Biochar adds to food production in temperate climates

Biochar increases crop productivity in many tropical soils. The reasons probably include improved water retention, reduced leaching, and better availability of nutrients to plant roots. In temperate conditions, studies have been fewer in number and haven’t produced results that are as clear. A new study adds usefully to our knowledge.

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Republic of Maldives: a plan for carbon neutrality

The Maldives will be the first country to be overwhelmed by the effect of climate change. The republic is a collection of coral atolls with maximum heights of one or two metres above sea level. Climate change is increasing worldwide sea levels and the atolls will probably go underwater by the end of the century. The 300,000-400,000 people who live on the Maldives are not responsible for global warming. Their emissions per head (even including aviation fuels for incoming international tourism) are less than a seventh of typical European levels.

Many countries have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The government of the Maldives seeks to encourage this trend by going one step further with a plan for near carbon neutrality within ten years.

This is an immensely challenging target. Chris Goodall (author of this blog) and Mark Lynas, the prize-winning climate change author, were asked to provide a short outline of how it might be achieved and what it might cost.

In the rest of this note, we show our calculations. We will be the first to acknowledge that this work is incomplete. Although it was tempting to conduct fieldwork in some of the most attractive island resorts, we did our analysis using publicly available information and with help from officials attached to the Maldives government.

Our work shows that near neutrality is possible, but expensive. It will take at least $1.1bn for this small island state. The Maldives imports almost all its fuels in the form of refined oil products. Rates of financial return to the investment therefore depend largely on the price of oil. If expectations of future oil prices exceed $100 a barrel, we judge that the plan is sufficiently attractive to be financeable by international institutions such as the World Bank.

Comments on this work will be very gratefully received.

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Why might nuclear be necessary?

In the Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argued that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards 'decarbonising' electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Biochar can sequester carbon cheaply

Amazonian topsoil enriched with charcoalOrganic matter, such as agricultural waste, heated in the absence of oxygen splits into two types of material: a charcoal (biochar), and hydrocarbon gases and liquids. When added to soils, the charcoal can provide a powerful fertiliser. The hydrocarbons can be burnt, either to generate electricity or to power an internal combustion engine. Biochar is exciting growing attention around the world. Charcoal’s ability to improve soils can sometimes be spectacular. But more importantly from a climate change perspective, charcoal is almost pure carbon and is strangely stable in soils. It seems to persist for centuries. Charcoal can therefore offer substantial opportunities for long-term sequestration of carbon. The valuable fuels from the biogases and liquids are also carbon-neutral since they contain CO2 previously captured during photosynthesis. As a third major benefit, soils fertilised with charcoal seem to need less artificial fertiliser, thus saving fossil fuels. Fewer applications of fertiliser would reduce the level of emissions of nitrous oxide, a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas.

Biochar manufacture represents a way of productively storing large amounts of carbon. But the carbon in the charcoal could be burnt to generate electricity instead of being stored in soil. Current emissions trading schemes, such as the European ETS, do not allow sequestered carbon to be considered as equivalent to a reduction in greenhouse warming emissions. This is a mistake that will need to be rectified. It make more sense to use agricultural land to make biochar and biogases/bioliquids than to burn the biomass in power stations. Power stations burning wood benefit from buying fewer emissions certificates and from the renewable energy subsidy, but there is no comparable benefit from storing carbon in the soil. This is an anomaly that should be removed.

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Is Kyoto dead?

(Gwyn Prins and Steve Rayner, ‘Time to ditch Kyoto’, Nature, 449, 973-5 (25 October 2007); URL: [accessed 27 October 2007].) This short article has attracted attention around the world. Its thesis is that Kyoto is a dangerous distraction. It hasn’t worked, and its successor will not succeed either if it follows the same principles. Kyoto’s proponents have ignored its failures and exaggerated its effectiveness. It is worse than useless because it has stifled discussion of alternatives. However, their thesis is buttressed by two observations which are not accurate. They say that the International Energy Agency is predicting that world energy demand will double by 2030. It does not; it predicts a rise of just over 50%. Second, the paper states that the BP annual Statistical Review says that a likely global carbon price will not be high enough to induce major change. It does not; BP might think this, but its latest Statistical Review (referenced in the text) does not say this.

Like generals fighting the previous war, Kyoto’s originators based its design on the successful treaties on ozone depletion, acid rain and nuclear weapons. These problems were much more amenable to global regulation and the sharing of burdens was much more politically feasible. The authors of this paper suggest that policy makers should move away from treaties that try to put a cap on world emissions.

Prins and Rayner say that we need new techniques for getting a grip on the carbon problem. And, second, we need to work out how we need to adapt when severe climate changes arrive.

Their proposals for replacements for Kyoto are short and unspecific. In summary, they believe that the world needs ‘genuine’ emissions markets, not artificial constructs like Kyoto, and these markets must evolve gradually from local experiments. They mention approvingly some of the voluntary carbon markets that have grown up in the US. I think this faith in small informal markets is wholly misplaced. What possible reason would persuade a major polluter to participate?

The authors tell us we need to invest more in public R+D in clean technologies. In this they mirror Bjørn Lomborg (see the discussion of his book Cool It in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #3). They support messy public policies rather than ones that go for what they disparagingly describe as ‘elegant’ solutions. They see a role for measures such as mandatory technology standards (perhaps such as mile per gallon regulation on cars). The ideas they present are sketchy and unconvincing.

Many of us think that Kyoto and its successor are worth supporting as one of a package of measures. It is, after all, the only measure that we have currently got other than European ETS. Does it distract from finding other tools? I don’t see any evidence for the authors’ pessimism. Can it be merged with other global and local measures? Yes it can. No one pretends Kyoto is perfect, but because it tried to distribute the pain of emissions reduction reasonably fairly, it was a start. We can build on it; we need not destroy it.

The Treasury's Pre-Budget review

The Pre-Budget review in early October disappointed green activists. Environmental measures formed a small fraction of the government’s initiatives. It doesn’t look as though Alistair Darling sees climate change as one of the priorities of this administration. But there were two important commitments: a revision to Air Passenger Duty (APD) and (via BERR) a competition to run a commercial-scale carbon capture project. The APD proposal attracted most attention. The government intends to change the duty so that it is levied on aircraft movements and not on individual travellers. Commentators, and the two main opposition parties, have long suggested that this would be a sensible change. Carbon Commentary disagrees. The proposed revision cannot be implemented without infringing international treaties on the taxation of air travel. The chancellor’s proposed consultation will eventually conclude that APD should remain substantially as it is now.

In the article, we briefly analyse the effects of APD and also show that the duty imposes an effective tax on airlines that is greater than would be levied if air travel were fully included in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The BERR Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) announcement was worryingly unspecific. It did not even bother to mention a figure for the value of the financial support. It also upset some major companies by only allowing entries for the competition from a limited range of technologies. The government is extremely vulnerable to the charge that it is back in the business of picking winners.

CCS is an extremely important part of any strategy for national reduction of emissions. The UK should be throwing far more money at research and development into the various forms of CCS. The simplest and quickest way to get innovation in CCS would be to include carbon storage as a technology that qualifies under the renewable obligation rules. We need to remove the difference between the financial treatment of renewable power generation and carbon capture. Both achieve the same outcome and both should have the same reward.

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Straws in the wind: The Lib Dems' climate change paper

Both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties have produced position papers on climate change in the last few weeks. The Conservative document is over 500 pages long but contains very few specific proposals. To be harsh, it is little more than a prolonged agonising over whether the climate change problem can be addressed using conventional free-market mechanisms. The Lib Dem paper is a tenth of the length but does contain the outlines of a coherent set of policies. This article analyses the Lib Dem proposals. It shows that the Lib Dems are prepared to use the price mechanism to choke off increasing demand for aviation. The party also contemplates extending the Emissions Trading Scheme beyond the 50% of the economy currently covered. On the other hand, it makes completely clear that it has no intention of raising the prices of energy and fuels to domestic consumers.

Although the party presents itself as the only UK political institution ready to grasp the need for an economy-wide carbon price that will bring down emissions by 30% in 2020, the detailed proposals are far less radical. In the material that follows, I try to tabulate the Lib Dem ideas, focusing on whether they use price, regulatory fiat or pious hope as the proposed means of emissions reductions. As in the Conservative paper, estimates of the costs and benefits of their policies are almost completely absent from the Lib Dem paper. It is a shocking commentary on British politics that no major party is prepared to quantify exactly how it proposes to shift taxes towards polluting activities and away from other sources.

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Tyndall Centre report on aviation and emissions trading

In early September, researchers from the Tyndall Centre in the UK put out a report that said that incorporation of the airline industry into the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will not provide significant incentive to cut emissions. The big polluters today are paying about €20 per tonne for their emissions. When aviation joins the scheme in 2012, this price would add about €5 for a flight to Barcelona. Tyndall argues that the EU and national governments cannot escape the conclusion that the ETS is not enough and that aviation must be constrained by other fiscal or legislative measures as well as by inclusion in the carbon tax net. Tyndall has acquired an excellent reputation for its informed and passionate stance on aviation. Broadly speaking, its view has been that continued expansion of aviation is incompatible with the tight emissions targets that the EU and other bodies have set for the years to mid-century. It has consistently said that by 2050 unconstrained air travel will be using up most of the total carbon emissions that the world can allow itself. Aviation expansion will drown out emissions reductions in other areas.

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