CO₂ And Wildfires: What Role Can Biochar Play?

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Biochar both sequesters carbon and can be made from forest residues that when otherwise left unused become wildfire fuels.

These two main benefits of biochar in addition to soil water retention and improved soil health make biochar an attractive consideration for wildfire mitigation.

More than over half of the U.S. land area is made up of grassland, shrubland, and woods combined. These ecosystems are valuable resources on both an economic and environmental level. Changing wildfire patterns pose a challenge to the status quo, despite the fact that wildfires naturally occur and have a long-term impact on the health of these ecosystems. Numerous studies have revealed that the duration, frequency, and burnt area of the wildfire season have already increased as a result of climate change.

Typically, discussions about wildfires and climate change tend to focus on climate change’s contributions to greater frequency of fire events. This would make sense as the danger and size of wildfires in the Western United States have both risen as a result of climate change. Temperature, soil moisture, and the availability of trees, bushes, and other possible fuel sources are only a few of the variables that affect the danger of wildfires. All of these elements are strongly related to climatic variability and climate change, either directly or indirectly. The number of big fires in the western United States increased by two between 1984 and 2015 due to climate change, which accelerates the drying of organic matter in forests (the substance that ignites and spreads wildfire). [1]

However, here the focus will be on wildfire’s effects on adding to climate change followed by a look into whether biochar can aid in reducing the harmful feedback loops that wildfires can cause. Wildfires have effects on society and humans in addition to the climate. Particularly, forests store a lot of carbon. When they burn, carbon dioxide is quickly released into the atmosphere, causing climate change. Forests emit carbon dioxide more gradually through decomposition after burning. [2]

Biochar both sequesters carbon and can be made from forest residues that when otherwise left unused become wildfire fuels. These two main benefits of biochar in addition to soil water retention and improved soil health make biochar an attractive consideration for wildfire mitigation.

As such, a number of projects have appeared that directly correlate biochar with forestry and wildfire response. CAL Fire, the state of California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection invested almost $800,000 for two mobile pyrolysis units for “on‐site forest waste disposal at scale which has a net‐negative carbon footprint, reduces the cost of forest waste disposal and provides a beneficial product (biochar) that has follow on benefits in downstream applications [3].” They also invested nearly $300,000 in supporting the development of the company behind the pyrolysis units. 

An extensive study conducted by the USDA in 2011 to address the “potential for biochar use in the context of forest restoration and to review relevant experimental studies on biochar use in forest ecosystems. [4] The findings were promising in that the feedstock can be readily available and a large increase in biomass from tree growth up to 41% was observed from biochar presence. There was a notable opportunity for creating more valuable products like biochar from carbonized forest residues. 

The chance to create a positive feedback loop should not be missed. Forests themselves are great mitigators of climate change. A key strategy for reducing the effects of climate change is to use trees’ ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. Utilizing the long-term storage capability of wood products and preserving and improving vegetation’s capacity to store carbon can help stabilize the atmosphere’s rising concentration of greenhouse gasses, which is what causes climate change. Enhancing forestry initiatives, which can boost carbon storage by as much as 20%, is the most cost – effective method to accomplish this. [5]

Our natural systems are remarkably adaptable and resilient. Research conducted by the Forest Service is intended to aid in decisions supporting the creation of more resilient, climate-adapted forested landscapes across the U.S. [6] Therefore, if forest health can be supported through biochar application, then it must be considered. 

Factors in Support of Biochar for Climate Change and Wildfire Mitigation in Forestry Management 

  • Feedstock can and must be from forest residue to reduce fuel for fires and provide woody biomass. For this, mobile pyrolysis reactors are being considered. 
  • If biochar application can result in substantial tree growth and therefore more biomass, then the natural carbon sequestration properties of forests can be supported. 
  • Biochar made from on-site forestry residues are transformed from a hazard in the form of potential fire fuels to a net positive as a highly long-term carbon sequestration medium. Carbon credits have potential here as well. 
  • Improved soils and water retention. 
  • Biochar as a carbon product has numerous uses in addition to soil amendment. 

Potential Barriers to Adoption  [7]

  • Scale-up necessary to effectively address these sets of concerns and opportunities. 
  • Cost, pyrolysis realtors could be outside the budget of some, especially rural and remote communities. 
  • Lack of dissemination of knowledge of the technology and approach thereby hindering wide scale adoption. There are current projects in the U.S, states of California and Washngton but there seems to be less publicized projects elsewhere. 
  • Biochar should most likely not be presented as a “magic bullet” as the scale of the challenge is significant and other technologies as well as other major societal and economic changes should be employed. One bright note here in the case of biochar is that biochar can demonstrate a success story on how a net deficit i.e. forestry residue as fire fuel can be turned into a profitable net benefit, i.e. biochar which has multiple viable applications including carbon sequestration. 
  • Biochars can vary wildly as well as forests.The USDA study found that boreal and tropical forests showed more positive effects than in temperate systems, and as far a tree types more so in angiosperms than conifers.

Depending on the feedstock and pyrolysis conditions, the characteristics of biochars vary substantially. For certain restorative scenarios and goals, biochars could be created. Biochar has a great deal of potential to contribute significantly to a range of forest restoration initiatives, particularly when used as a substitute for other kinds of organic matter and liming agents.

Further resources:

USDA, After the Fire – Wood Waste Put to Work (link)

Sustainable Energy Group – SEG, Biochar – Reduce Fire Threat While Increasing Forest Resilience (link)

Other news:

From DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office 2022-08-23

Burning Decisions: Managing Forest Lands

Scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Forest Service (USFS) Pacific Northwest Research Station partnered to evaluate potential climate and wildfire adaptation scenarios and resulting benefits from restoration forestry. Benefits include increasing streamflow from winter snowpack and gaining revenue from using forest residues for bio-based products.

Full article: (link)

[1] Wildfires and Climate Change, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, accessed 8.12.2022 (link)

[2] Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires, EPA, accessed 8.12.2022 (link)

[3] CAL Fire Grant Awards 2022, Project Titles Carbonator Mobile Pyrolysis Business and SF Bay Area Biochar Market & Sales Development (link)

[4] USDA, Producing biochar from forest biomass, 2011 (link) and BESNet, Biochar and forest restoration: A review and meta-analysis of tree growth responses, 2022 (link)

[5] USDA, Mitigation, 2022 (link)

[6] USDA, Forest Management, 2022 (link)

[7] Thengane, Sonal K., Et al., Market prospects for biochar production and application in California, 2021, Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref. (link)

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