Biochar proponents get spammed

The tiny pores in a piece of biochar. Image source: BEST Energies.

George Monbiot wrote about the carbonisation of organic matter in the Guardian last month ('Woodchips with everything. It's the Atkins plan of the low-carbon world', Tuesday 24 March 2009), saying it was yet another miracle cure for the climate problem. And, like previous miracle cures, he said ‘biochar’ would turn out to be a dangerous delusion. It would deflect attention from taking real action on climate change. Parts of the planet would be turned into vast forest plantations with limited biodiversity to provide feedstock for huge factories. Vital food-growing land would be lost to vast corporations farming wood for turning into biochar. It is a re-run of the biofuels disaster, he said.


This argument has considerable strength. If we create financial incentives to carbonise organic matter, it may become tempting to use the best land to grow wood or straw or any of the many other potential raw materials for biochar. Although almost everybody agrees that adding biochar to soils can massively improve the productivity of farmland, thus providing more food for the world’s increasing numbers, biochar is not without its risks.

Monbiot’s article started a new wave of interest in biochar. Some people are fervent supporters; others wanted to oppose the proposed incorporation of biochar into carbon trading systems, such as the Clean Development Mechanism. (A tonne of biochar – which is almost pure carbon and highly resistant to decay – stored in the soil is equivalent to reducing the world’s emissions by a similar amount, so it makes good sense to give it equal weight to other carbon reduction technologies.)

Opponents of biochar have begun a vociferous online campaign to reduce the speed of the biochar bandwagon. When does a conventional protest start to become spamming or eventually harassment? US website Climate Ark’s tactic is to get people to send email protest letters to James Hansen, the eminent climate scientist who has written about the need to investigate whether biochar could help draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide to safer levels. Go to the Climate Ark site and enter your name, email address and country of residence and it will send a long email to Dr Hansen and a mixed bag of nine other supporters of biochar. One of this ill-sorted group is me. Every minute or so I get another email from Climate Ark saying that biochar is another burden laid on our expiring eco-system.

All well and good, you might say. Those of us who dared to suggest that biochar was one of the most important ways to improve soil fertility on degraded lands and reduce atmospheric CO2 levels should indeed be open to criticism. The idea that permanent storage of carbon dioxide could be one of the measures we use to manage the climate problem is an eccentric one and we should expect attack. Climate Ark, run by a gifted self-publicist called Glen Barry, is well within its rights to organise a campaign of this type. ‘Up to a point,’ is my response.

Is he justified in storing people’s email addresses and then resending their emails a few days later without their permission? Is this a legitimate protest tactic? I think he has gone too far. Today I noticed that among the stream of emails clogging my inbox were names I recognised from a few days ago. The Reverend Hazel Patricia Barkham was one. (I don’t get many emails from priests and so this name stuck out.) Did the Reverend know that her email was being stored at Climate Ark and then sent out again in order to give the false appearance of a continuous and long-lived stream of protest? When I asked her, she told me the answer was no. Others responded similarly. And still the stream of repeated emails continued.

I challenged Glen Barry to justify his actions, which I called simple spamming. He told me that these tactics were perfectly justified. ‘What you call spam, we call a protest,’ he replied. Perhaps people who added their name to his initial legitimate campaign would care to get in touch with him to give their opinions as to whether they had indeed given him permission to deluge the email accounts of people working to promote biochar. After all, if he wants to continue to ‘borrow’ new material from Carbon Commentary for his own website, he has to allow me to be able to use my computer to write the posts in the first place.

This is a follow-up to my response to George Monbiot in the Guardian ('Biochar: Much is unknown but this is no reason to rule it out', Tuesday 24 March 2009).