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 evelopment of local communities, especially in regions of poverty.

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.

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

“If you could continually turn a lot of organic material into biochar, you could, over time, reverse the history of the last two hundred years…We can, literally, start sucking some of the carbon that our predecessors have poured into the atmosphere down through our weeds and stalks and stick it back in the ground. We can run the movie backward. We can unmine some of the coal, undrill some of the oil. We can take at least pieces of the Earth and – this is something we haven’t done for quite a while – leave them Better Than We Found Them.”

Bill McKibben, author, climate activist and founder of

Other Resources

Climate change and biochar

How Can Biochar Be Carbon Negative?

Fossil fuels are carbon positive; they add more carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses to the air and thus exacerbate global warming. Ordinary biomass fuels are carbon neutral; the carbon captured in the biomass by photosynthesis would have eventually returned to the atmosphere through natural processes like decomposition. Sustainable biochar systems can be carbon negative by transforming the carbon in biomass into stable carbon structures in biochar which can remain sequestered in soils for hundreds and even thousands of years. The result is a net reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, as illustrated in the diagram.

Diagram courtesy of Nature Publishing Group

Climate Smart Benefits of Biochar

Carbon in biochar can persist in soils over long time scales. Beyond the carbon sequestered in the biochar itself, biochar incorporated in soils also offers numerous other potential climate benefits.

1) Soil Fertility: Biochar can improve soil fertility, stimulating plant growth, which then consumes more CO2 in a positive feedback effect.
Reduced fertilizer inputs: Biochar can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, resulting in reduced emissions of greenhouse gases from fertilizer manufacture.

2) Reduced N2O and CH4 emissions: Biochar can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4)—two potent greenhouse gases—from agricultural soils.
3) Enhanced soil microbial life: Biochar can increase soil microbial life, resulting in more carbon storage in soil.

4) Reduced emissions from feedstocks: Converting agricultural and forestry waste into biochar can avoid CO2 and CH4 emissions otherwise generated by the natural decomposition or burning of the waste.

5) Energy generation: The heat energy—and also the bio-oils and synthesis gases—generated during biochar production can be used to displace carbon positive energy from fossil fuels.

How Much Carbon Can Biochar Remove from the Atmosphere?

According to one prominent study (Woolf et al, 2010), sustainable biochar implementation could offset a maximum of 12% of anthropogenic GHG emissions on an annual basis. Over the course of 100 years, this amounts to a total of ‘roughly 130 petagrams of CO2-equivalents. The study assessed the maximum sustainable technical potential utilizing globally available biomass from agriculture and forestry. The study assumed no land clearance or conversion from food to biomass-crops (though some dedicated biomass-crop production on degraded, abandoned agricultural soils was included), no utilization of industrially treated waste biomass, and biomass extraction rates that would not result in soil erosion.

The figure to the right (from Woolf et al, 2010) shows avoided emissions attributable to sustainable biochar production or biomass combustion over 100 years, relative to the current use of biomass. Three scenarios are modelled showing different degrees of demands on global biomass resources (red=maximum sustainable technical potential (MSTP); blue=medium; black=low). Sustainable biochar is represented by solid lines; biomass combustion by dashed lines. The top panel shows annual avoided emissions; the bottom panel, cumulative avoided emissions over 100 years. In all three scenarios sustainable biochar trumps biomass combustion in terms of avoided emissions.

Biochar in Carbon Trading Markets

One of the most critical characteristics of biochar as a climate change mitigation technology is its long-term persistence in soil. Quantification of the persistent carbon component of biochar can facilitate the participation of biochar projects in carbon markets, providing an additional revenue stream to projects delivering greenhouse gas emissions reductions through soil carbon sequestration.

Diagram courtesy of Nature Publishing Group

Several attempts have been made to create biochar carbon offset methodologies in existing voluntary carbon market registries but to date none have been approved for use. Most prominently, IBI along with partners The Climate Trust and The Prasino Group, submitted a proposed biochar carbon offset methodology to the American Carbon Registry (ACR)—a leading voluntary carbon offset registry. In March 2015, after three years of review, this draft methodology was listed as inactive by ACR due to concerns around the embedded test method to estimate biochar carbon persistence (known as BC+100)—used to estimate the quantity of biochar carbon remaining in the soil after 100 years. Future efforts to revive the methodology in the ACR process—and indeed other carbon offset registries—should focus on bolstering the evidence for BC+100, or identifying novel methods to measure, monitor and verify biochar carbon persistence under field conditions.

IBI Biochar Sustainability Guidelines Documents