Making charcoal as a first step to facing climate change - Salish Current
June 2, 2023
Making charcoal as a first step to facing climate change
Kai Uyehara

Biomass waste and woody debris burn inside special low-oxygen kilns at Skagit Soils in Mount Vernon as the compost facility produces biochar in partnership with the Kulshan Carbon Trust. (Photo courtesy KCT)

June 2, 2023
Making charcoal as a first step to facing climate change
Kai Uyehara

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It seems counterintuitive to burn things to slow climate change. Burning fossil fuels and forests, even backyard barbecues, contribute to releasing carbon to the atmosphere and causing rising global temperatures.

But consider charcoal, wood burned in low oxygen to remove the wood’s moisture and leaving a dark, brittle carbon mass. It’s a process and a product found in the history of many cultures. Today, it’s called biochar, and is one aspect of a larger climate change strategy of creating carbon credits for sale.

The larger vision belongs to the Kulshan Carbon Trust (KCT), a two-year-old Whatcom-based nonprofit with a biochar production pilot as a start to capturing carbon and selling carbon credits.

Starting with biochar

Slash piles of woody debris and brush leftover from logging are usually discarded or burned in the open, releasing  greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

If, instead of an open burning, the biomass was burned at high heat and at low oxygen inside a specialized kiln, the resulting charcoal, the biochar, would retain its carbon mass. What if the its use of biochar as a soil compost had value for the farmer?

The Kulshan Carbon Trust is looking for farming and forestry landowners agreeing to permanently limit their land use and to produce and store its excess carbon. Landowners would collect woody material and produce biochar. It would be sold to farmers and permanently sequestered in the soil,  providing carbon credits that could be sold to businesses and governments. From trees to char, money would make its way into the pockets of participating landowners. That is, if they see enough incentive to adopt climate solutions.

Getting a leg up by producing a model

Working with organizations like the Skagit and Whatcom conservation districts,  KCT partnered with local landowners in farming, forestry and composting when launching their biochar pilot project.

KCT began its carbon trust with biochar because biochar not only reduces waste but also boosts crop yields, improves soil health, is easier to implement and increases water retention in soil, said co-founder and program manager Jessa Clark. 

“It’s been almost shockingly easy to find landowners who are excited about it,” Clark said. Cost reduction, access to KCT’s experts and advisors, and the return of carbon credit generation showed promise for the landowners.

It’s too soon to tell the price for carbon credits now and KCT is still finishing up the carbon credit valuation process over the next few months, Clark said. At the state’s first regulatory carbon credit auction in March, six million credits were sold for $48.50 each. 

In addition to the trust’s effect on climate change, KCT hopes its pilot programs will be commercially viable for landowners.

The market, however,  might be rough for biochar which is an expensive soil amendment, warns Marc Kramer, associate professor for the Washington State University school of the environment. 

On the production side of the coin, University of Washington environmental and forestry professor Sally Brown notes the uncertainty of carbon credit value. 

“There has been a big growth in voluntary carbon markets and a lot of people are paying attention and assuming that they’re going to work,” Brown said. “I don’t know that that’s the case. You’re sort of trying to make money out of thin air. It’s a good thing and we should do this, but on a voluntary level with not necessarily easy to quantify practices, how is it going to hold up and is it the best way to invest money?”

The practicality and profitability of biochar

Craig Culmback, owner of Skagit Soils, a sister business to Lautenbach Recycling, excitedly came onto the pilot program, having read about biochar in the Amazon rainforest as a kid. 

The project was no trouble to implement for the Sedro-Woolley compost facility, Culmback said. The composters were able to sell biochar-enhanced compost to Floret Flowers in early April. Produce results would  provide a comparison between the crop quality from biochar-enhanced compost and regular compost, Culmback said. But, they’re still waiting on a response, and Culmback hasn’t heard anything from the KCT regarding carbon credits after production ended.

Culmback isn’t sure about the successful sale of biochar because. “Once we prove that this stuff is as awesome as everybody says it is and we have some data points to go with it, then we have to find the bulk quantity of the biochar.”

Over two days of burning with six or seven KCT volunteers at work, only 45 yards of biochar-enhanced compost was created after mixing one part of biochar to every 10 parts of compost, Culmback said, which was enough to fill one dump truck. “The way they created the biochar, it would not work on a commercial basis.” 

Culmback also worries about the compost market itself. Despite the great environmental and production value of compost, Culmback has had issues selling to larger farmers who rigidly use chemical fertilizers.

“I’m really having a hard time getting any farmer to try it out,” Culmback said. “I even offered  one guy, I’ll give it to you for free, just try it on five acres and they still wouldn’t do it.”

Future of biochar

Culmback hopes that, if biochar helps Floret Flowers’ crops, the addition of biochar-enhanced compost to Skagit Soils’ catalog might propel sales. But researchers like Kramer and Brown aren’t sure biochar is the best place to start, because on top of its shaky practicality and commercial value, it might not showcase many environmental benefits.

“In your ideal natural climate solution, not only do you get the fixed greenhouse gas calculated benefits, but you also get increased resilience and ancillary benefits,” Brown said. “Is char the thing to start with? I would say absolutely not.”

Biochar produced by Skagit Soils in the Kulshan Carbon Trust’s pilot project was mixed with the company’s compost to create biochar-enhanced compost. Biochar has been used by Indigenous communities worldwide for time immemorial and has the ability to reduce carbon emissions and restore land depleted by chemical inputs. (Photo courtesy KCT)

The charcoalized carbon will stay in the soil for many years, Brown said, but because it’s “dead” carbon, not active in the carbon cycle like compost, it won’t necessarily make the soil richer or more productive. 

“In tropical soils that are highly weathered, you will get a favorable response to char,” Brown said. “The benefits associated with char addition to soil are questionable in nontropical soils. If you look in the peer review literature, biochar can result in nitrogen deficiencies and growth suppression.”

KCT reports online that biochar improves soil health by increasing nutrient availability, microbial activity and water retention, prevents chemical and microbial degradation, reduces wildfire threats and encourages the revegetation of native plants. 

“Organic matter is always good for farming,” Kramer said, believing that applying regular compost would have similar agricultural benefits for less money. Kramer predicts that a biochar-enhanced compost could last longer in topsoil, but he’s skeptical biochar itself could weather cultivation activity enough to justify the cost of sequestration for carbon credits.

Weathering the lag of regeneration for future benefit

Landowners sometimes see few financial choices other than to damage their land’s ecological integrity, KCT president and co-founder Howard Sharfstein said. A landowner may see selling the logging rights to their land as their most realistic source of revenue. 

“For foresters or farmers, oftentimes those are very low-margin operations and there’s a lot of risk involved,” Clark said. “And outside of selling all of the rights to your land to a land trust, there’s never been an easy way to access tangible incentives for protecting that land.”

This is where the conservationists hope an economic reformation known as regenerative financing will come in. But the financial model is abstract, and if it’s possible, there could be a lag in revenue.

Once a transition is made from conventional agriculture with chemical inputs to regenerative agriculture that restores soil health, input costs will drop, Sharfstein said. “We also understand that the farmers who are invested in that system need an alternative that’ll put food on their table and a secure business model. And that’s not ready yet.”

“Once you’ve gotten back to a productive operation, your input costs are dramatically reduced,” Sharfstein continued, not to mention production will likely increase. When relying on natural climate solutions for soil, compost and production, “you’re not paying the chemical companies for their inputs and instead you are using the carbon cycle. You’re basically letting nature provide for free.”

As the KCT moves to implement natural climate solutions like ecological forestry, agroforestry, biochar, regenerative agriculture and blue carbon, the KCT is looking to collaborate with investors who can stimulate the process, financially bridging the gap of several years between conventional farming and replenishing the soil to the point of stable regeneration. 

Riding the pilot into the future 

The biochar pilot is the first of three models the KCT has planned for the foundation of its carbon conservation trust, and they hope the quick-paced biochar pilot will be enough to set up the longer natural climate solutions they hope to implement. 

In producing biochar through a relatively quick process, landowners create value through carbon sequestration right away, Sharfstein said, which accelerates regenerative agriculture. After marking enough success stories along the road, perhaps other landowners will get on board and those currently involved will try their hand at other natural climate solutions. 

After receiving additional funding, KCT hopes to launch two natural climate solution pilots in ecological forestry and regenerative agriculture concurrently to demonstrate a mix of methodologies and assess which solutions will work best for landowners.

“When we have three pilots that demonstrate proof of concept that the carbon trust is a useful vehicle to drive this change, then we feel like we have enough to do our work locally and to then  replicate ourselves elsewhere,” Sharfstein said. 

There was much excitement about biochar, even to the point where the KCT had to temporarily turn interested landowners away, but eventually they will need to convince more risk-averse landowners to participate, Clark said. The conservationists are still looking for partners, investors and grants to fill the financial gaps. 

“The carbon markets aren’t there yet, but they want to move in (a profitable) direction,” Sharfstein said.

KCT has a large vision and climate change is a daunting challenge; researcher Brown believes there is work to do.

“Don’t disregard everyday actions or small changes in behavior and the impact they can have,” Brown said. “A climate trust is a lovely thing, forests are wonderful things, but driving less is really good too.”

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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