Simple, scalable, and shovel ready. China is moving negative emissions from laboratory to field trial to massive industrial scale.
It is no secret that The Paris Agreement, humanity’s best attempt to date to thwart our own extinction, is inadequate to the task, although it provided some mechanisms by which to raise ambitions as we collectively arrive at that realization.
As it is now, the Earth will likely be between 3.6 and 7 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of this century (continued expansion of fracking, which releases massive stores of methane to the atmosphere, could accelerate that to mid-century), and we would soon thereafter go extinct. A 7°C change would induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible.
An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress
Despite the uncertainty in future climate-change impacts, it is often assumed that humans would be able to adapt to any…
Tipping points for positive feedback mechanisms triggered by the Anthropocene anomaly assure that the already warming condition will persist for thousands of years, placing the entire experiment of life on this third planet from the Sun at risk. Earth’s orbit is already at the innermost edge of a habitable range, and a small nudge like Hothouse Earth could push it inside the arc, to a climate resembling Venus.
Before this recent trip to China there was a path out of our climate catastrophe that had become clear to me, as it was to the scientists advising the Paris negotiators. We merely (wry smile) need to promptly curtail fossil emissions (something we are not doing — they are growing at a quickening pace, with renewable energy only adding to the rate of growth of energy use, ie.: consumerism); and we will need to deploy negative emissions technologies as quickly as humanly possible; akin to the Manhattan or Apollo programs, or Moore’s Law. My own Global Ecovillage Network’s nuanced approach to that solution involves adding ecovillages into the blend, as models of graceful de-consumerism, carrier media for the transition, and a more palatable carrot to the stick of draconian, government-imposed degrowth. Ecovillages shield degrowth from cultural blowback with a force field of iconic fashion memes.
The nascent negawatts industry was given a shot in the arm by Paris. With the world in serious need of a fix, all the wanna-be fixers got going. This past May the Stockholm Resilience Center — at present the world’s Manhattan Project for reversing climate change — hosted the First International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions with 11 keynote speakers, 150 powerpoint presentations, 231 abstracts and 30 poster presentations. Presentations were provided on BECCS, DAC, Enhanced Mineralization, Carbon Farming, Marine Macroflora and Climate Ecoforestry. These are subjects I have been discussing in this space since at least 2009, with our first Carbon Farming course at The Farm, and before that, pre-blog, in articles and books since the early 1980s. Nonetheless, the Goteborg conference was a watershed, and it changed my mind about the practicability of several of these schemes.
Still, I have been advocating, and continue to advocate, for a “least pain” strategy that could stand a better chance of overcoming the main obstacle: social inertia. My strategy, first laid out in a proposal to the MacArthur Foundation in their 100 Million and Change competition two years ago and then more elegantly in a forthcoming book from Chelsea Green with Kathleen Draper, is a combination of natural climate solutions, cool farms, ecovillages, and microenterprise hubs called “cool labs.”
In China I discovered we are not the only ones thinking of this. In many ways, the Chinese have taken it much farther, much faster. After teaching an ecology module for a month-long ecovillage design course provided by the Global Ecovillage Network at the UNESCO-China Dujiangyang Training Center, I flew to Nanjing and then traveled by train to Jianping, in Western Liaoning Province, far in the Northeastern part of China near the Korean border, to attend the International Biomass/Biochar Green Technology Conference for Rural Revitalization sponsored by Nanjing Agricultural University.
Jianping is known for being the archaeological epicenter for explorations of the origins of Chinese agriculture 7700 years ago. It is therefore very fitting that this should also be the site of China’s new agricultural revolution. After walking through one of the huge museum domes erected to protect a 4500 BCE village site, we went to Xiaopingfang, sometimes called China’s “first village.” Xiaopingfang is now in the process of becoming an ecological village, called a “Dream Village” by President Xi Jinping, “according to the overall requirements of building a new socialist countryside; a new rural construction road of relying on resources to strengthen industry, relying on industry to feed agriculture.” I reported two years ago about China’s plan to construct 100 new ecovillages in 5 years. Now I was looking at one of those.
There are altogether seven natural villages in Xiaopingfang, thirteen villagers’groups, 3167 people, 881 households, covering an area of 28,000 mu (4613 acres). While the co-housing arrangement of the streets, and the provision of garden space to each home seemed to make the lives of the elderly farmers better, I had a hard time seeing how this fancy new village would support itself in this remote rural region, but then I got the second half of the tour.
We stopped at a vast expanse of grain fields where villagers were out harvesting millet, sorghum, maize and soybeans by hand. In 2007, the total output value of industry and agriculture of Xiaopingfang Village stood at 150 million yuan, 24 million yuan of taxes paid, 18 million yuan of collective economic income, and 7500 yuan of per capita net income of farmers. Today it is several times a multiple of that, thanks to biochar. Today a farmer can make 250 to 500 yuan more per day than before while paying little to nothing for fertilizer and getting a 15% or better yield from his farm.
Two years ago Kathleen Draper and I toured an experimental biorefinery near Nanjing where a prototype Beijing Sanju rotary kiln produced 1.5 megawatts of electricity while daily processing 30 or more tons of rice straw into biochar and wood vinegar. The biorefinery had discovered a 15% boost in fertilizer effect on rice and vegetable yield when it quenched the hot char with wood vinegar, comparable in many ways to quenching with urine. Another benefit of the new fertilizer was the water normally required in dry times of the year — with biochar no extra water was needed. Now, here in Jianping, one of the driest areas east of the Gobi, we saw that technique taken to scale with one of the 25 larger Beijing Sanju rotary kilns that had been plunked down around China to exploit Nanjing Agricultural University’s breakthrough.
In this dry region, the drought-proofing organic fertilizer business allowed farmers to plant 3000 mu of Nanguo pear, build a large-scale fresh storehouse and two water storage ponds. A grass-fed organic egg industry joined the organic green Nanguo pear industry. As we walked through earthen-walled shadehouses for tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, we could see a dramatic difference between test plots without biochar and test plots with. The vegetables grow faster and bigger, do not require water in the dry season, have fewer pests and can be harvested sooner. While not certified organic (macronutrients are still supplemented and some pesticides used) it is marketed as “Grade A Green Food.”
Taking advantage of Shuangwang Mountain’s rich historical legends and natural resource attractions, such as Wofoling, Shenxian Cave and Eighteen Arhats, a new eco-tourism draw, an asphalt road to the mountaintop Yuanzhao Temple has been built and the Tianxiu Mountain Forest Park in Chaijiaying has been developed. China’s rural revitalization investment for Jianping’s eco-tourism is now 5 million yuan.
China has 200 more of these Cool Lab projects on its drawing boards, each shiny new $2 million Beijing Sanju reactor converting 100,000 tons of formerly burned crop wastes into biofertilizer custom blends for the particular plants, soils and climate of the region — every one a 66 megaton/year carbon sink.
As I shifted my travel mode from tour bus to chauffeured limousine (occasionally in a cavalcade with black suited bodyguards in bulletproof SUVs) I was directed to the design studios of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and its Institute of Architecture Design and Research. Here, where all of China’s major construction projects must apply for approval, the same rapid process is moving biochar into buildings, roads and bridges. Simple, scalable, and shovel ready. China is moving negative emissions from laboratory to field trial to massive industrial scale.
The Biochar Solution | New Society Publishers
Conventional agriculture destroys our soils, pollutes our water and is a major contributor to climate change. What if…
China’s “ecological civilization” concept was first announced by Xi Jinping in 2007, in a report to the 17th National People’s Congress. At the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee in 2013, China mandated Eco-Civilization as a national goal in its Constitution. In April 2015, China began performing natural resources audits when local officials leave their posts, so as to force officials pay attention to environmental protection while in office, or be held to account when they leave. A pilot scheme for rural revitalization such as in Jianping is being carried out in five different locations, in three stages: launch in 2015, expansion in 2016, then in 2017 full audits in the trial locations, with regular audits every year from 2018.
Treatment of crop residues has been an increasing challenge for China, as it is for India, Indonesia and many other populous countries. China placed a ban on burning these residues to try to alleviate the smog in Beijing and other cities. Introducing pyrolysis changed the issue from a liability to an asset. It gave China an indisputable lead in building soil carbon and developing “green agriculture.” Biochar from wastes has moved out of the laboratory and into commercial production in a mere 3 years. Soon it will be ubiquitous in Chinese agriculture, and then, as part of Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road, will spread to Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world. The same could happen for carbonized municipal wastes entombed in urban infrastructure. We are no longer talking about mere megatons of carbon dioxide removal. Now we are speaking of tens of gigatons.
Even as Neocon economists levied $200 billion in tariffs to keep Chinese goods out of US markets, we watched President Xi meeting with President Putin in Vladivostok and signing trade and technology exchange deals that could combine Russia’s science and manufacturing might with China’s to deploy negative emissions plants such as these everywhere in the world.
Except, well, you know where.