Highlights From The International Biochar Initiative’s 2023 Virtual Symposium

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The International Biochar Initiative (IBI) – the non-profit member organization fostering stakeholder collaboration, good industry practices, environmental and ethical standards across the biochar sector, hosted its 2023 Virtual Annual Symposium that took place from November 7 to November 9, 2023.

The symposium ended with a positive note from Kathleen Draper, Board Chain at the International Biochar Initiative explaining the fast growth of the industry in the past few years that has become “unrecognizable” compared to the nascent space from a decade ago. 

Many companies have joined the sector and the skillsets have moved beyond traditional researchers and agronomists to include finance and carbon market professionals, project developers, material scientists and engineers of all stripes, as highlighted by Mrs Draper. 

The Symposium gathered hundreds of participants and around 40 speakers who were carbon removal professionals and industry players. They discussed critical areas in the sector that need to be strengthened, funding and investment options, market developments, research findings on the scale of impact and durability of biochar as a carbon removal solution, and many others. 

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Some of the highlights include a presentation from Robert Höglund as the keynote speaker at the event. He discussed the critical need for carbon removal solutions in general to reach net zero as currently there are many economic sectors that are not expected to stop emissions in the next few decades. 

The remaining carbon budget before reaching the 1.5°C threshold is thinning fast and is now around 250 gigatons of CO2. The forecasts are it is probably going to be surpassed, which means we need carbon removal to eliminate the future expected emissions along with historic emissions that have already piled up in the atmosphere. As per estimates, around 222 gigatons of CO2 need to be removed from the atmosphere to achieve 0.1°C of cooling. 

So far there are a couple of buyers that have purchased durable carbon removals above 100,000 tons of CO2 and the industry needs tens of thousands to reach gigatons of CDR purchases. Some of the obstacles highlighted by Mr Höglund to scaling carbon removal including biochar are lack of incentives to buy, as there are no regulations requiring that from corporations, fear of greenwashing and lack of verification and international rules. There also needs to be more scientific publishing on biochar effects and durability to verify its efficiency in permanently removing CO2. 

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The Symposium hosted a discussion dedicated to the biochar permanence research, where researchers Cecilla Sundberg, Assoc Professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Science and Dominic Woolf, Senior Research Associate at Cornell University presented results from their studies on biochar carbon storage and outlined scientific facts on the durability of biochar. 

According to Mrs Sundberg, a dataset from 125 individual observations on the durability of CO2 stored in biochar is showing higher expectancy in colder climates. Around 90% of the CO2 in biochar is expected to remain in the soil over a period of 100 years, as per modeling. There are not many observations made on pyrolysis temperatures above 600°C and soil temperatures below 10°C. 

The higher pyrolysis temperatures are usually associated with higher durability of biochar. The researchers outlined the scientific facts related to the permanence of biochar which is a dynamic process and cannot be put into a single number. The CDR market could create pressure for quick deliveries of supply that can result in overstating the effectiveness of biochar along with other carbon removal methods. 

Image: Jacob Lund/Shuttersotck

To mitigate such negative causalities, it is more important from a scientific point of view to state that biochar can deliver a minimum of 70% permanence over 100 years, rather than waiting for more study results that would show exact numbers expected around 80 or 82% of permanence, depending on a variety of conditions. Such studies need decades of observations to be finalized. 

Experts in the panel on Private sector funding also discussed the variety of capital options for young companies to access beyond venture capital including corporate venture, angel investing, philanthropy funding, all motivated to support the climate change mitigation space and coming from different standpoints compared to traditional venture capital. 

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Overall, the three-day event gave an overview of the current state of the biochar industry, its obstacles and opportunities ahead and hinted at the much-expected overwhelming growth of the sector as a viable carbon removal solution. 

The International Biochar Initiative’s 2023 Symposium also put forward a critical point that even though there are still discussions arguing about the long-term durability of biochar, the climate crisis now is so urgent that it needs short-term solutions along with long-term ones, therefore there is a place for all climate mitigation solutions – natural and technical, on the table.

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