Communicating Science

This past Tuesday TerreWEB members (including myself) had the opportunity to meet with two organizations that work on communicating climate change and environmental issues to the public.  The first of these organizations, Forest Ethics, is a nonprofit organization that is well known for their focus on protecting forests, including the Great Bear Rainforest.   Currently, much of the organization’s attention is focused on the Tar Sands and Sacred Headwaters campaigns.  To be effective in combating environmental degradation and climate change, Forest Ethics believes that they must transform “corporate adversaries into allies”.  These corporations have included Victoria’s Secret, Dell, and Office Depot.  According to their website, Forest Ethics has been successful in protecting 65 million acres of endangered forests.  Their method of communication uses scientific findings to persuade industry to change unsustainable practices.  For example, Canada’s Tar Sands is more carbon intensive then other fossil fuel sources, and Forest Ethics has worked with corporations such as 7th Generation in announcing policies that restrict or eliminate the use of Tar Sands fuel in their transportation fleets.  Forest Ethics regularly uses social media (facebook, twitter, youtube, email) to spread their message and when necessary encourage followers to attend rallies and gatherings.

The other organization that the TerreWEB group met with was the Lower Mainland Region of the Ministry of Environment based in Surrey.  Employees from this office gave presentations on the work that they do (fisheries, wildlife, and ecosystems), and in some instances gave examples of what projects they have done (Sea to Sky Highway).

Since this organization is a funded and operated by the provincial government, communicating science is handled differently from Forest Ethics.  The MoE has certain limitations on what they’re allowed to share with the public, but effort is made to connect with stakeholders via the regional offices website.  Additionally, Freedom of Information requests can be made by citizens to be given access to information regarding environmental degradation and climate change.

Both organizations play a key role in the future of BC with regards to climate change.  Each handles communication differently, but with the same goal of informing the public about dangers and working towards responsible policies that protect the environment.

Biochar On NPR

Check out this short little piece on NPR’s website.

Fracking With Char

Biochar stores carbon in the soil for long periods of time… why am I repeating this point?  Because biochar isn’t the only technology that stores carbon in the ground.  When most researchers, politicians, and people from industry talk about carbon capture and storage, more often than not they are talking about deep geological storage.  Think of huge power plants pumping the carbon dioxide they would emit into the atmosphere into deep geological formations instead.  This form of storage hasn’t taken off and a new study by researchers at Princeton University has indicated that this may not be a viable option in the US.

They don’t talk about the high costs associated with storing carbon in this manner, but instead look at how fracking would compete with deep geological storage of carbon.  For either of these processes, you can’t just drill or store carbon anywhere.  And it just so happens that the places where you would drill for oil and gas are also the places where you would store carbon.  In fact, 80% of the carbon storage space in the US would be ideal areas for fracking, and the process of fracking pretty much eliminates the possibility of storing carbon in these areas.  Since fracking has been pushed to the front of the pack on domestic energy production, it is a safe bet that oil and gas exploration would take preference over deep geological storage of carbon. There is an obvious tradeoff in this situation between energy production and environmental responsibility, but the good news is that this tradeoff doesn’t have to be quite so extreme. Other solutions exist that can couple fracking with carbon storage.

With this in mind, the use of biochar at fracking sites would store some of the carbon that would have otherwise been placed in deep geological features. Additionally, this practice would also assist in remediating harmful compounds at these sites, one of the most serious and repeated complaints against the current fracking process.

The issue with Cap & Trade

One of the supporting arguments for the production and application of biochar is directly related to the prospect of carbon credits.  Such a system has been talked about for many years, but nothing has come to fruition at the national level in the U.S. or Canada.  Academics and think tanks continue to discuss the possibility of a carbon market even though such an initiative may never come into existence at the national scale.  There are instances of agreements in the European Union as well as closer to home examples such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast U.S., but even these actions have not met the goals they set out to with the EU nations looking to coal and States like New Jersey withdrawing from regional agreements.

Researchers need to shift away from a world in which there might be a carbon market, and instead focus on the additional benefits of biochar.  These include ecosystem services of biochar (soil fertility, water retention, bioremediation), and harnessing of bioenergy (heat, bio-oil, syn-gas) in the production stage.  By framing biochar in this manner, researchers can pay more attention to markets that already exist instead of ones that have yet to become reality.

The role of biochar in the greening growth

A thought provoking article on the Yale360 blog leaves me with one underlying question… how can biochar be used to meet these goals?  It is apparent to me that one of the more important applications would be in agriculture by improving soil fertility and water retention capacity in a warming world.

Bioremediation Workshop in Seattle

A group of us from UBC drove down to Seattle to attend a workshop on biochar and bioremediation.  At first we were unsure about what the results might be, but the trip was well worth it.  There is some exciting work being done on biochar production and biochar use in mycoremedation.  This will definitely be useful in expanding how the biochar research team at UBC thinks about new applications of biochar technology.   Getting business professionals and researchers together to talk about biochar use is key in promoting this technology.

Many thanks to the Northwest Environmental Business Council (NEBC) and EnviroIssues for putting on the workshop.

Bringing a biochar plant to UBC?

The University of Northern British Columbia has applied to Natural Resources Canada to build a biochar plant on campus.  While an expensive endeavor the University is thinking long term.  Perhaps UBC should consider  a biochar plant in conjunction with the biomass facility on campus?  Read the full story here

Plans are under way…

A meeting with folks at the UBC Farm proved to be very productive in organizing workshops to be held later this year on biochar.  In fact, it looks like there will be a total of three workshops!  One for kids in the summer camp, one for the general public, and a more specialized one to be given during a seminar series.  More details to come soon.

If you’re ever travelling through Missouri in the U.S.

By way of a community development grant a new charcoal plant will open in Bradeyville, Missouri.  It looks like the plant will have the capacity to produce biochar and looks to be a promising economic and environmental endeavor.  Read more here

Biochar & Christmas Trees

While it is a bit late for this holiday season, residents in Vancouver and the surrounding area will have the option to offset some of the carbon Santa emits while delivering all those Christmas presents.  As the Squamish Chief reports CarbonSync, a local business, hopes to establish an operation where residents can purchase trees which are then turned into biochar instead of being disposed of in landfills.  Read the full article here