The diversity of biochar projects
Just as not every carbon credit is created equally, there’s also some variety within the realm of biochar itself. When Microsoft and Shopify made headlines in 2021 for purchasing millions of biochar-related offsets, the only credits available were coming from a handful of industrial-sized enterprises like Pacific Biochar in California.
Carbon finance has been instrumental in subsidizing these projects operating in the wealthier regions of the Global North. More recently, though, Planboo developed a methodology for generating biochar-based carbon credits in the tropics. These projects, albeit of a much smaller scale – at least for the time being – perform the important work of managing agricultural waste and removing atmospheric carbon.
But what really sets them apart is the impact they make in these parts of the world with less access to economic resources. Soil quality in the tropics is notoriously poor, largely due to several decades of chemical-intensive farming methods that have ignored the health of the topsoil, but also because of droughts and flooding that have been exacerbated by Climate Change.
Better still is that the carbon credit revenue delivers US dollars from the Global North into the hands of farmers in Africa, Latin America and South Asia. And there’s some poetic justice to that, considering that the policies and practices of the Global North are largely to blame for those destructive farming methods and for Climate Change itself.
Financing the future, and the future of carbon credits
As the Wall Street Journal correctly pointed out, carbon credit financing has played a major role in boosting the biochar industry. With limited awareness of the fabulous fertiliser substitute, the market for biochar still isn’t strong enough to justify the investment of energy and equipment to get a processing facility up and running. But adding some supplemental revenue through carbon credits was enough to tilt the scales and make such operations profitable.
The idea isn’t to get rich off of carbon credits, and anyone trying to do that could probably be accused of cheating the system. The goal is to shift the dynamic just enough to make an otherwise financially unprofitable business worthwhile. The producer still needs to find value in the biochar itself, but they won’t have to sell it for top dollar in order to make ends meet.
Moreover, carbon credits aren’t meant to be a permanent fixture, but more like a means to an end. As with solar energy, heavy subsidies may be necessary to jump-start the industry, but as biochar production expands, the benefits of scale will bring lower production costs. At the same time, increased awareness about the benefits of biochar for soil health, and as an alternative to conventional fertilisers, should lead to more value and recognition in the marketplace.
In other words, we aren’t counting on carbon credits as a long term industry in and of themselves. Carbon credits are merely a tool, or a bridge, to help us break our most environmentally detrimental habits and practices, and pave the way for a complete array of sustainable systems and technologies.
Gross polluters cannot expect to rely on carbon credits for the long-term either. Again, they are only intended as a stop-gap measure until these corporations and industries can reform themselves and make the necessary corrections and innovations to eliminate their excessive emissions. The more people understand this as the real purpose behind carbon finance, the more genuine progress we’ll make, and the less we’ll have to worry about people exploiting the offset system for financial gain.