The Oral Submission
Explaining biochar to the Parliamentary Select Committee on the Zero Carbon Bill is a big ask when you’ve only got 10 minutes.
But BNNZ committee members Phil Stevens and Damian Richardson did this on August 19. The speech was good. Phil even came up with pitches like ‘biochar turns farmers from environmental villains to climate heroes’. Were we successful? Not really.
What is interesting is why.
Firstly, it’s worth getting a handle on the Bill itself. The basic purpose of the Bill is to meet targets consistent with the Paris Agreement. Or to meet our obligations under the agreement.
This means that the Bill has set itself the IPCC’s aspirational reduction target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. It is also consistent with the IPCC in that it will need to draw down existing CO2 in the atmosphere alongside phasedown of emissions. So, while there are a few parts to the Bill, there are 2 sides. Reducing CO2 emissions and removing existing CO2.
The problem is that the emission phase down side of the Bill is weaker in the 2nd draft than the first one. And the other side of the Bill, removing existing CO2, is vague and loosely defines ‘CO2 removals’, and has a general mention of NET’s (negative emission technologies).
This is why there is such an opening for biochar in the Bill. Because we all know that the process of pyrolysis changes the molecular structure of carbon so that the bonds are strong enough to last 1000 years, right? Wrong.
As it turns out, the connection between biochar and its ability to sequester CO2 in a way that other modes of NET’s can’t, is lost on many people.
Also, there’s a million things to say about biochar, and just coming out and summarising some of these things too early might not get you anywhere. In fact, even talking a little about the many benefits might start sounding like snake oil to some people if the penny hasn’t dropped first. So, a different approach is needed when talking to an audience about biochar.
Here’s an idea below:
1. Summarise global warming. And this should be quick. But here’s where you first engage your audience. Pass them a bag or small basket of biochar but tell them its coal. You might like the biochar damp, so it has weight and is more consistent to coal. Let them pass it around while you explain that global warming is caused by transferring carbon, like the black stuff they are holding, from the earth’s crust to the atmosphere.
2. Create the importance of NET’s. The planets temperature is on route to be trending at 1.5 degrees by the late 2030’s but will have breached that in an El Nino event sometime before then. This isn’t far away, yet we are already deviating from the 1.5 degree track. So realistically, there is not too much chance of limiting the temperature to 1.5 degrees (or NZ’s contribution to it) if we are modest with NET’s, and there is no chance if NET’s are weak. Therefore, the Bill needs to be more serious about NET’s than it is now. And when you factor in the difficulty of addressing emissions from our agriculture sector, NET’s start to become critical.
3. Briefly comment on the different types of NET’s and their limitations. Example, pest, disease and fire risks associated with over reliance in forestry. Most land use changes can get saturated. And they still require maintenance to keep the carbon stores in place. Which means they become potential future liabilities. Even before they become saturated.
4. Go back to the coal that the audience has. Tell them that everything you have told them is true except one thing. The bag of coal they are holding is not coal, but reverse coal. AKA biochar. Quickly revisit the process of burning fossil fuel before explaining the process of pyrolysis. Hopefully at this stage, the penny dropped and there is full engagement with the audience. Differentiate biochar as a NET from the other NET’s in terms of its stability, irreversibility (bar fuel additive) and so its accumulative carbon negative effect.
5. A summary of some biochar benefits can now come in. For example, ‘there are a hundred benefits in dairy, x, y and z are just 3’. ‘There are a hundred benefits in….’ and so on. Compelling generic arguments can also be discussed at any stage. Especially business activity, the economy and the environment.
6. Come back to the purpose of the discussion. In this case the Bill. Close by presenting logic – biochar is a solution to the problem that also carries significant other benefits.