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Biochar is booming: What are the risks?

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By Ted Christie-Miller

· 3 min read

Waste management was the cover career for the fictional mobster Tony Soprano. It was an industry deemed so boring no one would ask any more questions. It’s good The Sopranos isn’t being shot today because waste management - specifically biochar - is now very much in vogue. It has enormous potential for carbon sequestration but needs some risk metrics to help maintain quality as the market scales.

What is biochar? Biochar is a form of charcoal produced from waste biomass through pyrolysis - a process of burning in a low-oxygen environment. The process locks the carbon contained in the biomass away into a more stable form, removing the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for hundreds or thousands of years. 

Biochar is having a boom. Last year, biochar played a pivotal role in removing 125,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide globally, accounting for a staggering 92.9% of all emissions removed through the engineered carbon removal market.

Buyers are often concerned with the technical and financial risks of high-tech engineered removals, and with the risk of reversal for more nature-based solutions. As a result, biochar has emerged through the middle as a "third way". It provides high durability, relatively low tech risk and a middling price point. 

Every year billions of tonnes of biomass are incinerated or left to decay, which releases the carbon contained in this biomass back into the atmosphere. Rolling out biochar facilities is the low hanging fruit of carbon removals and can remove millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every day if the industry can scale. 

The co-benefits are substantial. When integrated into soil, biochar can help to foster optimal conditions for root growth and microbial activity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and bolstering crop yields - helping farmers in the process. The benefits to soil are so great that legislators in the US are attempting to put forward a mechanism to pay farmers to use biochar to help with soil enhancement.

The political support is bipartisan. A few months ago I sat in a briefing on the Hill, in Washington DC, with members of Congress from both sides calling for support for the biochar market. Getting Republicans in the room and banging the drum for measures to tackle climate change is no mean feat.

The market has the potential to scale before 2030. In the second half of 2023 alone, businesses retired over 160 times the number of carbon credits from biochar projects compared to just four years ago. Projections from Puro Earth suggest that biochar revenues could skyrocket from $600 million in 2023 to $3.3 billion by 2025—an encouraging sign of its growing prominence.

This scalability was illuminated in our own research. Last year, BeZero Carbon published a Scalability Assessment for Carbon Removal, comparing 5 different engineered carbon removal methods and their barriers to scaling. Biochar came out on top, with particularly low barriers around MRV readiness, energy-use and financial risk.

But quality is by no means uniform in the biochar market. While the method type has advantages, there are substantial project level additionality and carbon accounting risks which remain if the development is not done in a sustainable manner. 

To continue the uptick in demand, risk metrics are necessary. This could come in the form of insurance - such as the biochar credit insurance being deployed by Oregon Biochar with the help of Oka. Or it could come in the form of ratings assessing the quality of credits - BeZero Carbon has published two public biochar ratings to date, both of which received an A rating. Buyers want this additional security if they are to reach deep into their pockets to buy these credits.

Let’s learn from the past mistakes. Independent ratings and project-level due diligence can ensure that this biochar boom isn’t followed by a bust.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ted Christie-Miler is the Director of Carbon Removal at carbon ratings agency BeZero Carbon. Before joining BeZero he founded and led the Getting to Zero climate policy programme at the think tank Onward.

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