Could Burning Wood be a Viable Way to Help Slow Climate Change?


Could Burning Wood be a Viable Way to Help Slow Climate Change?

Sounds crazy…but it just might be.

At least in the short term, particularly within the next 5-10 years.

Our unfortunate reliance on fossil fuels for the past 200 years has resulted in excess carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is the primary driver of climate change. We’ll eventually need to scale up cost-effective technologies – other than saving and planting trees – to suck carbon out of the air and lock it up for centuries, or forever. But greenhouse gas levels, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, have now become so high in the atmosphere that trees can no longer naturally remove enough to slow climate change on their own.

We need additional strategies in the short term to help reduce greenhouse gas levels – ones that are viable, affordable and scalable. Biochar, a highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water, seems like an important climate change mitigation solution that’s relatively easy to scale and may be cost-effective, especially when used together with the wide variety of available “nature-based solutions” like preserving mature trees and forests, planting new ones, and restoring wetlands and other natural environments.

How We Became Interested in Biochar

My journey into appreciating the multiple opportunities biochar represents for the Foundation’s clean water goals in the Delaware Basin started with an ambition to incentivize farmers to expand stream buffer restoration to protect water quality.

Over prior decades, “early adopters” and altruistic farmers have restored hundreds of miles of riparian buffers in this watershed – but by our calculations, at least 300,000 acres remain to be restored to have the most impact on our waterways. To scale and speed up implementation, we are interested in ways to generate income from “working buffers” to replace and compensate farmers for the productive agricultural land they must give up to accommodate the most effective stream buffers. Previous state-led efforts to promote “multifunctional” working buffers focused on approaches that incorporated commodities such as nut and berry-producing shrubs and trees, which farmers could then sell. Our research has led us to conclude that while this model may work on an individual farm-scale, these are niche markets that won’t be able to effectively drive expansion of buffers at the scale necessary to meet the needs of the entire watershed.

A possible alternate solution that we are investigating with our grantees and consultants is biochar. Designing riparian buffers to be able to sustainably harvest biomass, which can then produce profitable biochar given the rapidly expanding biochar market, could be a viable financial and conservation answer. Notably, the United States Department of Agriculture has just endorsed biochar as a soil amendment that they are prepared to sponsor through their Natural Resources Conservation Services grant programs. And indeed, in Europe, a similar idea is taking hold where they are starting to experiment with biomass harvesting in hedgerows for biochar production.


IBI / Illustration by Kevin D. Brown


Merits of Biochar – The Basis of the Foundation’s Broadening Interest

Once produced, biochar represents durable carbon capture that can last anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years. The biochar community (USBI, IBI) is actively researching and documenting all kinds of ways biochar can be productively used in society to lock up carbon for multiple decades. One very promising use is to add it to all kinds of building materials, including concrete in buildings and asphalt in roads.

But there’s also a suite of what I’d call “conservation biochar” uses which can actively and cost-effectively help advance many of the Foundation’s environmental ambitions to secure clean water and reduce downstream flood risks, while helping to mitigate climate change. These include using biochar in Green Stormwater Infrastructure and regenerative soils for agriculture and forestry.

Such uses for biochar in land and water conservation interventions can improve water infiltration and water-holding capacity of soils, reduce runoff volumes that otherwise cause pollution and downstream floods, and generate potentially gigatons of carbon storage in soils expanding production that is also resilient to climate change. International Biochar Initiative (IBI) estimates up to three gigatons of carbon could be sequestered in soils annually, representing up to 30% of the annual carbon reduction needed globally.

Other Co-Benefits of Deploying Biochar

Some biochar can be sourced from sustainable woody plant sources, but biochar can also be made from waste wood and other organic compounds such as waste food, mushroom soil waste, human sewage sludge, farm crop waste, animal manure, and other sources. So, biochar can also help reduce and recycle waste very effectively – solving another significant challenge our modern society faces.

These nutrient rich biochars and manure digestates can be sold as a natural horticultural and agricultural soil amendment and fertilizer – as well as act as a carbon sink.

Just think of the opportunity and benefits this presents to replace expensive synthetic fertilizers made from oil and gas with biochar made from wastestreams – at a fraction of the synthetic fertilizer price – while locking up carbon for decades or centuries in agricultural soils at the same time!

In fact – acknowledging this – the USDA/NRCS is now launching a new addition to their soil amendment grant support through the Farm Bill (Code 336), paying up to $200/acre to add various biochar soil amendments to agricultural soil systems to benefit plant growth, regenerate soil health and sequester carbon – all concurrently.

Between biochar and other nature-based solutions to capturing carbon, the potential is huge to convert land and water conservation work that leverages biochar carbon credits into new, potentially near-perpetual market-driven funding that can expand additional conservation work.

The promise of biochar may be to help achieve multiple critical environmental goals with each investment:

  • Securing clean water; and specifically, its potential to incentivize the installation of streamside working buffers;
  • Infiltrating more stormwater to improve water quality and avoid catastrophic downstream floods (increasing climate resiliency);
  • Mitigating climate change by reducing atmospheric carbon; and
  • Expanding Conservation Finance solutions – delivering new funding and investments to accelerate land and water conservation through return-seeking, market driven impact investment and carbon credit markets.


For those interested in learning more, you might want to take a look at Kathleen Draper’s book

“Burn: Using Fire to Turn Down the Heat: Igniting a New Carbon Drawdown Economy to End the Climate Crisis.”

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