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Biochar in climate change mitigation

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Abstract

Climate change mitigation not only requires reductions of greenhouse gas emissions, but also withdrawal of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Here we review the relationship between emissions reductions and CO2 removal by biochar systems, which are based on pyrolysing biomass to produce biochar, used for soil application, and renewable bioenergy. Half of the emission reductions and the majority of CO2 removal result from the one to two orders of magnitude longer persistence of biochar than the biomass it is made from. Globally, biochar systems could deliver emission reductions of 3.4–6.3 PgCO2e, half of which constitutes CO2 removal. Relevant trade-offs exist between making and sequestering biochar in soil or producing more energy. Importantly, these trade-offs depend on what type of energy is replaced: relative to producing bioenergy, emissions of biochar systems increase by 3% when biochar replaces coal, whereas emissions decrease by 95% when biochar replaces renewable energy. The lack of a clear relationship between crop yield increases in response to fertilizer and to biochar additions suggests opportunities for biochar to increase crop yields where fertilizer alone is not effective, but also questions blanket recommendations based on known fertilizer responses. Locally specific decision support must recognize these relationships and trade-offs to establish carbon-trading mechanisms that facilitate a judicious implementation commensurate with climate change mitigation needs.

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Fig. 1: Climate mitigation effects of biochar systems within the total biochar system.

tree, crop, grass and bin icons reproduced from Flaticon.com

Fig. 2: Relative carbon remaining with biochar systems compared with those of alternative baselines.
Fig. 3: Persistence of biochar as a function of its carbon, oxygen and hydrogen content or its pyrolysis temperature.
Fig. 4: Global plant growth responses and CDR with biochar.
Fig. 5: Relationship of GHG emission reductions and CDR.
Fig. 6: Framework for carbon accounting approaches that focus on GHG emissions, CDR and their combination.

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Acknowledgements

M.L.C. acknowledges funding from the Spanish Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities co-funded with the EU FEDER project no. RTI2018-099417-B-I00. J.L. and D.W. were funded by the Fondation des Fondateurs, Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, NIFA (no. 2014-67003-22069) and CIDA. T.W. was funded by the US DOE grant no. DE-SC0020351.

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All the authors contributed to the discussions that formed the basis for this Review, and to the writing and editing of the manuscript. M.C.-A. analysed the crop yield data, J.L. and D.W. quantified the biochar persistence, and D.W. and J.E.A. re-analysed global GHG emission data. M.L.C. took the lead on the section on non-CO2 emissions, T.W. on priming, D.W., A.C. and C.K. on biomass use, and C.A.M. on erosion. J.L. drew the figures and Extended Data Table 1.

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Correspondence to Johannes Lehmann.

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Peer review information Nature Geoscience thanks Yakov Kuzyakov, Charlene Kelly and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor Xujia Jiang; Thomas Richardson.

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Extended data

Extended Data Table 1 Recommendations for environmental and socio-economic optimization and research on the climate change mitigation effects of biochar systems

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Lehmann, J., Cowie, A., Masiello, C.A. et al. Biochar in climate change mitigation. Nat. Geosci. 14, 883–892 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-021-00852-8

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