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Can Biochar Help Save the World?

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On Earth Day, we looked back on a year in which James Cameron's Avatar, a film about environmental crisis and restoration, swept box offices around the globe. What if there were a real-life answer to help solve the real world problems of climate change, peak oil, and global food security? Would you want the leaders of the G8 and the G20 to know about it and endorse it? This Earth Day, The Huntsville Project launched to inform the global public about biochar, one of the most promising developments in our fight against climate change. At the new website, http://www.newcarboneconomy.info, you can find out about biochar and sign the petition.

The Huntsville Project is asking global leaders to support this important new clean technology.
On June 25. the G8 will meet in Huntsville Ontario. Then the G20 will meet in Toronto on June 26 and 27. Sign the Huntsville Petition and help put biochar on the global agenda!

Biochar Explained
Biochar is the modern version of an ancient Pre-Columbian technology invented by native Amazonian peoples to enhance soil fertility. A form of charcoal, it is created by pyrolysis - the burning of biomass, such as agricultural waste or wood, in low oxygen. The ancient source of biochar is called terra preta (prepared earth) in Brazil.

The first thing to know about biochar is that it is a way of removing CO2 greenhouse gas from the atmosphere for a very long time. The carbon from biomass, when pyrolyzed, can remain in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years. We know this because some of the terra preta soils of the Amazon are 2000 years old. And these ancient soils are still so fertile after all this time that there is an industry in Brazil to collect these soils and put them in bags to sell as potting soil.

Biochar is one of the few technologies that can take carbon out of the atmosphere. 'Green' technologies like solar and wind power reduce the amount of CO2 that goes in to the atmosphere, but do nothing to remove the carbon build up. Biochar takes carbon that has been captured from the atmosphere during the growing process of plants and trees and converts it into a soil additive, thereby storing the carbon in the earth. It has a number of advantages over other carbon removal technologies, such as geoengineering or coal power generation carbon capture and storage, in that it is proven, relatively cheap and can be widely applied. Biochar could potentially play a significant role combating climate change.

In addition, biochar has a number of other potential benefits.

Soil fertility
Field tests by Biochar Fund in Cameroon (http://www.biocharfund.org) have demonstrated up to 220% yield increase in maize crops in degraded soil in one season with addition of biochar to the soil. Although it works in many different soil conditions, and possibly all, biochar works especially well in degraded soils, and in the tropics. Following the promising results in Cameroon, Biochar Fund recently received a $300,000 grant from Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement for biochar projects in Kenya.

Farms and gardens
Biochar has an exceptional ability to hold nitrogen and water in the soil. This means that farmers can use less water and less fertilizer. They can make biochar from their own wastes and use it in their fields, avoiding the carbon emissions associated with the manufacture and transport of fertilizer. Different biochar technologies are being developed that are optimized for different agricultural inputs, like rice husks, coconut shells, etc.

Pollution prevention
Biochar lessens the run-off of nitrogen into waterways, which can cause serious health problems. These include 'blue baby' deaths from high nitrate contamination of ground water. Biochar could also prevent the growth of 'dead zones' where nitrogen-induced algae blooms in the ocean. Biochar may also be able to remediate other soil contaminants.
Invasive species control - A potential remedy for invasive species is to turn them into the raw material for biochar. Kudzu vine in the southern US, cat tails and striga in Africa, and water hyacinth in Africa and India are among the invasive species that could be treated in this way.
Reforestation - Biochar could be used to improve soils for reforestation programs. It could prove particularly valuable in places such as Haiti where severe deforestation leads to contaminated waters supplies and other problems.

Stoves
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1.6 million people, mostly women and young children, die every year from smoke inhalation from traditional cooking stoves. Stoves which use the biochar process are emission-free while creating a soil additive to improve the fertility of kitchen gardens. Some biochar stoves can even create electricity for home lighting or cellphone charging.

Biochar-making equipment is available in many different types and sizes, from the small and very cheap ($6-8 dollars), all the way to municipal-scale plants. Equipment can in some cases be made with scrap metals.

This is why people in the Biochar Offsets group are so passionate about this emerging technology and why we started the Huntsville Project and Biochar Haiti. Biochar can play a key role in the sanitation, health, and food security needs of people in developing countries, and globally, while at the same time contributing to the mitigation of climate change. We want to help bring a new biochar industry to Haiti to help restore the forests and make the soil fruitful for the people of Haiti, while creating jobs and income. We can take this model and apply it in any developing country.

You can find out more at the website of the International Biochar Initiative:
http://www.biochar-international.org/

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