

George Packard said...

Great post! One of the best overviews of biochar I've seen yet. It's remarkable that as a potential news story biochar has two separate hooks: carbon sequestration and soil enhancement: that good news for moving information about biochar out into a larger orbit.

I'm beginning to produce some web video on biochar, with a focus on the hands-on, easy-to-grasp stories. Here's a recent short video featuring Peter Hirst of New England Biochar doing a demonstration burn with a retort that produces 30 pounds of char.

--George Packard,