Beyond carbon removal: Improving lives in the tropics

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Beyond carbon removal

In the colossal quest to address climate change and preserve life on earth as we know it, it’s essential that we pay close attention to the science. And the preponderance of science points to an unprecedented increase in the levels of atmospheric carbon (CO2), largely a result of humankind’s rapacious consumption of fossil fuels. In terms of solving this problem, therefore, our highest priorities are to curb emissions (through greater reliance on renewable energy, for example) and to remove carbon with a combination of technological and nature-based solutions.

This is why Planboo focuses on biochar as a phenomenal tool for carbon removal. But at the same time, we recognize that our planet’s future will require a more holistic and comprehensive approach, something that goes well beyond carbon removal, addressing food security, biodiversity and social equality.

Acknowledging the carbon crisis

While most climate scientists agree that 350 ppm (parts per million) is about the upper limit of safe atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, current rates (as of 2023) are more like 419 ppm. That represents an increase of 50% since the dawn of the industrial age, when levels were around 280 ppm, according to NASA. Some continue to live in denial, but the overwhelming consensus among the scientific community is that this dramatic and dangerous increase in CO2 is the result of human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels, i.e. coal, natural gas, and petroleum.

In order to mitigate this crisis, it’s imperative that we reduce our CO2 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That means developing and deploying more alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar and geothermal, which don’t rely on incineration. After decades of recognizing the problem, we are finally seeing some significant progress in this area, thanks to a combination of public and private financing and innovation, and growing awareness and pressure from the general public.

Carbon removal vs. emission reduction

Green energy is vital to the alleviation of climate change. But with atmospheric carbon 50% higher than pre-industrial levels, and 25% more than what is considered “safe”, we need to do far more than just slow down or even eliminate our emissions. 

To get back below 350 ppm, we need to be actively drawing CO2 out of the sky. Perhaps you’ve heard about high-tech equipment and “carbon vacuums” that can effectively suck the CO2 away. It sounds brilliant, and it could really get us out of this sticky mess. But, although direct air capture (DAC) technology has made some progress, it’s mostly still science fiction right now. And right now is all we have because, after years of delay and denial, the fuse to climate catastrophe has pretty well run out. 

In want of a miraculous, space-age invention, we turn instead to the miracle of nature known as photosynthesis. All plants and trees, as we know, survive by turning sunlight into food (sugar), whilst absorbing CO2 from the air and releasing oxygen in return. This is why we refer to the forests as the lungs of our planet. But due to mass deforestation, the lungs aren’t doing nearly as much CO2 absorption as they used to. 

So reforestation is critical if we want to draw down significant levels of atmospheric CO2. And to this end, a number of national governments and a host of NGOs have committed to planting millions or billions of trees each year. The biomass in the forests, both above ground and below ground, serves as a carbon sink, storing carbon in the plant tissue for many years to come. Bamboo is another exciting resource because, as a fast-growing, perennial grass, it can actually convert CO2 into oxygen about 35% more quickly than trees, thereby serving as an even more effective carbon sink. 

At Planboo, we are passionate about biochar because we see it as one of the most powerful means of sequestering carbon. When biochar is produced, the carbon that’s been absorbed in the plant biomass is fixed into a stable, durable substance. This substance, as we use it, goes into the ground as a fertilizer substitute, dramatically improving the health of the soil. And once it’s buried in the ground, the biochar, with carbon concentrations of up to 90%, stays there for hundreds and hundreds of years. This is long-term carbon removal, and that’s what we need in order to reverse the current trend, not simply slow it down.  

But we don’t stop there. We strive for more than carbon removal.

Making biochar from bamboo in Malawi
Planboo delivers sustainable solutions across the tropics and in countries like Malawi.

Co-benefits of biochar: Social and environmental restoration  

As described above, biochar is a brilliant vehicle for carbon sequestration. Vegetation absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, the plants store it in the form of carbon, biochar stabilizes that carbon, and the application of biochar to the soil ensures a long-term carbon sink. It’s a great cycle, but it’s only a thin sliver of the big picture.

We feel strongly about altering the current climate trajectory and doing our part to shape a better future for our planet. And cleaning the atmosphere is just part of that. Biochar actually enables us to make a greater impact, and indeed, we need to address a lot more than carbon if we want a truly sustainable world. 

Because we are strict about obtaining our biomass from sustainable sources or agricultural waste, biochar production helps farmers with waste management. Many farming activities generate tremendous quantities of waste and remnant material that is often left in a pile to decay or gets burned in a giant, GHG-billowing bonfire.

Moreover, something that gets far less attention than the state of the atmosphere is the condition of the topsoil. In competition with other global crises, topsoil health is much overshadowed by CO2 and climate change. But the top five inches of soil are responsible for providing the overwhelming majority of our nutrition. And according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly 90% of the world’s topsoil is at risk of disappearing by the year 2050. 

Unlike most conventional farming supplements, biochar doesn’t just deliver a short-term boost in crop yields. Instead, it provides a long-term solution for soil health, making the first few inches vastly more hospitable for life, attracting microorganisms, not only to nourish the roots of the plants and fill them with vital nutrition, but also to hold the soil together in the face of droughts and erosion. Biochar, in other words, can play an instrumental role in promoting soil fertility and defending food security, especially in the most high-risk areas. 

a man that spread bamboo biochar on the land in order to improve soil health
Biochar is enriching the soil and improving livelihoods in places like Sri Lanka.

Inseparable issues: Climate change and global inequality

In one of our myriad conversations about saving the planet, a colleague of ours recently made the stark but rarely stated observation, that as long as we have four or five billion people living in poverty, we will never achieve meaningful sustainability. For the preponderance of our planet’s inhabitants, environmental activism is a luxury in which they simply cannot indulge. For those who simply struggle to meet their immediate needs, it’s nearly impossible to consider the long-term, ecological consequences of their decisions.

We choose to work in the tropics, and in areas with less access to economic resources, because these are literally the front lines of climate change. It’s between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn where temperatures and weather patterns are being most affected, and where sea level rise is most pronounced. Although the bulk of responsibility sits with the global north, where industrialization has been so rampant for the last century or two, it’s the global south that’s getting hit the hardest with storms, fires, droughts, floods, and yes, topsoil loss. 

Planboo works with tropical biomass to produce soil-enriching biochar that sequesters atmospheric carbon, which mainly originated in the north. At the same time, it fortifies the topsoil, contributing to healthier food and higher yields, while warding off erosion and desertification. 

And finally, through our close collaboration with the European Biochar Certificate and other verifying bodies, we are able to generate valuable Carbon Dioxide Removal Credits (CDRCs) from the diligent production and application of biochar. The credits are sold on the voluntary market, almost invariably to buyers in the global north, and we are able to perform a degree of wealth distribution, channeling the lion’s share of these revenues to the communities in the tropics.  

Conclusion

For the health of our planet and our atmosphere, carbon removal is the name of the game. The urgency is growing and the survival of our species may even depend on it. But at Planboo, we have greater ambitions than mere survival. Through the simple principles of biochar and the innovative mechanism of carbon credit financing, we see a great opportunity to remove carbon, reduce agricultural waste, and regenerate tropical topsoil, all while bringing fresh revenue into the rural communities of Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Ultimately, we aim to protect ecosystems and improve livelihoods, in order to leave the world a better place than how we found it.

Though our keen concentration on pyrolyzing biomass into biochar may seem narrow, our goals are far-reaching. To make the deepest impact, this is where we’ve chosen to focus our skills and attention. But at the same time, we are mindful of the whole wide range of Sustainable Development Goals. We care about creating sustainable communities, and we are passionate about eliminating hunger and poverty. We’re equally conscious of quality education, gender equality, and affordable energy. But you could say that solving the climate crisis is our guiding star.  

Picture of Fred

Fred

Fred Hornaday, founder of Bambu Batu, is a leading voice in the bamboo industry. He's been working in the industry since 2006 with a network that spans all six continents.

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Carbon Removal

To keep the world within 1.5 degrees of global warming and to avoid global catastrophe – we now need to not only drastically reduce our emissions but also rapidly remove them too.

However, there is very little carbon removal today with less than 50,000 tonnes of CO2 removed in 2021. It’s estimated we need to remove 10% of Global GHG emissions by 2030, which is equal to 5 billion tonnes per year. Carbon removal needs to grow 100,000 times bigger. 

Planboo is a nature-based carbon removal company, using bamboo-the fastest growing plant in the world. Like all plants, through photosynthesis bamboo absorbs CO2 and releases oxygen into the atmosphere. Because it grows so fast, it’s carbon removal potential is huge. We develop projects in Sri Lanka with local partners and supply high quality and high integrity carbon removal credits for the carbon market.