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Biochar and Sustainability

Guiding Principles for a Sustainable Biochar Industry

In December 2012 IBI published Guiding Principles for a Sustainable Biochar Industry after receiving input from scientists, farmers, entrepreneurs, environmental advocates and other stakeholders. The principles are intended to provide guidance for a sustainable, vibrant and ethical biochar industry. IBI acknowledges the diversity of biochar projects and activities across the globe that collectively make up the biochar industry—ranging from community development cookstove projects with smallholders to large-scale commercial biochar enterprises. Accordingly, the International Biochar Initiative and its global network of members and stakeholders endorse the following principles for an economically viable, socially responsible, and environmentally sound biochar industry:

Environmental Outcomes

1. Soil Health - biochar should be used to maintain and enhance soil fertility, particularly in marginal or degraded agricultural soils; and should not lead to soil degradation by nutrient export via feedstock removals or other management practices.

2. Climate stability - biochar systems should be at least greenhouse gas (GHG) neutral and preferably GHG negative; and should be used to draw down atmospheric carbon by creating and enhancing stable soil carbon sinks, to alleviate GHG emissions associated with decomposition and combustion of biomass residuals, and to offset fossil fuel use through bioenergy production.

3. Energy efficiency & conservation - biochar production systems should result in neutral or preferably net energy export; and, when appropriate, should recover and use process heat and syngas and/or bio-oil byproducts for energy production.

4. Feedstocks - biochar systems should prioritize the use of biomass residuals for biochar production.

5. Biochar production - biochar production systems should be safe, clean, economical, and efficient; and should meet or exceed the environmental standards and regulatory requirements of the regions where they are deployed.

6. Biochar quality - biochar should be characterized to demonstrate carbon stability, and to identify properties for matching biochars to complementary cropping systems.

7. Biological diversity - biochar should promote above- and belowground biodiversity by enhancing the ecological conditions for biodiversity at the local and landscape level; and biochar systems should avoid the conversion of native ecosystems and high conservation-value habitats.

8. Water - biochar systems should not pollute nor degrade water resources; and should promote the efficient utilization of water resources in agricultural production, and respect customary water resource rights, where applicable.

Social Outcomes

9. Food security - biochar systems should not jeopardize food security by displacing or degrading land grown for food; and should seek to complement existing local agro-ecological practices.

10. Local communities - biochar systems should involve stakeholders fully and transparently in planning and implementation; respect local land use rights; and should not result in displacement of peoples from their ancestral lands.

11. Biochar knowledge societies - biochar operations and the biochar industry should be continuously improved through research, education and the open sharing of scientific and traditional knowledge.

Economic Outcomes

12. Labor rights - biochar systems should not violate labor rights; and should commit to safe and fair labor practices including equitable compensation, benefit-sharing, and training and development opportunities for workers.

13. Economic development - biochar systems should contribute to the economic development of local communities, especially in regions of poverty.

Goals of the IBI Biochar Sustainability Guidelines

In order to fulfill its mission, IBI launched an open, public process to create international Biochar Sustainability Guidelines to assist biochar practitioners in monitoring, evaluating and improving the sustainability of existing or proposed biochar systems. IBI believes that sustainable biochar systems are essential to the future of biochar. These systems need to address a wide range of potential environmental, social and economic impacts. Sharing experiences and making recommendations on best practices for known sustainability issues as well as those that emerge as new systems are implemented will help future projects better encapsulate all aspects of sustainability. The Biochar Sustainability Guidelines are intended to be a practical tool for sustainability evaluation that is adaptable to different regions, feedstocks, technologies, environments and communities. Because all of these contexts are so variable and the biochar industry is so new, the Biochar Sustainability Guidelines will initially provide an online self-assessment tool for evaluation rather than absolute standards that require testing and certification. As the understanding of biochar systems and their functions, benefits and impacts continues to accumulate, and as the industry continues to grow, we expect that the Biochar Sustainability Guidelines will mature through an iterative process by incorporating new information and by creating new tools which may include sustainability standards and a certification program.

Process for Creating the IBI Biochar Sustainability Guidelines

The IBI process for creating Biochar Sustainability Guidelines is international in scope. It has been designed to crowd-source some of the information gathering tasks and to incorporate ideas and advice from biochar stakeholders in multiple sectors. It will draw upon a large body of sustainability assessments and evaluations from related areas such as climate, bioenergy, forestry and agriculture that have been completed by other organizations, governments and companies. It will also draw on several biochar sustainability assessments undertaken by other organizations such as the Stockholm Environmental Institute and the World Bank. The IBI Biochar Sustainability Guidelines will involve the public and stakeholders throughout the process by using surveys, webinar presentations, online posting for comment, and periodic reviews by the IBI Advisory Committee (AC). Additionally, selected sustainability experts will be invited to join the Sustainability Review Team (SRT) to review documents concurrent with the AC review.

The public is invited to submit comments, questions, documents and other materials for consideration at any time throughout the process. All input should be sent via email to:

Some Resources on Sustainability

Draft Biochar Sustainability Protocols: Developed in collaboration between PNW Biochar and USBI, the protocols "set forth a shared vision and direction for the future of biochar technology among biochar proponents to prevent unintended consequences that could potentially arise from this process." The intent of the protocols is to provide a process for biochar stakeholders (those actually farming, producing, distributing and using biochar) to determine what methodologies they would need to certify and adopt to ensure that they are in fact making and utilizing biochar in a socially, environmentally and economically sound manner. Click here to view the March 2011 Draft Protocols.

Biochar Characterization Standards: In May 2012, IBI membership approved a globally-developed standard for biochar characterization the—Standardized Product Definition and Product Testing Guidelines for Biochar That Is Used in Soil (aka IBI Biochar Standards. For a sustainable biochar industry to succeed, it must provide certainty to consumers and markets about biochar and its safe use as a soil amendment. The IBI Biochar Standards provide the tools needed to universally and consistently define what biochar is, and to confirm that a product intended for sale or use as biochar possesses the necessary characteristics for safe use. For more information on this work, please see:

Guidelines for Developing and Testing a Pyrolysis Plant: IBI produced the 32-page document, Guidelines for the Development and Testing of Pyrolysis Plants to Produce Biochar, to assist in the development and testing of small pyrolysis plants. Because there are personal and environmental health and safety risks inherent in producing biochar, IBI has developed these Guidelines to assist in the safe and effective development and testing of biochar production technologies.

Carbon Market Investment Criteria for Biochar Projects: A report prepared by the Climate Trust for the California Energy Commission on biochar’s potential as a terrestrial carbon sequestration offset. Click here for the full report.

Highlighted presentations from biochar conferences that address sustainability issues:

Other Resources

  • Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) 10 Principles for responsible forest management – FSC is a multi-stakeholder organization that develops certified forest management and chain of custody standards that provide a credible link between responsible production and consumption of forest products
  • Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) Sustainability Standards – RSB provides and promotes the global standard and certification scheme for socially, environmentally and economically sustainable production of biomass and biofuels.
  • Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) 10 Guiding Principles – SAN promotes efficient and productive agriculture, biodiversity conservation and sustainable community development by creating social and environmental standards.
  • SureHarvest – provides a full set of solutions for growers and agrifood companies pursuing sustainability strategies - farming management software, sustainability management software, sustainability consulting services and third-party sustainability certification - throughout the agrifood supply chain.