Pyrolising the Planet

The debate over biochar hots up.

By George Monbiot. Published on my Guardian blog, 27th March 2009

Well that got ’em going. So far James Lovelock, Jim Hansen and Pushker Kharecha, Chris Goodall and Peter Read have all responded in the Guardian to my column on biochar.

Reading their responses, I realise that it was unfair of me to include James Lovelock and Jim Hansen on the list of those who have been suckered by the charleaders. Their position is more nuanced than I made out. Chris Goodall, to his credit, has accepted that he was too bullish about the technology. The points he makes in its defence seem fair and well-reasoned.

On the other hand, I wasn’t harsh enough about Peter Read. In his response column today he uses the kind of development rhetoric that I thought had died out with the Indonesian transmigration programme.

To him, people and land appear to be as fungible as counters in a board game. He makes the extraordinary assertion that “degraded land” – which he wants to cover with plantations – is uninhabited by subsistence farmers, pastoralists or hunters and gatherers. That must be news to all the subsistence farmers, pastoralists and hunters and gatherers I’ve met in such places. Then he repeats the ancient canard that, by denying such people the opportunity to have their land turned into a eucalyptus plantation/hydroelectric dam/opencast mine/nuclear test site/re-education camp or whatever project the latest swivel-eyed ideologue is trying to promote, we are keeping them in poverty.

Has he learnt nothing from the past 40 years of development studies? Does he not understand that development is something that people must choose, not something that can be imposed on them from on high by megalomaniacs?

As for the “unused potential arable land” he wants to use, that could apply to most of the surface of the planet that possesses a soil layer: rainforest, wetland, savannah – you name it. From my office window I can see a perfect candidate for his attentions: the brakes and thickets of the Cambrian Mountains. I can also see the kind of crop with which Read would cover them: the sitka spruce plantations that blight the lives of everyone who loves the countryside here. Yes this land is degraded, overgrazed and poorly managed. But is there anyone who would prefer that it was all converted to plantations?

But at least a debate is taking place. For far too long this technology has gone largely unchallenged by environmentalists, fooled perhaps by Read’s cunning rebranding of charcoal as biochar, on the grounds – wait for it – that this stuff is “finely divided”. By all means, as Hansen and Kharecha recommend, let’s use genuine waste – whether from crops, forestry, sewage or food – to make charcoal. But let’s stop the charleaders from pyrolising the planet in the name of saving it.