Category Archives: Carbon and Climate Issues

A Melting Arctic and the Sowers of Doubt

NASA image of research in the Arctic.

NASA image of research in the Arctic—scientists sampling melt-water ponds.

Mr. X mentioned to me the other day that part of our problems with environmental policy stem from the fact that thinkers of the far-right seem to truly believe that climate change isn’t happening, or that it doesn’t matter. I’m not so sure, but I admit that I could be underestimating the anti-science worldview that seems relatively prevalent in some of these groups. But whether or not those purported skeptics “at the top” truly believe in their positions, it is quite clear that they are able to use money to manipulate public opinion further down the chain.

This issue came up with me last week, when three things happened, all in a row, and all related to Arctic ice. First, I happened upon an article in Forbes magazine from March, entitled “Updated NASA Data: Global Warming not Causing any Polar Ice Retreat“. Written by James Taylor, and linked to a graph of satellite data, it claims that any melting of polar ice caps is quite slight, and no cause for alarm (I did some research on this article; I’ll come back to that in a minute). Then, a few days later I happened to be talking to, well, let’s just say a “close relative”, who in the last decade seems to have come increasingly under the sway of far-right media. To my amazement, when the conversation turned to climate change, he began listing off point after point from the Forbes article, though without mentioning it by name. Then, thing #3—an in-depth report in the newest issue of National Geographic, on, drum roll… melting in the Arctic.

So, let’s take a quick look at how these three things intersect. Continue reading

Not So Far Off Course

Much is possible with our current systems.

Much is possible with our current systems.

Guess what?

I’ve been studying and learning and thinking for many years, trying to figure out how we can solve this environmental dilemma that we humans find ourselves in. And I’m not completely sure about the following, but—more and more I’m realizing that the workable path forward is likely to be a variation of what we’re doing now, and not some drastic departure or major paradigm shift. When you look at the big picture, we humans are not as far off the track as some fear.

That statement might cause some hand-wringing in some quarters, and it does seem a bit counter-intuitive when you see the immense damage that is being done to the planet. BUT, here’s my thinking—to fix it, we don’t need revolutionary changes, we need evolutionary ones. To explain, here are four things we don’t need— Continue reading

A Tale of Two Energy Futures

Te Apiti wind farm in New Zealand.

The Te Apiti wind farm in New Zealand. About 80% of New Zealand’s electrical power is generated from renewables, making it an example for the world.

I often joke with Mr. X that “I can see the future”. Yes, I’m usually kidding, but the other day I was thinking about an article about energy that I had read, and the future did indeed seem to me to be as clear as a bell. To back up a bit here, the article is by John Mauldin, an economic analyst, and it is his take on low oil prices, entitled “Riding the Energy Wave to the Future“. It’s well worth reading, but if you want the quick summary, here’s my very-short paraphrasing—

Marked improvements in oil and gas production technology (especially fracking technology) are largely responsible for today’s low oil prices, and these improvement trends are likely to continue. As such, prices for oil and gas are likely to remain low. BUT, the same types of innovation are also causing prices to drop in the renewable energy field, especially solar and wind, and the prices there WILL DROP EVEN FASTER. The likely outcome of this, according to Mauldin, is that future energy prices are likely to be low across the board, and that natural gas will continue to eclipse coal and is likely to become a “bridge” fuel between fossil fuels and renewables.

Now, I think that Mauldin’s article is basically on the right track (I wrote about a closely related topic, grid parity, here).

(And now for an aside—this, as opposed to another article I read this week, that I won’t link to, that went on and on, seemingly supported by all the relevant statistics and graphs and written by someone with all the proper credentials, about how low oil prices are a sign that resources have run out and global growth is permanently slowing and will soon collapse. There are thinkers in the peak oil and similar movements who confidently swear that collapse is imminent every single year. Continue reading

Bruhl Net-Zero Project– Early Results

enphase report switched

I overheard one of my students ask a classmate today, “Why are they doing so much solar in Vermont, when it’s so much cloudier here than in other parts of the country?” This was on my mind when it occurred to me that that her comment might be more meaningful if rephrased— “Since solar is working in Vermont (and Germany), where it’s relatively cloudy, imagine how it would work even better in other states?” Because, solar does work here in Vermont, and the data so far from my net-zero project is bearing witness to that fact, here in my little corner of the state.

When I last wrote about the project, as I was just finishing the barn panels (post: “Just in the Nick of Time“), the snow had arrived and the days were near their shortest. The snow is mostly gone now, though, the days are getting longer, and the solar production is ramping steadily up. The image above is from my March report from Enphase (the company tracks the performance of each individual invertor and panel via the internet, and sends these nifty monthly reports). The panels on the barn, according to Enphase, have offset nearly a ton of carbon emissions, and have produced well over a megawatt hour of clean, renewable power, in the month of March alone.

Enphase report from a sunny day last month-- nearly 70 kwh produced.

Enphase report from a sunny day last month– nearly 70 kwh produced.

Eventually I’ll get the whole system online, and I’ll work up the numbers for the system’s performance over the course of a whole year. But for now, it appears that my preliminary cost projections are working out as planned— the monthly savings from the project (in propane, generator fuel, electricity to charge the electric cars, and, in a side benefit, cheaper internet due to the coax we ran in with the underground power) nearly completely offset the loan payment. So it still looks like the project will pay for itself in 11 or 12 years, and then provide a large savings every month after that.

As for the net-zero aspect, my goal was to completely power the house, AND the two electric cars, with solar. I can’t quite tell on this one, but I believe we’re close to this goal. I’ll need a few more months of data—our usage for the cars will be higher in the winter months (due to using the heaters, having snow tires on, and the lower efficiency of the batteries in cold weather), while the solar production will be higher in the summer. I’m also not quite finished putting all the panels back on-line; the new ones on the barn roof are finished, but I need to reinstall all the panels we were using when we were off-grid. This should bump up the solar production another 20 or 30 percent.

So, it’s too soon for me to do a complete report, but the results so far are good. We are net-zero, we’re driving 90 miles or more every day on mostly solar power, and we’re going to save money in the long run. It’s time for everyone to jump on this bandwagon.

Glimmers of Progress…

According to several scientific sources, 2014 was the warmest year on record. The planet, and the oceans, are continuing to warm. The world’s oceans are also rising, and are getting more acidic. Along with a host of other problems, we humans aren’t on a great track, to say the least. But, I’ve seen some glimmers of progress lately, signs that we might be beginning to turn the tide. As an example, consider these two recent articles in The Economist, which each contain some bits of good news—

First, world CO2 emissions did not increase last year, (“CO2 and the Climate: Flatlining“) despite growth in the world economy. This is the first time this has ever happened, and was due to efficiency improvements and to increases in renewable-energy generation. So for all of you out there that have changed some light bulbs to LED ones, or acquired more fuel efficient cars (or electric vehicles), or added solar panels, or purchased renewable power from your electric company, or weatherized your house, or participated in these efforts politically, or grown more of your own food, my hat is off to you. Good job; all of these efforts, large and small, by governments and by individuals, are starting to register.

The second article (“Coal Mining: In the Depths“) is about how worldwide political and economic winds are turning against the coal industry. According to the article, the Dow Jones coal index has fallen by 76% in the last six years, 2/3 of planned coal-fired power plants worldwide since 2010 have been stalled or scrapped, and a strong divestment movement is occurring due to concerns of coal’s role in climate change and health risks.

To put these pieces of news in perspective, consider this—just two years ago I was writing posts where I was discussing how worldwide CO2 emissions were accelerating, and how 1,200 new coal-fired power plants were planned. Neither of those facts is true anymore; these are real changes.

Now, neither of these glimmers of progress is nearly enough, we have much more to do. CO2 in the atmosphere will stay potent for many decades, and total accumulations are still headed upward with no perceptible slowdown. Total coal consumption is still slowly rising, despite the pressures the industry faces. But the type of news I began with is what we should expect to see as things start to change. For years I’ve used the analogy that the task we’re involved in is akin to pushing with our hands on the side of a ship like the Titanic, while it is alongside a dock. We’ve all been pushing, for years, and the ship is finally starting to move. Momentum is gathering. Economies are shifting. Attitudes are changing. So, take a tiny bit of satisfaction from news like this, and then keep on pushing. Your efforts are working.

Earthrise_Revisited_2013

The only planet we’ve got…

 Image credit: NASA

Soil Carbon and Its Disincentives

“The most meaningful measurable indicator of the health of the land, and thus the long-term wealth of the nation, is whether soil carbon is being accumulated or lost.” —Courtney White, from his book Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey Through Carbon Country.

3710702365_ab030b381a_b tractor plowing cropped

Plowing is, by many accounts, soil-carbon destruction in action.

Courtney White has written an interesting book. Here’s a very short overview—plowing is destructive to soil. It exposes it to erosion from water and wind, ruins its structure, kills microbial life, and burns up the carbon. The more we plow, the worse the soil gets. Add chemical inputs, as modern industrial farming does, and the problem worsens still further. As White puts it, “Turning soil into dirt . . . is quick and easy. Just follow the recipe: Plow. Add chemicals. Mix well. Repeat.” With less carbon and microbial life, soil loses much of its ability to support plant growth and to absorb and retain moisture. In addition, minerals leach away and become less bio-available. Worse, all of that carbon goes into the atmosphere (30% of recent centuries’ increase in atmospheric CO2 is from human changes in land use—deforestation and plowing). Carbon isn’t inherently bad, as White points out repeatedly—carbon is absolutely vital for life; “carbon IS life”. But, we’ve gotten our carbon cycle out of whack, and conventional agriculture is making the situation worse, year after year, plow pass by plow pass. We’ve got too much carbon where we don’t need it, in the sky, and too little where we do, in the soil. It’s quite an insiduous feedback loop—when farmers degrade the soil, the result is that even more soil-killing applications of chemicals become required, just to get the land to produce. The longterm implications of this are somewhat dire; it’s a situation that might imperil humans’ very survival.

So if plowing isn’t a good idea, then how do we grow food? Isn’t plowing “how it’s done”? Well, it turns out that there are indeed other ways to produce food, and the bulk of White’s book is in the form of a travelogue, as he goes from place to place and meets farmers and restoration specialists who are doing things differently. He call them all “carbon farmers”, and some of them aren’t growing food—some restore riparian areas, or wetlands, or mangrove swamps, or beaver habitats, all in ways that increase soil carbon and improve environmental health. But many of them are farmers and ranchers, who have learned to produce food in ways that also improve the soil. Their techniques include rotational grazing, the use of native or perennial grasses, grazing herds of mixed animal types, carbon-zero farming with biofuels made on-site, year-round cover cropping, pasture cropping, organic no-till, composting to recycle nutrients, and edible forest gardens, among others. As White says, many of these ideas aren’t new. In fact, the idea that plowing damages soil isn’t new, either; White discusses Edward Faulkner’s 1943 book, “Plowman’s Folly”, that warned (and was ignored) of soil depletion caused by plowing (and this was largely before the problem was made that much worse with pesticides, herbicides, and harsh chemical fertilizers).

plowman's folly cover

First published in 1943, and still in print.

Trying to increase soil carbon and humus isn’t a new idea either, and has been practiced since Roman times. Today, farmers like Joel Salatin and Mark Shepard, and organic farmers everywhere, are using many of the same techniques as the farmers in White’s book, and for the same reasons (see my post about Mark Shepard’s work, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle”). Unfortunately, a great many more are plowing ahead (pun slightly intended) with business as usual.

White concludes with a somewhat radical idea—since more carbon in soils can only be attained by regenerating the land, and increasing carbon in soils has the potential to be a huge step in reducing atmospheric CO2 as well as safeguarding our ability to feed ourselves, why not pay landowners to increase the carbon content of their soils? The money could come from something that I, and White, and nearly all environmentalists think is a good idea—a carbon tax. (See post: “A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive”). Such a tax would let market forces reduce carbon pollution on one end, and the revenue that would result could be used to provide incentives to restore the land and sequester carbon on the other end. And according to White, soil carbon is relatively easy to measure, and the numbers don’t lie; you can’t fake it. Doing the right things for the soil increase soil carbon, and abusing the land decreases it.

Compare this system to what we have now in the U.S.– agricultural subsidies that incentivize farmers to do just the opposite—in effect, we pay farmers to plow more, by rewarding short-term production over long-term stewardship of the land. (Some quotes from Earl Butz, the architect of many of  today’s agricultural policies- “What we want out of agriculture is production…” and “Plant fencerow to fencerow, boys…” )This results in cheaper food, but at the expense of the environment and nutrition. And, as a result, too many farmers are following White’s soil-to-dirt recipe as fast as they possibly can– plow, add chemicals, mix well, repeat. For now, chemical inputs mask the gathering problems, but the time will come to pay the Piper. (Typical article in this vein, “Loss of Soil Threatens Food Production, UK Government Warns”).

So, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—fix energy, and we’ll fix half the planet, fix agriculture, and we’ll fix the other half. And to fix agriculture, we could do worse than go down the path that Courtney White outlines. We can all do our part, by supporting organic agriculture with our food dollars, by composting, by planting trees, or by refusing to put chemicals on our land, lawns, or gardens, and by voting for representatives who hold land stewardship in high regard.

grass book cover

(Courtney White also has a blog, “The Carbon Pilgrim” , that has a great deal of additional information about “carbon farming”.)

Top image credit: “Tractor Plowing Fields” by Sam Beebe, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/sbeebe/3710702365. Image has been cropped.

A Price for Carbon: Ask and You Shall Receive?

coal excavator

Open-cast mining of lignite in Germany. Germany is the world’s largest producer and user of brown coal.

Once again, real life is making it hard to find time to write. It’s a busy time of year—classes winding down, getting the garden in, school activities with the kids, dealing with the new bees, and then, to top it all off, a funeral for an elderly relative and related activities. (Just as an aside—if you find yourself checking this site to see if something new has been posted, then I encourage you to enter your email into the subscription box on the sidebar; it really works well and a little note will get sent to you when something new gets posted. Each email has an unsubscribe link if you decide in the future that you don’t want the notices.)  But in the midst of all of that activity, I’ve had plenty of sustainability thoughts. And I’ve noticed something lately—my musings have been repeatedly taking me to the same end point. To wit—we need a carbon tax.

At the root of this thought is the fact that we’ve had tremendous advances in the sustainability field, on all fronts, in the last decade. A whole array of better products and systems are now proven and available—practical and highly-efficient electric vehicles, net-zero houses, cold-climate heat pumps, permaculture agriculture systems, heat-pump water heaters, micro-inverters for solar panels, electric lawn mowers… the list goes on. I’ve adopted a number of these, and yet we live a totally “normal” life. We’re completely comfortable here, but we use a fraction of the fossil fuel that most families do. Better still, far from being an expense, most of these systems save money, with returns on investment that typically range from as little as 1 or 2 years (air sealing, cold-climate heat pumps) to about 12 or 14 years (deep-energy retrofits, net-zero systems). Once the investment pays itself off, the rest is gravy. Forever. The same is true for us, driving the Leafs. They are fantastic cars, and the fuel savings alone virtually pays for the leases.

So why aren’t more people making these changes? We could all be living in much more comfortable houses, saving money, driving smooth, speedy, quiet cars that don’t smell, AND making dramatically fewer demands on the environment. I’m not sure why it is that people don’t change quickly, but I can venture a few guesses. First, many of these advances are recent, and people just don’t know about them yet (though the word is getting out—cold-climate heat pumps, “mini-splits”, which can cut home heating bills by 40% or more, are being installed left-and-right here in Vermont). Second, many of the systems result in serious savings, but require up-front funding or investment, and many people don’t have the know-how to navigate financing options, or the means to pay up-front. But the biggest reason, I think, is simply inertia. We’re all busy, and the systems that we already have seem to work well enough, and the easiest thing for most people to do is to just keep using them.

In addition to the inertia of individuals, the entire economic system has serious inertia of its own. Millions work and make their livings in fields that need to disappear, and this is a difficult problem. Take for example this shift to cold-climate heat pumps. If done en masse, it would virtually eliminate home fuel oil delivery, and the refinement of that oil, and the manufacturing and servicing of fuel-oil boilers and hydronic systems, and a whole host of other specialties related to heating with oil. On the other hand, it would create other manufacturing, installation and maintenance jobs in the heat-pump field. But while these new jobs will open up, these sort of shifts are difficult, and people resist them.

Speaking of inertia...

Speaking of inertia…

So here’s where carbon taxes work their magic—they help to tip the balance, and to overcome this inertia. Carbon taxes have a whole array of positive effects. They give people the nudge they need to switch away from oil and coal, but carbon taxes also spur efficiency, promote cleaner systems that pollute less, and encourage conservation. On a nation-wide scale, efficiency equates to wealth, and the taxes become a de facto long-term investment plan. Eventually, everyone winds up better off. When the revenue from such taxes are funneled into further efficiency improvements or are used to support renewable energy, the effects compound even faster.

Now, this idea of a carbon tax isn’t new (in fact, about twenty countries in the world already have some form of a price on carbon), and I’ve mentioned it before in various posts. But, despite all the positives that would flow from a price on carbon, I haven’t been expecting to actually see such a tax here in the U.S.; the political headwinds to such a move seem likely to be too powerful to overcome. But last night an article in the new issue of National Geographic caught my eye, “Can Coal Ever Be Clean?” (their answer—not really). In the article it mentioned that the Obama administration was poised to propose new restrictions on carbon emissions, to be enforced via the Environmental Protection Agency. I was surprised, I hadn’t heard about this yet (a good overview at Politico— “President Obama’s Big Carbon Crackdown Readies for Launch” ). While I’d rather have a carbon tax, these other sorts of restrictions on carbon have similar effects, and this promises to be a huge step in the right direction. The details are expected to be announced in just a few days, on June 2nd. Stand by for political fireworks and lawsuits, the big carbon companies probably aren’t going to take this lightly. But, add these carbon restrictions to my list of changes underway. As I’ve said before, it’s like trying to push on the Titanic to start it moving; it isn’t easy. But, the system is indeed moving. Hallelujah.

I’ll close here with a quick return to daily life—a pic of spring flowers, the new bees, and one of the Leafs being charged with solar. And with regard to the latter, we might see a lot more electric vehicles and solar charging in a world where there are taxes on carbon. So when the fireworks begin in a few weeks, jump in to support those advocating a price on carbon. Just like with voting, every voice counts.

bee yard

I added a bear-repelling electric wire since I took this picture–we’ll see if it works.

Image credits: Top photo “Tagebau Garzweiler” by Bert Kaufmann, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/22746515@N02/2989699245.
Hummer: “Sigh, or grrrr” by Payton Chung, Flickr Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/paytonc/824328933.

Brace Yourself

“By one estimate, the Caribbean has lost 80% of its coral cover over the past 50 years. And the future is even darker: the one-two punch of global warming and ocean acidification could make the seas essentially inhospitable to coral, with dire consequences for marine life…” —Bryan Walsh

palmyra atoll

Even the most remote reefs, such as this one at Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific, might not survive the Anthropocene.

Despite positive tidbits, here’s yet more news of the overall downhill slide of planet’s condition; the above quote from an article by Bryan Walsh in the current edition of Time (14 April 2014)— “Ocean View: Like a Google map of the seabed, a new survey is documenting coral reefs—before they’re gone”. Every time I read an article like this, about the incredible damage we humans are doing to the life on the planet, it really knocks me back. I feel helpless, like I’m being swirled along in a current of forces I can’t control. But we need to brace ourselves—it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Though there are positive forces in motion, the system as a whole is still headed in the wrong direction, and is doing so with quite a bit of momentum. This momentum is due to ever-increasing population numbers, rising worldwide affluence, and our unsustainable production and energy systems, none of which are easily changed. This negative momentum is going to cause more and more heartbreaking environmental failures in the years to come. Eventually, as the drumbeat of horrible news grows ever louder, the great mass of people will begin paying attention, and there will be much more pressure to change. Until then, though, the failures are likely to worsen.

 

Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The reefs here have been damaged by millions of visitors. The greater long-term threat, however, is ocean acidification caused by CO2.

Hanauma Bay, Oahu. The reefs here have been damaged by millions of visitors. The greater long-term threat, however, is ocean acidification caused by CO2.

Some people are paying attention already, and some people are visualizing how badly this could end up. I’ve seen more and more doomsday predictions lately, such as this one by William Falk, “We’re Finished, Now What?“. I try to be consistent in what I write here, but I admit to wavering myself on this topic of outlook, alternating between more pessimistic takes (“It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“) and the relatively sanguine, (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“), and then back again (last month’s “The Anthropocene and the Psychology of Alarm“). Taken as a whole, though, I can’t quite agree with William Falk just yet; I’m not sure that we’re quite “finished”. But we are clearly in danger, and these dire predictions are part of the alarm that will be a necessary part of turning ourselves around. (Note, 16 Apr 2014— Mr. X refers to the Falk article above as “hysterical melodrama”, and suggests that I remove it. My point was that I don’t agree with Falk, but perhaps I didn’t phrase it clearly enough.)

But while we need the alarm, to spur people into action, it clearly isn’t registering strongly enough yet. Last night I was at a town gathering for a school function, and I realized once again that at least 90% of us seem to be barreling along on the paths we’ve always been on, driving our huge vehicles, living our lives, buying ever more belongings, and not paying attention. Eventually, though, the environmental failures will add up, and the reality of the situation will begin to sink in. 

Everyone on the planet should watch this video…

Until we reach this sort of worldwide critical mass, however, there are things we can do. In fact, there are critical things that must be done, and done now. In short, we can start getting the new systems set up; we don’t exactly know how to do it all yet. We can be the models, the trailblazers, we can work the bugs out, we can start the transition. Then, when the great mass of humanity begins to really care, they’ll have an escape hatch ready, clearly marked. I have no doubt about what humans will be able to accomplish, and accomplish quickly, once they set their collective minds to the task. These new systems we will need are already being set up, and at rates that are encouraging. I just read an article about how new ideas are enabling net-zero houses to be constructed at the same price as conventional construction (Fine Homebuilding, “The Future of Housing in America”, by Kevin Ireton). My daughter, part of her school’s environmental club, reports that with composting and new procedures at lunch, that the cafeteria can now feed over 800 students and only produce 1/2 a bag of trash. As of last month, I can now elect to have my teacher retirement put into funds that don’t invest in fossil fuel companies. I was in Burlington yesterday, and saw four new electric vehicle chargers almost completely installed in one of the city’s parking garages. In Rutland, a huge new community solar array has just sprung up in a vacant lot. In my school, all of the bins for paper to be recycled have now been replaced with zero-sort bins, so that all recyclable materials can be recycled. I could make this list quite a bit longer, but let me just point this out—every single one of the above changes was put into place by a small group of individuals, somewhere, who were determined to make a difference. And every one of the changes listed above is a systems change, and will affect hundreds or thousands of people. In the future, when people want to live in a net-zero house, or drive an EV, or be part of community solar, or eat lunch at school without creating a pile of trash, it will be easier due to these systems. And, in an added bit of good news, try this on—as more people realize how to replicate the systems, the changes become ever-easier to implement. My school won’t have to reinvent the wheel—we’ll visit my daughter’s school and copy what they did to reduce their cafeteria trash to almost nothing. And as the systems get changed, it will become ever-easier for ordinary people to live in sustainable ways. Right now it can be difficult—I have to carry my composting home from work, or walk a distance from a car charger, or struggle to find people who can answer my questions about solar power, etc. Eventually, eventually, it will become the default, for everyone, whether they’re trying to be sustainable or not.

So, brace yourself for more bad news. But don’t lose heart, and don’t freak out (see my last post, “Keep Calm and Carry On“), and realize that the bad news, ironically, is also part of what will bring us out to the other side.

Image credit: Palmyra Atoll—Jim Maragos, USFWS-Pacific Region.
Hanuama Bay Panorama #2, by Daniel Ramirez, Flickr Creative Commons.

Never as Simple as it Seems

Inefficient cooking fires for 500 million--- a tough problem to solve.

Inefficient and unhealthy cooking fires are used by 500 million people around the world— it’s a tough problem to solve.

In my last post, I discussed (among other things) the fascinating potential benefits of highly-efficient micro-gasification stoves, and the potential agricultural and climate benefits of using the char they produce as a soil amendment. There seems to be tremendous promise in the basic idea—around the world, 500 million of the world’s poorest people cook on inefficient stoves that burn biomass, usually wood or charcoal, and they often cook on them indoors, which creates horrible indoor-air quality and related health problems. The new stoves are relatively cheap, and they are efficient, burning 40-50% less fuel than a traditional “three rocks and a pot” cooking setup. They can also burn a wide variety of biomass, including agricultural wastes and dung. This could reduce pressure on forests, and could reduce or eliminate traditional charcoal production, which is highly polluting. The stoves also release dramatically fewer harmful particulates and other emissions into the air.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a Philips, fan-assisted micro-gasification stove 2009.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a fan-assisted micro-gasification stove, in 2009. Such stoves could help save the world?

The good news doesn’t seem to stop here—the stoves produce charcoal that can be applied to gardens or agricultural land as “biochar”, which improves water and nutrient retention, improves the workability of soils, and improves yields. AND, the carbon in biochar is in a chemical form that is “recalcitrant”, and therefore stays in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years, which effectively removes it from the carbon cycle, which, if practiced by millions upon millions of people, could reduce atmospheric carbon and help ameliorate global warming.

What’s not to love? But despite the fact that improved, inexpensive cookstoves have been around for decades, and have been supported by groups such as the United Nations, the Global Alliance for Clean Stoves, WorldStove, and the World Health Organization, they haven’t fully caught on in the developing world. The biochar addition to this whole idea is a newer one, and groups that promote it appear to encountering glitches as they try to implement a biochar system, despite its promise. It’s a case, it seems, of things never being quite as simple as they seem at first glance.

This can be seen in an interesting study of the effectiveness of one such program to help poorer families in Cambodia and India adopt both the new stoves and the use of biochar—“Biochar Stoves: An Innovation Studies Perspective“. Written by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, it tracked the use of several different stove designs in a variety of real-world contexts in 2010 and 2011, and studied many aspects of the improved-stove and biochar ideas. As it turns out, in the real world a wide variety of obstacles prevented the stoves from quite fulfilling their potential. The study is over seventy pages long, but here are some of the salient points—

— Not all the stoves make char. Some, like the TLUD (Top-Lit Up-Draft) stoves, make char, but have to be stopped at the right time, or the char combusts completely into ash. To get the char, they either have to be quenched with water or dumped out at the right time in the burning process. Both methods appear to be cumbersome in the real world, as one might imagine. Of all of the stoves, the Anila designs, in which biomass is loaded into an outer ring where it pyrolizes, made the most char. But, the Anila stoves work even if you skip the step of loading the outer ring, and it seems many families did skip this step, probably because they didn’t see the value in burning extra wood just to make char.

— When char was produced, it wasn’t always applied to the soil as biochar. Char (charcoal) is a valuable product in the developing world; something that can be burned or sold. Many families did just that, and burned the char in charcoal stoves, or sold it to others for that purpose. To take something that was worth money and till it into the soil, despite promised benefits, didn’t seem to always catch on. Some argue that this is exactly why we need to put a price on sequestering carbon, to bring market forces to bear on this issue, but others, such as Biofuelwatch, argue that this is exactly the danger we should fear—a world where the burning up of trees becomes profitable. In a world of shrinking forests, I can’t exactly say that I feel that the fears of Biofuelwatch are misplaced. It’s a tricky issue.

— There were cultural obstacles. The new stoves didn’t always fit into the cultural regimes that governed cooking and gender roles. Sometimes this was due to how the fuel was obtained, other times it was something as simple as the height of the stove. For cultures where cooking is done from a squatting position, some of the stoves were just too tall (many designs work better with a short stack on top of them, which increases the chimney effect). This one surprised me, it’s one of those unexpected items one wouldn’t normally anticipate.

— The “energy ladder” often means that the whole idea of a biomass stove that produces char has limited appeal. This one also surprised me, but made perfect sense once I thought about it. Here’s a chart from the World Health Organization—

The "Energy Ladder"

The bottom line here is that what many of the families REALLY wanted was a propane or natural gas stove. And once families have them, they have no real desire to “revert” to a stove that burns biomass, even if the biomass stoves were cheaper or could produce other benefits.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don't produce any char.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don’t produce any char.

— The biochar stoves were often harder to cook on. Though the stoves may be more efficient than other improved stoves (like rocket-stoves), they are fueled in batches, at the beginning of a cooking cycle, which makes them more difficult to use. In addition, the study found that it is difficult to increase or decrease the heat on most of the biochar stove designs, which is something a rocket stove can do well.

— The use of biochar was effective as a soil amendment, but not overwhelmingly so. The explanation for this doesn’t seem to be in this particular study, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, biochar needs to be “loaded up” with nutrients before it is applied to fields, because it is so absorptive that it actually will capture nutrients from the soil if applied directly to the soil in quantity. This biochar preparation can be done, for example, by adding the char to organic materials as they compost, and then adding the compost to agricultural soils. The study found improved yields from the methods that were employed, but not in all cases, and they conclude that more study needs to be done.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action. This stove is promoted by the organization Cookstoves for Africa.

All of this is a bit sobering, and might be a reminder that just because something sounds like a good idea, that it doesn’t mean that it’s workable. There are still plenty of solutions to all of these stove-related problems, such as the pelletization of grass crops for fuel, or improved stove designs, or more education and research about the benefits of biochar. But what I really wonder is whether the whole effort is a Band-aid, when we might be needing a tourniquet. The average poor person in the developing world has something like 1/20th of the climate impact of someone in the United States or the industrialized world (good Tom Murphy post, “The Real Population Problem“). Americans and other citizens of the wealthy world can (and do) choose to eat lots of meat, drive big vehicles, power up their hot-tubs, and run their air conditioners, and the consequences of these actions dwarf those of the world’s poor trying to cook a meal.

It seems we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Top image credit and Energy Ladder graphic: World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/indoorair/publications/fflsection1.pdf.
Tanzanian woman image: Frank van der Vleeten, Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/elfrank70/3738409967.
Rocket stove image: David Mellis, Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mellis/3739041269.
Istovu image: Cookstoves for Africa, Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cookstovesforafrica/8539440230

Terra Preta. Who Knew?

Ideas to consider.

Many ideas to consider.

“All the world’s problems can be solved in the garden.” –Geoff Lawton, permaculture pioneer.

I just read “The Biochar Solution”, by Albert Bates. I’m not sure I can fully recommend it, as his argument strikes me as a bit scattered and slightly less than incisive. BUT, that being said, there’s an awful lot to consider here, and an amazing number of things that I’d never heard of before. Terra preta? Salt-water greenhouses that distill fresh water from the air? The UN’s Billion Tree program? Step-harvesting? Pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures that rivaled the Inca and Aztec? So while I don’t feel inclined to uncritically endorse all of his ideas, the topics in the book are fascinating, and they have added some nuance to both my vision of ideal agriculture and to potential solutions to the world’s CO2 problem.

Here’s his idea in a nutshell (it’s kind of hard to summarize, the flip side of good storytelling could be called “rambling”). First, Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century, forced by privation to descend the entire length of the Amazon from the Peru side, encountered tremendous Amazonian civilizations that were built in harmony with nature, and whose farming was based on the intentional improvement of the soil by making a form of charcoal and plowing it into the earth to transform thin Amazonian soils into rich “terra preta” soils, with depths in some places of many feet.

Terra_Preta wikimedia by Rsukiennik

Terra preta, or “dark earth”, soil on the right. Such soils were created through human activity over millennia.

These “garden cities” and the surrounding countryside in Amazonia may have supported a population of 30 million or more, according to Bates. Then came the plague of diseases from the Old World, brought by the Europeans, which decimated American native populations with such rapidity that they lost virtually their entire culture, in addition to 99% or more of their populations. All of that incredibly rich soil, now abandoned, was very rapidly overgrown with jungle trees and vegetation, to such an amazing degree that it sucked so much carbon out of the air that it cause the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th century. Bates holds that the Amazonian methods were an exception to the story of agriculture as it has been practiced in virtually every other civilization and time (including our own), whereby the agricultural methods are ultimately so destructive to the soil that the environmental underpinnings of the civilizations fail, causing collapse. (Related post– “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“). He extrapolates further from this, and writes that not only can the methods be revived and used again, but that the intentional “farming” of carbon can actually stabilize or even reverse climate change, if fossil fuel use can be brought under control.

Quite fascinating. All of this is plausible, if not completely proven. Recent scientific inquiry, much of it in just the last few years, seems to concur with his position on pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations, though there isn’t full consensus on the issue. (A few articles– Scientific American, “Lost Garden Cities: Pre-Columbian Life in the Amazon“, and The Washington Post, “Scientists Find Evidence Discrediting Idea that Amazon was Virtually Unlivable“.) Terra preta soils certainly exist, and apparently, even under the lowest estimates, cover thousands of square miles of Amazonia. Analysis has concluded that these soils were definitely created by human activity. Whether that activity was intentional or not is apparently also debated, some (like Bates) holding that it was clearly intentional, others that it was more an inadvertent result of normal kitchen fires and wastes and varied forms of slash-and-burn agriculture. As to whether reforestation in the Americas helped trigger the Little Ice Age, some researchers do seem to feel that it was a contributing factor, and perhaps a major one. (Stanford article here.) If this was indeed true, then it would lend credence to Bates’ ideas that a concerted effort to sequester carbon—to remove it from the natural carbon cycle—would have a similar effect, and could reverse or stabilize global warming. Again, there are experts in all of these fields who would agree, but there are certainly others who would argue about the particulars.

A 45-minute-long BBC production entitled “The Secret of El Dorado”, that touches on most of the topics in this post. It’s more even-handed than Bates’ book, and fairly convincing—

At the root of this entire story is charcoal, or, in the parlance of enthusiasts, “biochar”. (Biochar being charcoal that is contaminant-free and therefore useful as a soil amendment). To make charcoal, woody materials or other biomass is exposed to heat in the absence of oxygen, where they off-gas volatile compounds (“wood gas”) in a process known as pyrolization. The gasses can be burned, and if this off-gassing process is allowed to continue the original fuel remains behind as nearly-pure carbon, or charcoal. Cultures around the world have made charcoal for millennia, and many still do so today for use as fuel, and particularly for use as cooking fuel. But, if that charcoal is added to soil as an amendment, it effectively sequesters the carbon it contains, because the carbon in biochar is chemically “recalcitrant”, or resistant to change (as opposed to “labile” carbon, which is what most of the carbon in soils typically is, in humus and other plant matter). As such, it can remain unchanged in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years (and the existence today of these black soils, 500 years after Columbus, certainly seems to give evidence of this). Combining this form of carbon sequestration with afforestation (planting trees), and the raising of carbon levels in soils as a function of organic farming and/or permaculture could measurably reduce atmospheric carbon. According to Bates and others, the idea of actively sequestering carbon in this way could save humanity from rising global temperatures.

Charcoal vendor, Zambia, 2009. Environmental groups around the world report charcoal production as a major pressure on forests.

Charcoal vendor, Zambia, 2009. Environmental groups around the world report charcoal production as a major pressure on forests.

Bates isn’t alone, apparently there are whole groups that exist to promote biochar and related forms of carbon sequestration, such as the “International Biochar Initiative“. One huge proponent is Nathaniel Mulcahy, founder of WorldStove, (oddly pictorial website here). His organization makes simple pyrolizing cookstoves for poor people around the world (their tagline is “A Million Stoves”). The stoves burn cleanly and help avoid the soot inhalation that kills up to four million people every year, they are efficient, and, they produce biochar. (Apparently their high efficiency makes up for the fact that some of the potential energy in the fuel remains as charcoal). When the charcoal is used as a soil amendment (or better yet, first used in composting toilets and then as a soil amendment) then the use of the stove actually becomes carbon negative, as long as the fuel was sustainably harvested.

Rural outdoor kitchen, of an inefficient design.

Rural outdoor stove, of an inefficient design. Smoke inhalation from such stoves that are used indoors contributes to the death of over 4 million people a year.

If millions used these efficient stoves, they could potentially improve the health, sanitation, and food production of poor people around the world, and sequester carbon at the same time. It’s a pretty bold vision, and Mulcahy and his company are active in poor regions around the world, including Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Below is a video demonstration of a stove like the ones the company makes. This one is “homemade”; the precision parts of the factory-built stoves burn even cleaner, with a nearly invisible blue flame. Once the stove gets to operating temperature, it is wood-gas that is burning, as the woody fuel pyrolizes—

Not all environmental groups agree with the vision of the biochar proponents. One such group is Biofuelwatch, a UK-based group that opposes most large-scale uses of biofuel, fearing for the safety of both forests and natural areas, and of the rural peoples who live there. Charcoal production already puts pressure on forests around the world, and I can understand their fear of what might happen if biochar as a soil amendment was given international sanction as a measurable carbon offset. Biochar proponents, however, point to the tremendous amounts of agricultural wastes that exist worldwide, such as rice straw, that could be utilized without any negative effect on forests.

In the end, as with everything else, the truth is often nuanced and far from the extremes. IF the source fuel for biochar was gathered sustainably, the use of biochar in agriculture seems to fit in very well with sustainable paths forward. As the world (hopefully) switches to regenerative, sustainable permaculture of the type espoused by Mark Shepard and others, huge amounts of carbon will be captured and stored in the trees and soils of these systems. According to Mark Shepard, these systems also produce more woody biomass, in the form of nut shells, pruned and coppiced wood, etc., than can generally be used. Such waste biomass would be perfectly suited for biochar production, and the resulting amendments could be added to the soil during keyline plowing or during planting operations.

One last video, if you’re interested—small-scale production of biochar. Pretty amazing, note the near absence of smoke once the kiln reaches gasification temperature—

So, I’m not sure that you need to read the book. But, you do need to add the word “biochar” to your vocabulary, and we all need to keep it in mind as perhaps an important part of new permaculture systems, and perhaps even, if Bates is correct, as a carbon sequestration option that might help “save humanity”.

 Terra preta image: Rsukiennik, Wikimedia Commons.
Charcoal vendor image: CIFOR; Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/45423546.
Rural kitchen image: CIFOR; Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cifor/8620660813.