Sunday, November 25, 2007



The current craze for using trees and plants for energy misses the target. The fundamental question that we now face is not about energy. It is about how we USE energy. It's about feedback loops. There can be much much good — what we view as progress. And there can be problems — terrible ones. Global warming means there will be more food grown in Canada and its thawing permafrost also will release even more greenhouse gases. And as Brazilian agri-business revves up a biofuel boom, ranchers are driven toward claiming more primary forest.

In the past we used cheap and available fossil fuels for a binge of consuming that left the atmosphere polluted and the earth depleted. Now, as oil prices soar, we must ask, "are we going to focus on energy or earth, on fuel or fruitfulness?" The question is not really about having development or technology or profits or progress — or not — but whether a particular techno-economic approach gives us new and larger problems or new and larger solutions?

The basic problem with the biofuel approach is that it gives over-emphasis to supplying energy, albeit in more "sustainable" and "cleaner" forms. I don't believe that biofuel production from sugarcane and other crops is wrong as much as it can get way out of balance. There is a lot of political spin involved -- spin to hide or rationalize enormous (and wasteful) agricultural subsidies that continue to damage the earth. The critics of biofuels are already pointing to lost food production and more deforestation as immediate problems.

Some are now offering counter proposals of tree-planting to draw CO2 out of the air and to supply fuel. I'm a tree hugger with years of experience trying to save ancient forests. Let me say, unequivocally, the whole tree-planting commericial forestry schema is about monocultural "cropping" for short-term profits and not about restoring our out-of-whack ecological balance. As I write this, the labs are genetically manipulating trees for better ethanol production and fast growing ecalyptus plantations are being planted massively in Brazil for "green charcoal" to fire the steel mills.

Yes, tree-farming holds the promise of being more "carbon neutral" than coal and petrol but it's neither "carbon negative" in the atmosphere nor healing on the earth. It is a greener way to mitigate some of the really bad habits that have polluted the skies and depleted the earth in the past. But this mitigation -- this greening of fuel -- should not divert us from the more fundamental challenge of preserving what we have and repairing what we have done.

We can address this challenge. How? I believe that the answer lies now in Bali where the Kyoto protocols will soon be revised to include new definitions of carbon sequestration. This will trigger a multi-billion dollar exchange of carbon credits -- a system whereby those who cannot stop polluting can pay others to capture and store carbon.

First and foremost, there needs to be carbon credit given for reduced or avoided deforestation of EXISTING natural forests. We must protect what we have. Today, due to burning and deforestation, Brazil is the #4 greenhouse gas polluter in the world. The government is well-intentioned but there is NO reward or payment for efforts to protect forests that can offset soaring demand. Illegal logging is the predictable response to the market because all the economic incentives push for deforestation. Carbon credits can change this by channeling billions of bucks into rainforest presevation and by generating local economies invested in conservation. Forests are local, and so are the people who protect or destroy them. But the economic incentives for preservation are global!

Second, even more critical but far less understood, is the need to offer credits for carbon sequestration in the earth -- NOT as CO2 pumped into deep underground caverns but as agrichar amendments to the soil. YES, agrichar put into the soil increases its fertility, stores more nutrients (think less fertilizer), holds more water and filters what is released, pulls more CO2 out of the atmosphere and provides greater production of both fuel and food -- and the char can be made out of agricultural waste. How's that for a win/win/win/etc?

But there's a hitch -- the energy market is demanding charcoal as fuel not as a soil amendment. What will cause farmers to make the longer-term investment in soil restoration rather than reap immediate profits from selling agrichar as charcoal?


Bali is critical for creating a new tipping point that can lead us from disaster toward healing and abundance. Those who have no immediate choice about polluting ways -- airline companies for example -- can fund those who have a choice but incur lost opportunities for short-term profits if they do the right thing. It all has to do what is recognized as true carbon sequestration.

The first right thing is to reward reduced or avoided deforestation. The other right thing is to repair the soil so that it can sustainably provide an abundance for all. These are the ways we can leave the blame-game and help each other. We can jump-start a new no-fault relationship between ecology and economy — a healing one — by focusing attention on existing forests and on the soil.

It's all based on recent discoveries of an ancient Amazon Indian technique called terra preta de indio that was able to create a living soil -- up to 800% more productive than nearby nutrient-poor tropical soil. It was so successful that it is thought that prior to the Conquest there may have been millions of people living in great cities in the central Amazon without deforesting ALL the forests around them. There actually might have been an El Dorado of people living in harmony with nature. But its history is lost to us. It was devastated when the European explorers carried in diseases for which there was no immunity. The only hints that we have are buried in the soils.

A 2002 BBC documentary put the first media spotlight on terra preta and concluded with these words: "So there is a true irony to the story of the hunt for El Dorado. There was once a great civilisation in the Amazon, one the Europeans destroyed even as they discovered it, but the Amazonians may have left us a legacy far more precious than the gold the Conquistadors were seeking. That black earth, the terra preta, may mean a better future for us all."

Recently there has been research and development aimed at creating a modern version of terra preta called called Agrichar. But funding is nowhere near the amount of research monies going into genetic modification of trees and cellulostic ethanol production. We desperately need a crash program of R&D. Again, this will be likely if the carbon market provides the serious incentives for carbon sequestration in the soil.

Here are some links about what we should be thinking about "on the way to Bali".

The ABC 11 minute video about "Agrichar".

A lay person's introduction to terra preta.

Research confirms that char added to soil boosts crop productivity.

The BBC documentary, "The Secret of El Dorado"tells the story of rediscovering terra preta soils.

Ken Salazar has introduced a bill in the US Senate that would fund research on agrichar.

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