Monday, 17 April 2017

Climate change, developed world v. developing world and biochar

Michael Shafer's article (abstract below) is provocative and worthy contribution the climate change debate. It is being discussed within the biochar community. If you want to join this discussion, ahead of the formal publication of his article, then please get in touch.

Climate change, developed world v. developing world and biochar

Dr. D. Michael Shafer
Director, Warm Heart Foundation, A.Phrao, Chiang Mai


Because we are among the world’s 1.2 billion rich people and not its 5.4 billion poor, it is easy to think about the climate crisis, solutions to the climate crisis and sustainability in terms of developed world actions and initiatives. Given the focus of diplomatic, media, policy, and scientific attention, this is entirely understandable. It is also entirely wrongheaded. If you ask, Where can we most easily improve environmental outcomes? Achieve sustainability? Reverse climate change? To say nothing of, where can we alleviate the most suffering and promote the greatest good? The answers are all found in the developing world. Environmental action in the developing world by and for the world’s poorest 2.54 billion people, very small farmers, can do more right now and at less cost to advance our shared interest in global sustainability than anything else imaginable.

What is to be done? Convince billions of small farmers in the developing world to turn their crop wastes into biochar instead of burning it. How? By providing small farmers a profitable business proposition to take up biochar production through imitation, not outside intervention, and by developing markets for any biochar they produce in excess of what they can use on their farms.

On the face of it, this easily stated proposal seems ridiculous. Building businesses, profit incentives, and making markets in the wilderness to say nothing of convincing billions of illiterate farmers to do anything pose an immense challenge. What is biochar? What does burning crop wastes have to do with the crisis of our times? Why should we even consider handing over such a complex problem to the low-tech that mere peasants can manage when this is obviously a problem for the world’s best and brightest working in its top research labs?

Because engaging billions of illiterate farmers in local markets for biochar is easier, cheaper and faster than any other option. Because biochar is solid CO2 removed from the atmosphere, smoke removed from the air, smog kept from happening and food security for billions. Because burning crop wastes contribute as much to climate change as India. Because stopping the burning by converting to biochar production would remove hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere annually and save millions of lives. Because the best and the brightest have no high-tech solutions at hand in their labs. Because the poor are ready, willing and able to save us right now. Because we are out of time.

The purpose of this entirely non-traditional paper is not to challenge an existing theory, provide a new one or even offer new data. Its purpose is not to specify or clarify distinctions in data. Rather, its aim is to connect and integrate, to create a single narrative that binds large, complex and normally separate realms for the purpose of permitting action. This paper builds on well-established science, but into order to forge a compelling tale that “fits together” otherwise disparate pieces. It is not science, but scientifically informed story telling. Why? Not to denigrate science, but because policy-makers, politicians and the public are moved by stories, not science.

I start by reconceiving climate change as a poor man’s problem, now and in the future, as climate interacts with population growth to further imperil food security for the world’s poorest. Second, I suggest how the immediacy of the climate crisis in the developing world gives the poor a fundamentally different perspective than the rich. The rich feel that they can continue the effort to slow the rate at which we add carbon to the atmosphere; the poor must pursue efforts to remove carbon and reverse climate change. I then present crop waste burning in the developing world and its consequences for climate change and public health. Fourth, I connect crop waste burning to poor farmers who contribute much to climate change, and are the first to suffer its consequences. With the pieces assembled, I next introduce biochar which if made by these small farmers provides them a powerful soil amendment to improve soil quality, plant health and crop yields, and in the making sequesters CO2 and averts the emission of smog precursors and particulates. Finally, I take up implementation, or, rather, “how to avoid the question: who pays?”

Climate change in context: The poor man’s problem
The climate change consequences of crop waste burning
The health consequences of crop waste burning
Poverty and crop burning
How can we deliver a better life to billions of small, poor farmers?
Where is the problem?
Is there a way out?
Making a market for biochar
Putting biochar back into a bigger picture


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