Sustainable Biochar

In addition to measures for enriching farmland and pastures with ‘conventional’ organic matter, a potentially important additional option is available in the form of ‘Biochar’. Biochar can be produced by pyrolysis (low-oxygen combustion) of organic materials – forest thinnings, sawdust, agricultural wastes, urban organic wastes or sewage solids – and the resulting charcoal-like substance can be incorporated into farmland as a long term carbon storage option. These are ways of producing ‘sustainable biochar’ as opposed to its production from monoculture tree plantations, which is rightly vigorously opposed by an international coalition of environmental groups.

Use of charcoal as a soil conditioner has ancient origins, and is best documented  with reference to the ‘terra preta’ soils found in parts of the Amazon. Much evidence now exists that charcoal was mixed by Amazonian Indian cultivators with food- and human wastes to enrich poor and acidic soils. The predecessors of today’s Amazonian Indians left behind ‘terra preta’ soils rich in organic matter in some 10 per cent of the Amazon territory. Research has shown that charcoal incorporated in this way can last in the soil for hundreds to even thousands of years.

Biochar is a more stable nutrient source than compost and manure. The porous quality of the biochar particles can improve soil structure, and harbours a vast variety and quantity of micro-organisms and associated plant nutrients,  enhancing fertility and life in the soil, and also helping it to retain moisture – which is very important in an age of climate change.

By ‘pyrolysing’ one tonne of organic material which contains half a tonne of carbon, about half a tonne of CO2 can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in the soil whilst the other half can be used as a carbon-neutral fuel (this equals a quarter of the CO2 absorbed by the plant during its growth). Biochar has the potential to lock the mineral carbon it contains safely away in the soil for centuries. Professor Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University and others have calculated that biochar applications to soil could remove several billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere per year.

Bio-char can be produced from many different organic materials, including sewage and urban biomass. At the sewage works in Bingen, Germany, semi-dried sewage sludge is pyrolysed and turned into black granules: the sewage is turned into charcoal. This can then be buried in farm soil and the carbon it contains can thus be prevented from entering the atmosphere. There is no doubt that the billions of tonnes of sewage and green wastes that accumulate in cities every year, if turned into biochar and buried, could greatly benefit the world’s soils soil as well as the atmosphere.

Incorporation of sustainably produced bio-char could be used to reward farmers as carbon stewards, enabling them to enhance their yields whilst also increasing our ability to deal with climate change.

Carbon labelling policies


Carbon Labelling is supported in the framework of the Intelligent Energy Europe programme

It has been shown that the carbon footprint of food products (‘foodprint’) can vary substantially. Depending on its production method (organic versus chemical), its content (meat versus vegetarian or vegan), transport routes (air freight, sea freight or local), processing method (fresh versus deep-frozen) and disposal of residues (use as organic fertilizer versus waste), each food item is responsible for a certain amount of GHG emissions during its life-cycle.

Making this information available to the consumer increases transparency in the food market, raises awareness of the consumer, creates incentives for the industry to lower its carbon footprint, and rewards climate friendly products. Consumers should know whether the organic kiwi from New Zealand or the home grown chemically fertilized apple does more harm to the climate. In general, environmental labelling has been a success story since the 1980s. Labels, such as the Energy Star, energy efficiency ratings or the Nordic Swan label have changed the behaviour of consumers and manufacturers. An Eurobarometer survey showed that for an overwhelming majority of Europeans (83 percent) the impact of a product on the environment plays an important aspect in their purchasing decisions.

An evaluation of the specific circumstances of the political and regulatory environment will determine the best choice in each case. Whereas a mandatory label ensures a broad participation, voluntary schemes might have a better acceptance in the industry. A food label should be based on total lifecycle emissions, as opposed to considering only the use-phase. Possible are both, comparative labels which provide consumers with product information through use of a specific number (e. g. ‘1 kg CO2’) or rating (e. g. A–F or 1–5 stars), or endorsement labels which prove that the product meets certain criteria (e. g. below average carbon footprint).

Implementing new labelling schemes necessitates conformity assessment procedures involving testing, inspection, certification, accreditation and metrology. These processes are essential for the effective implementation and acceptance of the scheme.

The EU Commission has taken a first look at this issue but, not surprisingly, has received opposition from the food industry. However, the example of the UK Carbon Label and the Swedish climate labelling initiative show that the concept can be implemented and, with the assistance of governments and industry, can be established on a larger scale.

Case study: Sweden’s Klimatmärkning

In Sweden, the two major certification bodies, KRAV and Swedish Seal, have developed a climate label for food. As the project has been joined by several major food and agriculture companies, the Swedish climate labelling initiative has become the first comprehensive and country wide policy of its kind in Europe.

The climate label covers the food chain from farming to the sale of the produce. So far, criteria for meat, fish, milk, greenhouse vegetables and agricultural crops have been set. Food produced and distributed with at least 25 percent less GHG than comparable products can be labelled with a respective note. In this way the label focuses on the climate friendliest products within a group, but does not help the consumer to choose between meat and beans.

The climate label is accompanied by an information and education campaign, which resulted in recommendations for climate compatible nourishment. In addition, the initiative works with the industry to implement measures to reduce the GHG emissions of food production.

According to press reports (Spiegel-online of 7th Nov. 2009) the climate label increased the sale of Max burgers by 20 percent. Experts are cited to expect a 50 percent reduction of GHG emissions in the Swedish food industry, if the population would switch to climate friendly alimentation. The labelling initiative maintains that 60 percent of consumers would like to see a climate label on products.

Anna Richert, climate expert of the label initiative, says: “The strength of the label is that reductions in climate impact have been made wherever possible. The producer participates in making the food chain more sustainable.”

Click here to access Klimatmärkning homepage.

Organic farming solutions

Agricultural carbon sequestration has the potential to substantially mitigate global warming impacts. According to Tim LaSalle, CEO Rodale Institute, organic agriculture, if practiced on the planet’s 3.5 billion tillable acres, could sequester nearly 40 percent of current CO2 emissions. “We call this approach regenerative organic agriculture to signify its focus on renewing resources through complementary biological systems which feed and improve the soil as well as avoiding harmful synthetic inputs.”

Regenerative organic farming, focused on enhancing long-term biological interactions, turns soil into a carbon reservoir, while conventional farming with large chemical imputs has the opposite effect of releasing carbon into the atmosphere. In addition, organic management also changes the structure of the soil, improving its ability to store water and deliver nutrients to plants over time as soil carbon levels continue to increase. Rodale research shows that no-till organic farming can reduce the energy input into farming by about 70 percent. Further, organic food offers health advantages and has become a lifestyle choice in many societies.

For these interconnected reasons, much more policy assistance for the organic sector is needed. Case studies (UNCTAD 2008, IFOAM 2008) have shown that the development of organic farming has, so far, been initiated mainly by NGOs or private companies. Still, governments should play an important role in providing a supportive framework for organic farming. Policy strategies should consist of a combination of market supply and demand measures. Since appropriate measures depend on the state of the organic agriculture market in the respective country, an in-depth integrated assessment of existing agriculture policies should be the first step.

Click here to read more about WFC Councillor Vandana Shiva’s projects to support organic farming in India.

Based on this initial assessment a selection of policies should be considered:

An area particularly worthy of state support is the recycling of urban bio-waste into organic fertilizers. This contributes to sanitation and environmental protection, and it provides carbon storing materials for farms. To trigger this process, governments could give financial incentives (e.g. low-interest loans) to recycling plant operators, or to erect recycling plants under state supervision.

Case Study: Costa Rica

One of the developing countries with the highest proportion of organic farming, 2.4 per cent certified, Costa Rica has a well-developed organic sector. As in most other countries, small farmers and NGOs were the first to get involved in organic agriculture. Local certification bodies and academics have also supported its development. In 2004, there were 3,500 farmers cultivating 10,800 hectares organically. Most certified organic production is for the export market, which is estimated to be worth US$ 10 million. Main export crops include coffee, banana, cocoa, orange juice, blackberries, pineapple, cane sugar, aloe and other medicinal plants. In the domestic market, there is now a supply of most products, certified and uncertified. The domestic sales are estimated to be US$ 1.5 million.

Lack of produce is a limiting factor for further market development. Various government programmes and institutions support most aspects of the sector, including domestic and export market development, food processing, credits and extension service. The National Organic Agriculture Programme was established in 1999 and, together with the sector, the agency developed a national strategy for organic production based on participatory consultations. Since 2001, there has been a mandatory organic regulation in place and Costa Rica is the only developing country, other than Argentina and India, which has acquired recognition for exports of organic products to the European Union. There is also a governmental seal available for all certified producers; however, it is not yet widely recognized. There are two domestic certification organizations and four foreign ones active in Costa Rica, with the domestic ones having the most clients. The sector is organized through one organization and collaboration between the sector and the Government is very well developed.

How does agriculture contribute to climate change?

Modern agriculture, food production and distribution are major contributors of greenhouse gases: Agriculture is directly responsible for 14 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions, and broader rural land use decisions have an even larger impact. Deforestation currently accounts for an additional 18 per cent of emissions.

In this context, a historical perspective needs to be considered: Dr. Rattan Lal, Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University, has calculated that over the last 150 years, 476 billions of tonnes of carbon has been emitted from farmland soils due to inappropriate farming and grazing practices, compared with ‘only’ 270 Gt emitted from of burning of fossil fuels. A more frequently quoted figure is that 200 to 250 Gt of carbon have been lost from the biosphere as a whole in the last 300 years. Whatever the correct figure, these reductions of ‘living carbon potential’ have resulted from

  • deforestation
  • biodiversity loss
  • accelerated soil erosion
  • loss of soil organic matter
  • salinisation of soils
  • costal water pollution and
  • acidification of the oceans

Land use changes can also significantly contribute to climate change. Large scale changes such as deforestation, soil erosion or machine-intensive farming methods may all contribute to increased carbon concentrations in the atmosphere. Soil erosion by water, wind and tillage affects both agriculture and the natural environment. Soil loss, and its associated impacts, is one of the most important (yet probably the least well-known) of today’s environmental problems.

The contribution of farm animals to global greenhouse gas emissions is quite significant:


Five countries’ ocean and coastal policies shortlisted for the 2012 Future Policy Award

Press release – for immediate release

How can we save the world’s oceans and coasts?

Five countries’ ocean and coastal policies shortlisted for the 2012 Future Policy Award

Hamburg/Montreal/Washington D.C./Rome, 4 September – Six policies from five countries are now shortlisted for the 2012 Future Policy Award, an international award that celebrates effective and
exemplary policies. California, Namibia, Palau, the Philippines, and South Africa are still in the running. This year the topic of the award is the protection of oceans and coasts. Thirtyone
different policies from 22 countries were nominated, ranging from integrated ocean and coastal policies, marine protected area programmes to laws regulating fisheries, trade in marine products, marine litter and land-sea interactions.

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1000 Hills, 1000 Solutions

World Future Council congratulates Rwandan President Kagame on Successful Forest Policy

Kigali, 10 July 2012 – Following the First InterParliamentary Hearing on “Forests for People” in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, Alexandra Wandel, Director of the World Future Council, has handed the
organisation’s Future Policy Award trophy to Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. The country’s successful efforts in managing forests were championed last year when the country was proclaimed the
winner of the 2011 Future Policy Award. The Award celebrates the world’s most exemplary national policies that create better living conditions for current and future generations, and that produce practical and tangible results. The World Future Council foundation is an international policy research organisation that provides decision makers with effective policy solutions.

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Kigali Declaration on Forests for People

Kigali Declaration on Forests for People

African Parliamentarians, Policy Makers and Experts agree action at First Inter-Parliamentary Hearing

Kigali, 9 July 2012 – At a Hearing in Kigali this weekend, 25 parliamentarians and experts representing ten African countries underlined the urgent need to act at the national and local level to address the social, economic and environmental values of forests and trees. The first Inter-Parliamentary Hearing on ”Forests for People” was convened by the World Future Council foundation, an international policy research organization that provides decision makers with effective policy solutions. It casts a spotlight on successful and exemplary African policies and programmes which benefit current and future generations. Parliamentarians, policymakers and experts from Burundi, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia committed to take back to their countries the ideas, policies and successful experiences discussed and to work to get support for implementation.

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Future Policy Award crowns world’s best forest policies

Press release

Forest laws and policies in Rwanda, The Gambia and the US beat out 17 other nominees to win 2011 Future Policy Award

New York, 21 September 2011. Rwanda’s National Forest Policy was proclaimed the winner of the 2011 Future Policy Award. The Gambia’s Community Forest Policy and the US Lacey Act with its amendment of 2008 received the Silver Awards. The three winning policies which most effectively contribute to the conservation and sustainable development of forests for the benefit of current and future generations were announced on 21 September 2011 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

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Forest Policies from six countries shortlisted for Future Policy Award

Press Release

Top candidates found in Bhutan, The Gambia, Nepal, Rwanda, Switzerland and the USA.

New York / Montreal / Hamburg / Rome, 5 July 2011 – Policies from six countries are now shortlisted for the 2011 Future Policy Award. Bhutan, The Gambia, Nepal, Rwanda, Switzerland and the USA are still in the running for the most inspiring, innovative and influential forest policies worldwide. The Future Policy Award is granted by the World Future Council, an international policy research organization that provides decision makers with effective policy solutions. The three winning policies which most effectively contribute to the conservation and sustainable development of forests for the benefit of current and future generations will be announced on 21 September 2011 at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

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International Policy Award for Visionary Forest Policies: Sixteen Countries Nominated by Experts

Press Release
New York / Montreal / Hamburg, 21 March 2011 – The list of nominees for this year’s Future Policy Award has been published. 19 forest policies from 16 countries have been nominated for this international award. 2011 has been declared the International Year of Forests by the United Nations, with the central theme “Forests for People”, to raise consciousness of the multiple values of forests and promote greater awareness of success stories and challenges which many of the world’s forests and the people who depend on them face.

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